In Kosovo Govt uses sport in diplomatic joust with Serbia

Rather than addressing Kosovo's 1.8 million people in their native Albanian, Thaci tweeted in English in a message designed for international consumption.

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President Hashim Thaci (C) has made sport a key part of Kosovo's diplomatic jousting with Serbia play

President Hashim Thaci (C) has made sport a key part of Kosovo's diplomatic jousting with Serbia

(POOL/AFP/File)
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Belgrade rejects its claim to independence and Russia blocks it from joining the United Nations, but Kosovo is fighting back for its place on the international stage through sport.

"Great news!", Kosovo President Hashim Thaci tweeted on May 13 when world football's governing body FIFA, following UEFA's example, accepted Kosovo into the fold much to Serbia's displeasure.

Rather than addressing Kosovo's 1.8 million people in their native Albanian, Thaci tweeted in English in a message designed for international consumption.

The president followed up with another tweet in English on September 5 when Kosovo scored their first international goal against Finland in a 1-1 2018 World Cup qualifier draw.

"Generations of players feel so proud after decades of isolation! Best of our country is yet to come!" he said.

Thaci also hit the tweet button to promote Kosovo's Olympic debut.

"Majlinda brings home Kosovo's first Olympic Golden Medal," he wrote after Majlinda Kelmendi won judo gold at Kosovo's first Olympic Games in August in Rio.

Unbowed by Russia's block on joining the United Nations, Thaci said in 2014 that his country's membership of the Olympic movement was already "a form of UN membership."

As is the case whenever a new country joins the 111 Kosovo says have officially recognised its independence unilaterally declared in 2008, Belgrade reacts angrily when a sports federation approves Pristina as a new member.

Serbia obstinately refuses to recognise Kosovo's independence and its claim to sovereignty over its former province is enshrined in the country's constitution.

Vilified

Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic expressed Belgrade's official position with clarity when he said, "Kosovo is Serbia and must remain so for ever."

The former head of Serbia's volleyball federation Nenad Golijanin was vilified in the tabloid media and paid with his job for failing to uphold that position when he abstained in a vote allowing Kosovo to join volleyball's international federation.

"It would have been extremely hypocritical to vote against, given that two months previously I sent a team of youngsters to Bulgaria to play in a competition in which children from Kosovo were taking part," Golijanin told AFP.

He believes Belgrade is on the losing side in its sports diplomacy joust with Pristina, pointing out that in 2013 Serbia signed a European Union-backed normalisation accord stipulating no Serbian interference in Kosovo's relations with international sports organisations.

Serbian political analyst Dusan Janjic said the sports campaign against Kosovo is counter-productive and doomed to fail.

"Punishing our own citizens for not voting against Kosovo makes no sense. It is against our own interests," he said.

"We are going from one failure to another and in addition we are irritating the United States and other major powers who see us as a country which does not respect agreements it has signed."

Kosovo's Olympic Committee president Besim Hasani can sense victory.

"Kosovo's sport has affected international opinion," he said.

He said sports diplomacy had strengthened the country's image even among countries that do not recognise Kosovo, such as Brazil, where Kosovo's team marched behind the national flag at the Rio Olympics opening ceremony this year.

"Sport opens all doors, even those blocked to politicians," said Kosovo's Vijona Kryeziu, 19, a 400m runner.

But the combat is not over. Marko Djuric, the Serbian government minister who handles Kosovo affairs, vowed to fight on.

"They are living an illusion if they think we are going to stop fighting. We well never lose as long as we keep fighting," he said.