30 May 2006

Politicians keep invading the pitch

By Eric Jansson
Published by the Financial Times, 30 May 2006

Every so often Agim Islami, a Pristina dentist, posts a letter to the International Tennis Federation (ITF), world tennis’s London-based governing body.

In his letter, Dr Islami politely asks the ITF to register the Kosovo Tennis Federation (KTF), of which he is president, as the world’s 204th internationally recognised national tennis organisation.

An affirmative response would give the KTF equal status to fellow minnows like the Palestinian Tennis Association and the Aruba Lawn Tennis Bond, as well as to giants such as the formidable US and Australian federations.

But the ITF’s answer always comes back crisp, polite – and negative.

Bizarrely, Dr Islami’s difficulty with the ITF – like so many complications of life in Kosovo – can be traced circuitously back to Belgrade and the war.

Despite the 1999 victory of the secessionist fighters who, with Nato’s help, pushed Serb forces out of Kosovo, and despite the past seven years of international rule, the province still lies legally within the sovereign territory of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia voted itself out of existence in 2003, succeeded by the Union of Serbia and Montenegro. Kosovo, though administrated as a United Nations protectorate, still now lies within Serbia’s internationally recognised border.

Accordingly, ITF rules bar the organisation from recognising the KTF without permission from Serbia’s tennis federation.

In the tense political climate that has poisoned this region since 1989, allowing Kosovo to field of its own would be unthinkable in Belgrade.

"Not one Serbian sports federation, tennis included, will allow us to play. If they did, they would be treated as traitors in Belgrade," says Dr Islami, sitting in the KTF’s humble headquarters, a spare room in his dental surgery.

When Kosovo’s citizens complain that United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 has stranded them in a legal vaccum, they refer to problems of this nature almost as often as they do to much wider political, economic or military affairs.

Although Resolution 1244, the basis for international rule in the province, protected Kosovo from renewed Serb aggression, it stopped short of granting the province’s citizens a new and recognisable international identity.

Kosovo’s athletes are therefore barred from international competition for the same reason that the province’s citizens are asked to carry "United Nations Mission in Kosovo" passports. There is no such thing as a Kosovo passport.

Likewise the province’s telecommunications service can register neither its chosen ".ks" Internet identity in place of the outdated Yugoslav ".yu", nor a unique international dialling code that would be distinct from Serbia’s.

Sport promoters in Pristina have succeeded in sidestepping Belgrade’s intransigence and the UN’s benign intractability in just four instances: table tennis, handball, karate and the Paralympics – the only events in which Kosovo’s athletes are regularly invited to participate outside their own province.

For people who love sport as passionately as most in Kosovo do, the long wait for political status is agonising and humiliating – as is the toll taken on the many aspiring competitors in the province’s overwhelmingly youthful population.

"If you become the champion of a sport in Kosovo, you stop there, because there’s nowhere to go. There’s a lack of motivation," says Dr Islami.

In Does Anyone Have a Plan?, a new documentary film on the Kosovo crisis released by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, Luljeta Shala, a 29-year-old competitor in kata, the martial art, asks: "Do you have any idea how it feels to train so hard, but to have to watch all the international competitions on television because Kosovo isn’t a state, and I can’t participate?"

Ms Shala’s only alternative at present, should she wish to compete, would be to seek a second citizenship – following the course of Luan Krasniqi, a local hero and Olympic champion from Kosovo who won bronze for Germany as a heavyweight boxer in 1996.

Competitors unwilling or unable to choose such drastic measures must settle for restrictions that are uncomfortably reminiscent of life during Slobodan Milosevic’s authoritarian Yugoslav rule – though not nearly as severe.

Under Mr Milosevic, who stripped Kosovo of its autonomous status and sought forcibly to impose Belgrade’s authority in the province, even private sporting activity was prohibited if players refused to operate under the aegis of Yugoslav sporting federations as part of Serbia.

"I remember being at a football match, with some 2,000 people watching, when a Serb policeman walked out into the middle of the pitch and stopped the game, two minutes before the end," says Dr Islami. Police often took a similarly merciless line on children’s sport.

Popular outrage at such arbitrary restrictions fuelled Kosovo’s secessionist movement through the 1990s. Failure by the international community fully to reopen the field of play continues to fuel it today.

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