By Dr. Elez Biberaj/
Director, Eurasia Division/
Voice of America /
Presentation at the Symposium on the Occasion of Professor Repishti’s 90th Birthday/
The International House, New York/
July 18, 2015/
It is a real pleasure for me to participate in this important event honoring Professor Sami Repishti. I have known him since I came to this country in 1968 and am fortunate to have had a close-up view of many of Professor Repishti’s activities and engagements. I worked closely with him on Albanian affairs – a cause very dear to both of us. During the last four decades we maintained regular contacts, and consulted and cooperated on many issues. Throughout the years, we at the Voice of America benefited enormously from his insightful interviews and commentary on a wide range of issues. On a personal level, I always enjoyed Professor Repishti’s support, encouragement and mentorship – and for that I am very grateful to him.
Professor Sami Repishti has had a long, remarkable and multifaceted career: He is a great champion of human rights, a fighter for democracy, a notable scholar, a prolific writer, and a distinguished advocate of the Albanian cause. Professor Repishti exhibited an unflinching commitment to defend and promote the establishment of a democratic order in his native Albania, self-determination and freedom for Albanians unjustly excluded from their mother country, and, in recent years, the establishment of vibrant, inclusive democratic societies in the Albanian lands.
My task today is to focus on Professor Repishti’s contribution to Kosova’s long and difficult struggle for freedom and independence. His activities on behalf of Kosova span over five decades, having begun shortly after his arrival in the United States and continuing to this day. He promoted the cause of Kosova with fortitude, moral purpose, unflinching courage and deep commitment. The Albanian-American community has produced many distinguished activists, but few can match Professor Repishti’s remarkable contribution and exceptional intellectual and diplomatic abilities. He developed an extensive network of professional contacts and became personally acquainted with senior U.S. administration officials, prominent members of the U.S. Congress, foreign policy experts, and prominent media representatives. His depth of understanding of U.S. foreign policy and the workings of Washington, and high degree of political and policy awareness were incomparable. And he used these very effectively on behalf of Kosova.
Professor Repishti operated on parallel levels – engaging other prominent Albanian-Americans, mobilizing the community around critical issues, facilitating the creation of advocacy organizations, writing, lecturing, and cultivating relationships with key people in the U.S. administration, the Congress, think tanks, the media, and democracy promotion and human rights organizations. Similar to many other ethnic groups, the Albanian-American community was politically fragmented. Professor Repishti displayed an ability to work with people across the political spectrum – political party leaders, clerics, scholars, students, and businessmen – and succeeded in building significant support from the community. He was instrumental in the creation of three organizations that played a critical role: The Albanian Kosovar Youth in the Free World, the Albanian-American Civic League, and the National Albanian American Council.
Through his many scholarly activities and advocacy, Professor Repishti sought to achieve several important objectives:
• First and foremost, educate the American and Western public about the Albanians’ plight and their demands, and counter the negative, conventional narrative and the pernicious stereotypes about Albanians that the Yugoslav propaganda machine promoted quite aggressively.
• Second, document and expose the systematic repression of Albanians’ human and national rights.
• Third, urge the United States and the international community in general to impose sanctions on the Yugoslav government for its human rights violations.
• Fourth, convince American decision-makers of the urgency of rigorous action to avert an inevitability of armed conflict between Albanians and Serbs, making the case that failure to act carried long-term risks to peace and stability in the region and undermined U.S. strategic interests.
• And finally, after the declaration of Kosova’s independence, promote the development of a just society and vibrant democracy, with robust democratic institutions, rule of law, and a free media.
This was a tall order, but Professor Repishti and other distinguished activists who worked with him pursued these objectives with unflinching determination. Their contribution is even more remarkable when one takes into account the many challenges they faced and the political environment in which they operated.
Until the end of the 1980s, Yugoslavia enjoyed widespread Western support. The protection of human rights and democracy promotion were given short thrift and Belgrade’s view of events in Kosova were widely accepted. U.S. policy toward Kosova was shaped by the largely positive views of Yugoslavia and its international role. The overwhelmingly favorable views of Yugoslavia were contrasted with the largely negative views of Albanians, in general, and of the totalitarian regime of Enver Hoxha, in particular. U.S. official and public support for Yugoslavia remained high and Westerners tended to be profoundly skeptical of Albanian demands. The media environment was such that most outlets were sympathetic to Yugoslavia and rarely published reports critical of Belgrade. Moreover, the influence of the Albanian community in American politics was negligible. Albanians had no sizeable voting bloc that would make the difference in propelling a candidate into office. Thus, Albanian-American leaders faced an uphill battle in their attempts to gain the support of American politicians.
Professor Repishti authored scores of reports and articles, gave lectures and interviews, attended and organized numerous panels, seminars and conferences, wrote talking points and policy papers for senior U.S. officials, and testified before the U.S. Congress.
In 1982, Professor Repishti, together with Professor Arshi Pipa, organized an international conference on Kosova, which brought together prominent American, European and Albanian scholars, including Nicholas C. Pano, Martin Camaj, Safete Juka, Peter Prifti, and Anton Logoreci. Most of the presentations were included in Studies on Kosova, published in 1984. That was an extremely useful book and an indispensable reading for scholars as well as policymakers. The volume shed new light on the Albanian question and the complicated relationship between Albanians and Serbs. In his own contribution, Professor Repishti analyzed the evolution of the post-World War II constitutional arrangements, which denied Albanians equal rights with other ethnic groups and essentially turned them into second class citizens. He explored the relationship between the Albanians’ right to self-determination and Belgrade’s insistence on a constitutional framework that would deny Albanians genuine self-government and democratic rights. Professor Repishti issued a stern warning that conflict was inevitable if Belgrade continued to reject Albanian demands for constitutional equality with Yugoslavia’s other major ethnic groups.
The annual memorandums that Professor Repishti authored and sent to the UN General Secretary, in the name of the Albanian Kosovar Youth in the Free World, presented a comprehensive history of the Albanian national question and a detailed chronicle of human rights violations in the former Yugoslavia. These were well-documented reports and sounded the alarm about the systematic abuses of Albanians’ rights. Professor Repishti cooperated closely with and was an authoritative source for human rights and democracy promotion organizations, such as Freedom House, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and the State Department’s Bureau of Human Rights. He also published numerous articles in the U.S. press as well as in the émigré Albanian newspapers.
With his perceptive, detailed and balanced analysis, Professor Repishti sought to counter the negative narrative promoted by Belgrade, and increase the understanding of the complexities of the Kosova issue. He brought to the discussion a unique combination of personal, scholarly knowledge of Albanian-Serb relations, and of service as a leading spokesman of the Albanian-American community. He blended his writings and public statements with specific policy recommendations in the hope of influencing and shaping U.S. policy. Before 1990, he argued for sanctions against Yugoslavia and urged the opening of a U.S. consulate in Prishtina. During the early and mid-1990s, Professor Repishti made the case for U.S. and NATO intervention in Kosova, emphasizing that failure to act would inevitably lead to an armed conflict that carried long-term risks to peace and stability in the region and undermined overall U.S. strategic interests.
At a time when Kosova did not have any genuine official representation in the United States or the possibility and the means to make its case to the American government and public, Professor Repishti promoted and defended Kosova’s right to self-determination skillfully and in a dignified and effective manner. He was always careful to provide his interlocutors reliable and objective information. This helped him to cultivate trusting relationships with key people, thus becoming an authoritative source. It was largely due to the work of Professor Repishti and other prominent Albanian-American activists and leaders that Kosova was able to have her voice heard in Washington.
By 1990, Yugoslavia began to lose support and its image suffered irreparable damage, while Kosova witnessed the emergence of a genuine representative leadership with the establishment of the Democratic League of Kosova and other parties. These developments were followed by gradual but remarkable changes in American attitudes toward Albanians. While this change was due to Belgrade’s reprehensive policies and the rapidly changing political landscape in the wake of the demise of communism in Eastern Europe, the successful campaigning of Professor Repishti and other Albanian-American activists was a major contributing factor. The community had been mobilized and Albanian-Americans, working through many organizations such as the Albanian-American Civic League, the National Albanian American Council, and VATRA, were gradually gaining access and the attention of influential members of the Congress and senior policy makers. Arguably, the 1990s can be considered the golden age of Albanian-American activism and effectiveness.
During the conflict in Slovenia, Croatia, and later the war in Bosnia, Professor Repishti consistently pressed for the United States to exert political and economic pressure to force Belgrade to change its dangerous course in Kosova. He strongly believed that military intervention in Kosova was absolutely necessary to avert a larger Balkan conflagration. He also correctly predicted that the exclusion of Kosova from the Dayton process would have serious ramifications: it would embolden Slobodan Milosevic while convincing the Albanians that their situation was untenable and that they had to take matters into their own hands.
Professor Repishti became a staunch supporter of Kosova’s leaders, particularly President Ibrahim Rugova. A good part of his activities were then focused on helping Kosova’s leadership clearly articulate its policies and demands in meetings with senior U.S. officials and their public announcements. Not only was he instrumental in facilitating many meetings and contacts for President Rugova, but he also helped draft important talking points and policy memoranda.
The U.S.-led NATO intervention and liberation of Kosova, and the subsequent declaration of Kosova’s independence marked the culmination of Professor Repishti’s activities and the realization of his long held dreams for Kosova’s freedom.
After the peak of the euphoria that followed the demise of communism in Albania in the early 1990s and the declaration of Kosova’s independence in 2008, Professor Repishti amazingly enough did not cease his activities. Democracy, respect for human rights, and national reconciliation continued to be featured in his writings and public activities. He became a strong promoter of the establishment of vibrant democracies in the two Albanian states. While recognizing the challenges ahead, Professor Repishti stressed the imperative of Albanians seizing the opportunities, cementing their Western orientation, preserving and strengthening their religious harmony, and countering any signs of religious extremism.
In his many public pronouncements, he urged the new governing elites in both Albania and Kosova, as well as Albanian leaders in Macedonia, to address pressing problems, such as tackling corruption and organized crime – which threaten the fabric of the Albanian society; stimulating economic growth; reducing inequality; empowering women; and creating transparent and accountable governance.
Professor Repishti has come to see the political, social and economic empowerment of the Albanians as closely connected to the strategic relationship and alliance with the United States. Recognizing the vital role that the United States has played – first, in supporting and affirming Albania’s independence; supporting and promoting democracy in Albania; and finally the critical role that America played in liberating Kosova and ensuring its independence – Professor Repishti has shown a strong commitment to nurturing and strengthening the Albanian-American relationship, but emphasizing that this relationship should not and cannot be taken for granted. The future and viability of Albanian-American strategic relationship is based on continued shared interests – respect for human rights, the establishment of rule of law, and good governance.
After decades of academic and community thought leadership, Professor Repishti continues to inspire generations of Albanians to always pursue a more democratic and just society. He is a great Albanian-American, a real Albanian patriot, an accomplished scholar, and a man of principles, who never ceased fighting for what he believed.
It has been my great honor to have cooperated closely with Professor Repishti and I am very grateful for his consistent support and friendship.
Happy Birthday, Young Man! Edhe 100!