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Keeping Kosova on the Path toward Democracy

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 14/02/2016 Rep. Eliot Engel

Witnessing Kosova's move from war to peace and from tyranny to liberty has been among the most fulfilling aspects of my career as a public servant. The establishment of Kosova's democratically-elected Assembly, its free and fair elections, and its system based on the rule of law are the essence of the country's political independence, future prosperity, and alignment with the West.

But nobody ever said building a democracy is easy work.
That's because real democracy not only allows, but requires respect for people and for parties that disagree with one another. Enshrined in our shared democratic values is the right of the opposition to play a role and be heard, whether in public, in the parliament, in the courts, or ultimately at the ballot box. And those who cherish democracy must stand up for the rights of their opponents to express themselves peacefully and have their views heard.
The people of Kosova have embraced this tenet of free societies. Over its first eight years of independence, Kosova has encountered more than its share of issues that have challenged its people and divided its leaders - and that is only natural. Last year, Prishtina struck an accord with Belgrade on the northern, Serb-majority areas and with Montenegro on a border demarcation which have sparked widespread debate and heated political campaigns.
Unfortunately, these disagreements have pushed past the limits of lively democratic debate. Throwing eggs at Ministers, setting off tear gas in parliament, or burning a government building aren't a part of free expression. They aren't a part of constitutionally-guaranteed rights of an opposition. And, sadly, they are undermining Kosova's democracy at home and its support abroad. As Kosova moves into its ninth year, I urge the leaders of Kosova to move from confrontation to negotiation, and I urge all people in Kosova, in the strongest possible terms, to reject violence, embrace peaceful dialogue, and reinvigorate the principles of democracy upon which your Republic is built.
Yet, even as Kosovars fear their country is moving backward and their neighbors are embraced in Europe while Kosova often feels marginalized, I believe there is another, more positive picture and reasons for optimism.
First, in December, the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a major assistance agency which works parallel to USAID, announced that Kosova was eligible for a "Compact" that could open the spigot for tens of millions of dollars in assistance. This is only possible because Kosova's MCC "scorecard" showed better progress on issues from political rights and civil liberties to immunization rates and child health than countries at a similar development level . Few countries have achieved this honor, and Kosova should rightfully be proud.
In another arena, Kosova finally settled on a bid for a new power plant, which will help bring the country's energy sector from the 1950s into the 21st century. In many visits to Kosova, I have seen firsthand the outdated coal plants belching out their nasty smoke, and communities overtaken by darkness due to rolling blackouts. I have heard the constant coughing among friends in Kosova, and breathed and smelled the fetid air myself. If this deal goes through, hopefully this year, Kosova will breathe more easily and have a reliable stream of power years into the future.
In terms of European integration, Kosova has also made progress. I imagine that this might feel distant from Prizren, Peja, or even Prishtina, but it is visible from the US. Even as five EU member states drag their feet on recognition, Kosova signed a new deal with Brussels--a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA)--representing the first step toward eventual EU membership. And, after meeting a few technical requirements, the EU is likely to extend Visa Liberalization to Kosova later this year. This is only the beginning of a long journey toward full membership in a Europe whole and free, but Kosova is now clearly on that path.
Finally, the human-rights organization, Freedom House, last year recognized Kosova's 2014 national elections as free, democratic, and fair. As a result, Kosova advanced in the group's 2015 annual report to the highest category: "parliamentary democracy." I know the process of picking the current Kosovar government was messy. Democracy often is. The US Presidential election of 2000 was anything but neat and tidy, but we did pick a president and our democracy lived and learned. Kosova's will, too.

But, in the big picture, democracy must not be taken for granted. It must not be trampled on the path to one or another political goal. It is the path to those goals. It is the way to protect the rights of Kosovars and ensure Kosova's government continues to serve its people.

So, as Kosova moves on to its ninth year, I encourage all Kosovars to renew their commitment to democracy and the rule of law, and to continue to show the world why Kosova deserves full membership in all North Atlantic and international institutions. This is the pathway to progress and the future of freedom and prosperity in this young country.

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