“It takes a lot of work to build a democratic state in the 21st century”

Learning to pilot as he flies

Kosovo Ambassador to Japan Leon Malazogu

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Kageaki Smith

Having won a scholarship to study political science in Bulgaria from 1995 to 1999, Leon Malazogu, today Kosovo’s ambassador to Japan, was safe during most of the Kosovo War. After completing his Master’s degree at the University of Notre Dame in the US, he returned home to co-found a thinktank, which went on to produce the country’s main election observation group. He also worked for a Princeton-based organisation that arranged for leaders in the Balkans to meet in informal settings and forge dialogue. In 2010, he set up a thinktank called Democracy for Development that focuses on policy research, and last year, he was invited to serve as Kosovo’s ambassador to Japan. Ambassador Malazogu spoke with Eurobiz Japan about the war in Kosovo, the country’s relationship with Japan, and his nation’s burgeoning raspberry industry.


Can you give me an overview of Kosovo’s recent history?

Kosovo was an autonomous province in the former Yugoslavia, which had equal powers to other republics within the country. We had our own constitution, and our own police.

Serbia elected a nationalist regime in the ’80s and, in 1989, our parliament was surrounded by tanks and our members of parliament were forced to abrogate our autonomy. We basically came under direct Serbian rule, under Slobodan Milošević. It was a very nasty regime, which we suffered under until 1999. The peaceful resistance throughout the ’90s was successful in some ways, such as by bringing the sympathies of the world to our cause through a number of resolutions in the United Nations Security Council passed on our behalf.

However, Serbia stepped up its ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo and some Kosovars started to stage guerrilla warfare against Serbian troops who were burning villages and committing crimes against civilians. This culminated in an attempted genocide in 1998 and 1999 that was stopped by NATO intervention.

Where were you during this time?

Near the end of the conflict, I was home in Kosovo for three months, between my degrees, and I was working as a translator for war reporters. On June 12, the day Kosovo was liberated by the NATO troops and our liberation army, I was embedded with an ITN crew, just behind one of the first tanks of the British Army to move into Kosovo. I have to say, that was the best feeling in my life — seeing a British tank come into Kosovo, liberating the country.

What happened after that?

About 60% of the population was abroad as refugees, and most of them — almost a million people — came back within days. We were run by the United Nations for almost a decade. Then we declared independence in February 2008. Kosovo has now been recognised by 114 members of the UN, but there are still more than 70 to go, so we have to keep working. And we now have ongoing dialogue with Serbia to resolve our remaining differences, which will eventually lead to Serbia’s recognition of our independent status.

It takes a lot of work to build a democratic state in the 21st century. We have to take things one at a time. We had to set up healthcare, education and, later, foreign affairs — all from scratch and in a fraction of the time that other countries did. For a country that hasn’t yet celebrated its 10th anniversary, it’s natural that we’re learning to pilot as we fly. Back home, as well as here.

What kind of relationship has Kosovo had with Japan?

Japan has been very supportive of Kosovo in many ways, from donations to political support to training. It was one of the first countries to recognise Kosovo as an independent nation. We are grateful for the contribution of Madame Sadako Ogata who brought our plight to the world’s attention during her time as the high commissioner for human rights at the UN. Japan further supported Kosovo by winterising thousands of houses for the first winter immediately after the war, and has financed numerous projects since then.

What have you been working on during the embassy’s first year here in Japan?

We realised that in order to promote investment in Kosovo, we needed to first promote Kosovo as a tourist destination since there’s very little information about it here. So, we talk to people about Kosovo. For its size — about the same as Gifu prefecture — it’s packed with quite a good mix of things to see.

But before we could even do that, we realised that Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) had a travel advisory that discouraged people from going to Kosovo. A recent visit by MoFA to Kosovo was very positive and, in May, Japan improved its assessment and we are very grateful.

We’re now meeting with travel agencies, trying to persuade them to do more with Kosovo in their tours of the Balkans. We’re also taking part in travel-related fairs.

What are some of your specific goals for the coming years?

We’re reaching out to JETRO [Japan External Trade Organization] and the Keidanren [Japan Business Federation], and we’re trying to bring a business delegation from back home to have an investment forum here. We’re trying to get more Japanese investors to go to Kosovo, too.

There’s already one very interesting Japanese investor who opened a shiitake mushroom factory in Kosovo and, apparently, it’s going very well. There have been several Japanese delegations that visited the factory, which exports to the European market.

Last year, we signed an agreement with the EU, which grants our exports free access to the European market. Japanese investors can now reach out to the EU market from Kosovo — it’s only three hours north of Greece, four hours from Hungary, and a couple hours by boat from Italy.

Kosovo also has fairly low operating costs; and rent and salaries are about 10 times lower than the average of the EU.

How has Kosovo been developing its economy?

Right now, our economy is growing by 3.5%. The EU is the biggest market for our exports. Since it’s a very demanding market, we’ve decided from the beginning to go with a free-market approach and deliver high-quality, niche products. Kosovo has mostly small plots of land, since it’s quite densely populated, so berries are doing well, especially raspberries. Raspberries are perishable, so we’re investing a lot in high-capacity freezers.

We’ve managed to sell some of our frozen raspberries in countries such as Germany and Hungary. Now we’re trying to make it into Japan.

We also hope that we can attract major investors in energy and make use of Kosovo’s rich natural resources. 

“that was the best feeling in my life — seeing a British tank come into Kosovo, liberating the country”