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Former Kosovar leader rejoices from afar

Once prime minister of Kosovo and now retired in Clearwater, Jusuf Zejnullahu registers his homeland's new independence with pride.

By Terri Bryce Reeves, Times Correspondent
Published February 19, 2008


While ethnic Albanians partied in the streets of Kosovo over the weekend, elated refugees from the war-torn country drove up and down U.S. 19, waving American and Albanian flags from car windows.

About 300 people packed a New Port Richey restaurant Sunday night to celebrate Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia.

Among them was Jusuf Zejnullahu, 64. He is a husband, a father, an author, a cancer survivor, a resident of Clearwater and, most notably, a former prime minister of Kosovo.

"This is very much happiness to us," he said Monday, his accent still alive and well after moving to the United States nine years ago. "The Albanian people have been waiting for this day for 96 years, when Serbia took over all the Balkan states."

Zejnullahu is receiving many calls and e-mails from those in his homeland, where he says people are playing hooky from work and school to revel in the streets with music and song and chants.

"They say the restaurants are giving away free food; everybody is so happy because life will change in a better way," he said. "They are free for the first time."

Then, seconds after learning the United States formally recognized Kosovo's independence on Monday, Zejnullahu proclaimed, "This is great! The recognition is bigger than the declaration itself!

"I am good friends with the president of Croatia, and he said after the U.S. recognizes Kosovo in the afternoon, his country can recognize it in the morning. Now many states will join in," he said. "We think 100 countries will recognize Kosovo within a month."

He predicted 20 more days of celebration and merrymaking.

And while many European nations are expected to follow with formal acknowledgments, Serbia and its key ally Russia have denounced the move, saying it could ignite new conflict in the region.

But Zejnullahu said he didn't think that would happen after lawmakers pledged to make Kosovo "a democratic, multiethnic state."

"The Serbian people are free to stay and keep their homes and land," he said. "The six stars on the new flag" - blue with six white stars above a gold map of the country - "are for the six ethnic groups. They are for all who want to live there in peace."

He said he's surprised at Russia's "hard-line position" for the Serbs, but said, "They will do nothing, and they will not make war."

This isn't the first time Kosovo asserted its independence.

In July 1990, with Zejnullahu as its prime minister, the country declared freedom in reaction to a new constitution that reduced the rights of the six provinces in the Yugoslavian Federation, plus the two provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina. It effectively gave the Serbs control of the police, economy, languages, judiciary and educational systems.

Zejnullahu responded by calling for free elections and a multiparty system. He was forced out of office and jailed.

In 1999, Zejnullahu moved to the United States with his wife, Myvedet, after the Clinton administration agreed to accept 20,000 Kosovar refugees. His daughter, Donika, and son, Dugagjin, had already moved here in 1997 as exchange students; both have graduated from Florida universities.

Since then, his wife and most of his fellow refugees have obtained U.S. citizenship, but the former prime minister's status appears to be on hold indefinitely. He can't seem to get any answers as to why, but thinks the FBI believes he is still a member of the Communist Party.

"I was automatically enrolled in the Communist Party in high school," he said. "But when I got a chance I evicted the Communist Party from the state budget and called for freedom."

He said he would like to give whoever is holding up his citizenship papers a copy of his new 500-page book, War Storm Above Kosovo. A thousand copies of the book are available in southeastern Europe, though not at the Borders bookstore at Clearwater Mall where he browses and reads daily.

"I'd like them to know about what I did, but they probably wouldn't be able to read it in Albanian anyway," he said.

His misses his former country, he said, but has no plans to return, except to visit.

"My children are here, so we will stay," he said.

As for his job as head of state?

"I never wanted to be a politician," said Zejnullahu, who had a background in economic development. "I just wanted to try and get the government to help people."

Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at treeves@tampabay.rr.com.

About Jusuf Zejnullahu

Age: 64

Place in history: Former prime minister of Kosovo

Elected: Dec. 4, 1989

Forced from office by Serbian government: July 5, 1990

Arrived in United States: 1999

Past jobs: Vice president, Economic Chamber of Yugoslavia; vice president of the Economic Chamber of Kosovo; director, Institute of the Economic Development of Kosovo

Current hometown: Clearwater

Current occupation: Retired

Quote: "This is very much happiness to us. The Albanian people have been waiting for this day for 96 years."