By Carl Hammerdorfer

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Majlinda Kelmendi receives Kosovo’s first Olympic gold medal. Photo by seanfoneill used under CC BY-ND 2.0

Little Kosovo, Europe’s newest country, has been making big news this year. The canonization of Kosovo’s favorite-daughter, Mother Theresa, obviously tops most people’s list of accomplishments. But for many Kosovars, the recent invitations to join FIFA and UEFA — the two most important international bodies for soccer — are even greater accomplishments than sainthood. This is a soccer-crazed country.

Other morale boosters, such as a recent state visit by U.S. Vice President, Joe Biden, have contributed to a growing sense of optimism and national self-esteem. The Biden family used their visit here to participate in the official opening of a street named after Biden’s recently deceased son, Beau, who served in Kosovo during the challenging post-war period. However, Biden’s larger aim was to push the Kosovar government towards speedier normalization of relations with Serbia. On the heels of the visit, there appears to be new energy behind those efforts.

Kosovo, a staunch U.S. ally, has also benefited from major international media coverage of its wealth of undiscovered tourism opportunities, a growing wine industry, and the country’s tolerance towards religious and cultural differences. Shortly after independence, one outlet pronounced Kosovo’s “brand of Islam the most liberal in the world,” a fact that still seems to surprise Western tourists who discover a very European lifestyle. Vibrant café life, jazz bars, packed pedestrian zones, and, if you come in December, what must be the most extravagant Christmas-holiday lighting and decorations this side of the Atlantic, all fly in the face of Western stereotypes of Kosovo.

Young professionals who believe their country is making steady progress are generally frustrated by a steady stream of unflattering articles in major media outlets about the challenges that Kosovo still faces. For example, a front-page New York Times story published several weeks ago warned of the danger of Islamic extremists leaving Kosovo to fight in the Middle East. Never mind that the story was old news by the time it was released, Kosovo and its allies having already stemmed the tide, as a host of well-reasoned media rebuttals pointed out. The reputational damage had been done.

Then came more negative news. A push towards visa liberalization that would allow Kosovo’s 1.8 million citizens to travel freely throughout Europe was again moved to the EU’s back burner. Such “freedom of movement” for Kosovars is conditional on the resolution of a national dispute over a relatively small tract of woodlands on the border with Montenegro, a dispute that is making its way through contentious local politics at an agonizingly slow pace. More recently, a prominent, local online media outlet has been leaking recorded phone calls in which senior government officials discuss the sort of patronage and cronyism that is at the root of corruption allegations here. Legal system reform that addresses such corruption is yet another condition of visa liberalization.

Thus Kosovars — hard-bitten by decades of prejudice, ethnic-cleansing, war, and the many challenges of building a new state in a troubled region — swing back and forth between national pride and confidence one day, and pessimism and self-doubt the next.

Enter Majlinda Kelmendi, Lum Zhaveli, and six other Kosovar athletes who’d won the right to compete in the Rio Olympic Games. It is difficult for citizens of more developed countries to imagine the magnitude of the impact that Kosovo’s participation in the Olympics has had on Kosovo’s national psyche. The very presence of these young athletes seemed to again elevate the country to a status of international darling, legitimizing their progress and the decades of struggle. Time, CNN, BBC, among others, published glowing, feel-good features on Kelmendi’s inspiring, gold-medal performance in Judo. It was not only Kosovo’s first ever medal, but a gold that put Kelmendi on the podium beside Italy, which has recognized Kosovo, and Russia, which continues to work against Kosovo’s integration into Europe.

Kelmendi’s medal in the bag, the mood in Prishtina, the country’s charming capital, again trended upwards. The pressure on other athletes, including Lum Zhaveli, a swimmer who competes in the 50-meter freestyle and an alumnus of World Learning’s Transformational Leadership Program (TLP), had been lowered, it seemed, by an order of magnitude. Fans could watch Lum and Kosovo’s other athletes, rooting for an unlikely medal, but satisfied in just being citizens of a normal country that had its place among the other nations of the world.

Kelmendi and her Olympic teammates aren’t the only Kosovars making strides, or in Zhaveli’s case, laps. From business and computer science to politics and journalism, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and World Learning have been identifying Kosovo’s most promising young achievers, and placing them in master’s degree and professional certificate programs at many of the United States’ best universities. This five-year effort, dubbed Transformational Leadership by USAID, is empowering an entire new generation of Kosovars to make their mark as young leaders. Their challenge is significant: To build a prosperous, innovative, inclusive country in one of history’s most war torn regions.

Like their athletic compatriots, returned TLP scholars are leading the way and advancing Kosovo’s prospects in government, the private sector, and in the fast-growing civil society sector. Liza Gashi, for example, earned her master’s degree in public administration at Arizona State University and now leads the organization she founded, Kosovo Diaspora, by which she connects Kosovars living abroad to local efforts to build resilient institutions at home. Another scholar, Kastriot Rexhepi, earned a master’s degree in law at Pittsburgh, and now works in the Ministry of Justice’s division for asset seizure, fighting corruption and pushing for greater transparency, at no small personal risk to his own safety. And there’s Yll Zagragja, an accountant who earned a certificate in advanced financial management at UCLA, who is CEO of a company he formed to attract foreign investors to Kosovo, bringing in badly needed jobs. And Qendrim Sopjani, who earned an MBA at Babson College, and who is expanding his family’s businesses in construction and landscaping, also creating private sector employment.

These scholars are a but a small sample of the nearly 300 Kosovars — funded and supported by the United States and the Government of Kosovo — called upon to lead Europe’s youngest nation forward. Be they archer or accountant, swimmer or CEO, bicyclist or business entrepreneur, these dedicated and talented young people are propelling their country forward towards a more prosperous and secure future. One has the feeling that due to their talents and efforts, Kosovars will have the opportunity to stand on many more podiums in the coming years.

Carl Hammerdorfer is Chief of Party in World Learning’s Kosovo office, where he oversees the USAID Transformational Leadership Program — Scholarships and Partnerships. World Learning is nonprofit working to empower people and strengthen institutions through education, sustainable development and exchange programs in more than 60 countries. He has more than 25 years of experience working in international development, entrepreneurship, impact investment and agribusiness in Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Poland, Bulgaria, Tanzania and other countries. He is currently based in Pristina.

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