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Flying with the Eagles – Part I25. Mai 2018
Two weeks ago, four of us went on a trip to Kosovo: Petrit Elshani, doctoral candidate at Berlin Humboldt University and project counsel at the firm; Katharina Meyer, our legal manager; Claudio Kühn, associate specialized in corporate law and venture capital investments; and me, the “old guy”.
Kosovo is Petrit’s home country. Petrit and his parents, as many other families in Kosovo at the time, had to flee the country in the early 90s because of Serbian oppression. They found a new home in the south of Germany in a little town near Stuttgart and returned to Kosovo in the summer of 2000, roughly a year after the war had come to an end. The family returned to Prishtina, their home town, to help build this new country, a constant struggle ever since, not meeting their expectations. Kosovo, war-torn country at the end of the last century, scene of horrendous massacres by the Serbian army, under a United Nations mandate until its independence in 2008, still protected by KFOR troops and especially the German Bundeswehr.
Petrit has maintained his impeccable German. He speaks and writes German like a native. That is why he returned to Germany as a law student for a year in 2013 on an Erasmus Program at Freie Universität in Berlin, and again in 2015 for a one-year Master’s Program for International Dispute Resolution at Berlin Humboldt University, following his graduation from the University of Prishtina. During this time, Petrit interned with us, then a law firm of two lawyers and one part-time legal manager, and has supported the firm’s growth to a team of 10 people with great dedication and enthusiasm.
It was only natural that at some point, we had to see where he was from. And as on top of everything, Petrit is very well connected to professionals and business institutions in Kosovo, we decided that it was about time to explore his home country and meet the people that he had been telling us about for all those years.
As we wanted to do this right, we put together a thorough travel itinerary with Petrit’s support, centered in essence on three outstanding individuals: Tea Blakaj, secretary-general of the Arbitration Center at the American Chamber of Commerce in Kosovo; Nora Hasani, managing director of the Kosovo-German Business Association “KDWV”; and Kujtim Kerveshi, one of Kosovo’s leading lawyers and founder of the law firm JUDEX. Next to Petrit’s parents and sister, who have been around us like guardian angels throughout this trip, these three have given us the opportunity to access the legal and business community in Kosovo in a very personal manner.
I recall my first meeting with Nora in Berlin and very cheerful skype calls with Tea and Kujtim to organize two conferences during our stay. The first one was to be hosted by AmCham under Tea’s guidance in Prishtina on arbitration and mediation together with the Minister of Justice, and the second one in Prevalle in the Sharr Mountains near Prizren, organized by the KDWV and hosted by ProCredit Bank Kosovo, on the negotiation of commercial contracts with German business partners.
All this was to be embedded in a rich cultural program, mainly prepared by Petrit with the support of his family and together with Kujtim who had decided to take us into the Rugova Mountains for one night and one day, to offer us an impression of the nature of Kosovo next to its city life. Petrit prepared every detail, including a list of the ten most important Albanian expressions for us to get around with a little more than just “hello” and “bye-bye”.
As hotel rates at the standard hotels in Prishtina had gone through the roof by the time we got ready to book, we opted for an Airbnb accommodation in the old town of Prishtina which turned out to be the best decision ever: Not only was it a charming place which gave us the impression of spending time in a real Kosovo-Albanian home, but it also served as our base camp during this trip, allowing us to leave most of our things there during our overnight stay in the Rugova Mountains. Once more, this experience shows how Airbnb opens the door to the world.
And finally, I designed and fine-tuned my presentations with the help and inspiration of our ever so supportive speaker coach – John Faulk. Thanks to his attentive and creative listening and rhetoric skills, John helped build stories that felt to the point and allowed me to represent WagArb and my legal practice in the best possible way.
Thursday, 10 May
And then, finally, after weeks of preparation, my three travel companions and I meet at Schönefeld Airport in the afternoon with great anticipation and an even bigger extra suitcase in which we pack our mountain hiking gear and gifts for our hosts, before we board our EasyJet plane to Prishtina full of Kosovars that are headed home for the long weekend.
I can sense the excitement in all of us, especially Petrit, who just radiates with pride and joy in light of the days ahead, during which he will show us his country and introduce us to his friends. While we review our presentations and the new Kosovan draft law on mediation, we share beers and stories and engage in conversations with our neighboring passengers, already improving our Albanian.
After a two-and-a-half-hour flight, we land at Adem Jashari Airport in Prishtina late at night, where the immigration officer welcomes me in German: “Welcome to Kosovo! Your first time here? Enjoy!” It turns out that the cell phone provider that is suggested on my smartphone is not as welcoming, evidence – as I learn later on this trip – to the ever-lasting conflict with Serbia which does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state: The cell phone provider is a Serbian company which allows me to make calls and send text messages only, but neither to access the internet nor to switch to the local Kosovan provider for that purpose.
We gather our luggage and fall into the arms of Petrit’s family. His father, sister and cousin have come to pick us up with two cars, and take us to our charming AirBnB apartment, the first floor and souterrain of a house in the old town of Prishtina. I admit being surprised by the modern appearance of the city as we drive into Prishtina. The streets are vibrant with people, sitting outside, walking, chatting, enjoying a warm spring evening. While many sites look familiar from a Western European perspective, we are in a mainly Muslim country which is evidenced by the many mosques left and right of the road. The traffic flows at a steady but easy pace, given that there are very few streetlights and pedestrians just cross the road at will, a fascinating choreography which serves its purpose just as well.
We settle in quickly at our accommodation and take off to “Renesansa”, a restaurant in a neighborhood of Prishtina called Dardania, where we are the only guests and are served an overwhelming variety of traditional Albanian specialties in a traditional environment, such as meze, maze me speca, salads and meats together with delicious local white and red wine as well as local grape raki. E shijshme! Delicious! The food is truly outstanding, the ingredients aromatic and with a certain sense of rawness to them. In this authentic atmosphere, we start conversations on the history of Kosovo and recent political developments, embedded in a sense of togetherness and understanding that this trip is going to be very special, creating unforgettable memories.
Friday, 11 May
We wake up after a good night sleep and have a “working morning” ahead of us to take care of business at home and to finalize our presentations for today and tomorrow.
Petrit arrives at 9:30 a.m. with a homemade breakfast from his mother and a white table cloth that he spreads on the terrace table to make it look nice as instructed by “Mama Elshani”. The sun is out and the sky clear blue. The table is laden with all sorts of good things, including the famous maze me speca/long me speca, which comes straight from the gods. As the eldest at the table, I break the home-baked bread for everyone.
As we enjoy the many delicacies and drink yoghurt, I ask Petrit about Adem Jashari, after whom the airport is named. He tells us that he is one of the heroes of the war for independence in 1999 and that he was killed by the Serbian army together with his entire family – 58 people including women and children – after a three-day battle during which the Serbian army had besieged his home. It is in this very moment, that for the first time on this trip, the past hits me with all its weight. I recall the pictures on TV of war-zones and fleeing people. Then a 24-year-old student in Berlin getting ready for my final exams, I was somehow unable to cope with the fact that only 1,000 miles away, a war took place which included atrocious massacres. And now, almost 20 years later, a grown man and a family father, I was enabled to feel the empathy which I had not been capable of feeling back then, because I was “far away”. It is a tear-shaken moment, and I feel very close to Petrit and his people.
We leave our base camp and head over to the Swiss Diamond hotel, where the AmCham conference will take place, through the hustle and bustle of Prishtina, walking by the impressive monument of “Skenderbeu”, an Albanian leader who fought against the Ottoman oppression in the 15th century. On the terrace of the hotel, we meet the Elshani family for coffee and raki. Me ne fund! Finally! We exchange gifts and share a moment of family tranquility with much appreciation and affection for one another.
And as we sit and chat, Tea Blakaj of the AmCham appears, a tall charming young lady with long black hair and an engaging smile. We say good bye to the Elshanis and proceed to the conference room. As we walk through the hotel, I note that I am so happy we chose an AirBnB and not a hotel, especially not this one. While it is certainly a hotel of high decorative standards with all the comfort hotels of this kind have to offer, we would have missed out on so much, had we chosen to stay in this isolated expat environment.
The conference is well attended. Abelard Tahiri, the Minister of Justice, is on a panel with me together with Kujtim and two other legal professionals: Sokol Elmazaj, partner with Boga & Associates in Prishtina, and Fellenza Limani, legal expert with the state advocate’s office within the Ministry of Justice. All of them provide an overview of how arbitration is perceived in their practice following my keynote speech on “Why arbitrate?” in the context of the reform of the judicial system in Kosovo which aims at encouraging arbitration and ADR mechanisms next to standard state court proceedings. A real chance to build something new. Many of the participants approach us afterwards and share their views with us, many of them law school friends of Petrit, and we all enjoy this opportunity to meet and exchange ideas.
After a quick drink with Tea and the other panelists, who we will meet later for dinner, Petrit takes us to the Ethnological Museum of Prishtina for a very special tour with Bekim Xhemili, our guide. As we walk through a traditional Kosovo-Albanian house, Bekim, a dedicated anthropologist with a charming personality, explains that an Albanian house belongs first to God, then to guests, and only then to the owner. He also provides us with an overview of the last 3,000 years of Kosovo-Albanian history in an impeccable self-taught English, including the youngest developments and the challenges Kosovo is facing to catch up with the requirements of a modern society, a recurring topic throughout this trip. Bekim also introduces us to the phenomenon of the so called “Shacis” (German: “Schatzis”), the nick name for the Kosovar diaspora in Germany, who, with their financial contributions to their families in Kosovo and other support ever since the 1990s, have been a tremendous factor in helping the country walk the path towards independence and currently contribute one third (!) of the national budget. He shares his concerns with us that this money merely flows into consumption and not into local investments, which destabilizes the local economy: The goods that are ultimately purchased with these funds are mainly imported.
We say good-bye to our new friend Bekim, and head home to change into something comfortable and to head out to the next supermarket to fill up our beer supplies. As we leave the supermarket, we literally bump into the German ambassador, Christian Heldt, who was about to run some errands. We know each other, and I had contacted him prior to our trip, but we had not come up with a possibility to arrange for a meeting just yet. He spontaneously takes us up to his residence in the Arberia neighborhood, and we share our beers in his garden, overlooking the city and discussing the challenges of the German engagement in Kosovo and the entire situation of the country at present.
Overwhelmed by this unexpected meeting, we leave the ambassador’s residence at sunset and hike back to our base camp. Petrit picks us up and takes us to dinner with our new friends from the AmCham event to “Tiffany”, another restaurant with excellent local cuisine and raki, before we dive into the nightlife of Pristina with an incredible group of people to “Soma” and then “te Gjoni”. As we get home early in the morning, Claudio and I recapitulate our presentations for our next “gig” in Prevalle for another hour before going to bed, while the Muezzins start chanting softly throughout the city for the early morning prayer.
To be continued in Part II…
More pictures and impressions on Instagram…
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