Kosovo: Where hearts were won in the Balkans

Visar Kryeziu/AP
Support for the US reigns strong in Kosovo, where NATO ended ethnic cleansing in 1999.

PRISTINA, KOSOVO – As President Obama’s charm and “change” ramps up American soft power in Europe – here’s a tiny corner of the Continent where enthusiasm for the “USA” never left.

Pristina’s main artery is named Bill Clinton Avenue. After NATO ended ethnic cleansing in 1999, Albanians named their newborns “Madeline Albright Ismaili” or “Al Gore Ajeti.” The honeymoon continues: A “statue of liberty” sits atop a city hotel. American flags fly profusely – on cars, storefronts, and on solitary homes in the countryside.

In Kosovo, American styles, films, and symbols are bolted in hearts and minds. It’s uncritical, and a tad embarrassing to elites, but there you have it. That giant America helped end Kosovo’s horror still amazes. In Pristina, it is hard to find locals who don’t speak English; even elders try.

Students apply first to American colleges. Turn on the TV, it’s Hollywood. Teens take road trips to Skopje in Macedonia to hang out at the only McDonald’s around. America is imagined as an endless well of choice, glitz, and promise. “Kosovars live in Switzerland or Germany,” says Agron Bajrami, editor of the daily Koha Ditore. “But they model their lives after what they think America is.”

The love affair isn’t new. Albanians have long had family in the Bronx and received care packages from Cleveland. They argue that Woodrow Wilson defended Albanians at the Paris peace conference in 1919. George H.W. Bush is known for a “Christmas message” to Belgrade in 1992 – telling Serbs not to attack. In the 1980s, urban Kosovars watched “Twin Peaks” and listened to Seattle grunge rock.

“Before the war, I sewed an American flag on my jeans and went to Zagreb, [Croatia], for a Deep Purple concert,” says Mr. Bajrami. “We’ve always felt America cares.”

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