Kosovo’s Digital Diplomats

How an army of young people is convincing Facebook, Google, and other Internet giants to recognize one of the world's newest countries.


How do you put a nation on the world map? For centuries, statehood was achieved by spilling blood on the battlefield or by wheeling and dealing among diplomats in smoke-filled rooms. But young states are finding this is only half the story: Becoming recognized on the world stage isn’t just about getting voting rights at the United Nations — it’s about winning over Internet giants like Google and Facebook.

Digital diplomacy, whereby diplomats engage with citizens, allies, even rivals online to debate and develop policy and respond to events, is a relatively new concept — and one that is re-wiring traditional, often hierarchical authority structures. The United States was one of the first countries to subscribe to the idea: Online statecraft was pioneered during Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state by Alec Ross, Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation, and Jared Cohen, a member of her policy planning staff. According to the Brookings Institution, the State Department now has over 150 full-time digital diplomats. Britain and other EU countries have followed suit. And even Iran has put President Hassan Rouhani on Twitter.

But today, it is really small nations, particularly new ones struggling for attention, who are beginning to best use the Internet to their advantage. And Kosovo, steered by eager and resourceful young people who are redefining what digital diplomacy can mean, is leading the way. 

There’s certainly plenty for Kosovo to fight for. Five years after unilaterally declaring independence from Serbia and being recognized by 106 U.N. members, Kosovo is still struggling for acceptance by the likes of Russia, China, India, and many other influential countries, some of which are contending with separatist regions of their own. Digital diplomacy could help Kosovo’s cause by linking the country’s diplomatic officials and citizens to like-minded people in other states, who might in turn apply pressure to their governments to recognize the newest Balkan country.

But there’s an additional level to Kosovo’s digital diplomacy: The country is being ignored by the likes of Amazon, eBay, Google, Skype, and Yahoo, which do not recognize Kosovo as independent on their sites. Thousands of other, less-known international websites, portals, and social media platforms also have not included Kosovo as a country in their drop-down menus used, among other things, to allow users to identify their locations and enter valid mailing addresses.

The widespread lack of online recognition burdens average Kosovars daily. For example, want to order a book from Amazon and have it delivered to your home in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital? Because Amazon doesn’t recognize Kosovo as an independent state, you need to put "Albania" as your country of residence, followed by "Kosovo Kosovo Kosovo" in the additional comments box, just to drill home the point that you don’t actually live in Albania. And even then, orders end up disappearing in the bureaucratic cracks. Similar headaches abound with other Internet companies.

Kushtrim Xhakli wants to change this state of affairs. Achieving digital recognition, the young Kosovar entrepreneur says, is "about dignity and having a right taken for granted by people around the world."  A former advisor to Kosovo’s education minister, Xhakli has pieced together a campaign that sets out to make digital ambassadors out of an entire generation of Kosovars. Over 70 percent of the country’s population of two million is under the age of 30, and many of them are plugged in: At just below 80 percent, the country’s Internet penetration rate is similar to those of Western Europe. Given the right tools, Xhakli believes, tech-savvy young people can help more conventional diplomats in suits and ties in their quest to win Kosovo recognition, while also making Kosovars’ lives easier.

The particular tool he is championing is the new Digital Kosovo platform, which Xhakli helped conceptualize, code and design. Developed and run within the framework of the Pristina-based IPKO Foundation, an independent NGO of which Xhakli is a board member, Digital Kosovo initiative aims to enable Kosovars to utilize online services just like other Internet users across the world. Its website, up and running since September, contains ready-to-use templates based on scenarios where Kosovo is either absent or is listed as part of Serbia or Albania by a company or institution. Anyone can then personalize the template and send it directly to high-level decision-makers at the entity in question — all within just a few seconds.

The templates are meant to put increasing pressure on major online companies, as well as airports, airlines, newspapers, and universities, that don’t recognize Kosovo as independent. The ultimate goal is to make it possible for Kosovars to use the Internet for business, travel bookings, online shopping, and more.

Xhakli and his large army of online volunteers are already bombarding Google Maps with templated messages demanding that the system recognize Kosovo. Messages are also being sent to London and Sydney airports — which have yet to add Kosovo to their websites — and to the Brussels airport, where Pristina is still listed as being in Serbia, even though the map of Kosovo is demarcated from Serbia on the airport’s information boards.

The backers of the Digital Kosovo platform — which is funded by the Kosovo Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the British Council, and the Norwegian Embassy — view this sort of digital diplomacy as cutting-edge. "Internet recognition of Kosovo is of huge practical and symbolic importance and it is unacceptable that Kosovo still doesn’t appear on so many websites," said Myrna Macgregor, First Secretary at the British Embassy in Pristina.

Digital Kosovo claims that its blend of lobbying efforts and citizen advocacy has already brought about victories. In November, following a campaign of sending templated messages and communications with the company, Facebook recognized Kosovo as a state. (Previously, Kosovars wanting to create an account had to register as citizens of Serbia.) Digital Kosovo also says it has helped win over small companies, like MailChimp.

In addition to demanding that institutions recognize Kosovo online, Xhakli — who, after a wide-ranging early career in telecommunications and energy, could now be called Kosovo’s chief digital diplomat — is working to improve perceptions of Kosovo through other digital avenues. Sometimes, this involves pin-balling across Europe: giving a talk at a tech conference or meeting with Ed Parsons, head of Google Maps. Last year, Xhakli also helped set up Wiki Academy Kosovo, which trained writers and editors to improve the quality and quantity of online content about Kosovo.

Kosovo’s burgeoning success in the digital sphere could be a useful model for other nations seeking international recognition, be it South Sudan or Palestine — which, unlike Kosovo, already has a top-level domain (.ps). That said, there are limits to digital diplomacy’s reach. For instance, it can’t solve Kosovo’s problem of widespread corruption; the country is ranked 111 out of 177 states in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. It also can’t remove deep-rooted divisions between ethnic Albanian and Serbian communities. Some observers consider both of these issues impediments to Kosovo’s situating itself within the family of European states.

Yet even these problems could be eased in the future if digital awareness and savvy — this time, on the domestic front — lead to more open government and makes authorities more alert to abuses of rights,
resources, and privilege.

"No one is saying this is a miracle," Xhakli says of his work, "but it is a way or re-imagining the future of democracy and statehood."

<p> Philip Boyes is a Berlin- and Warsaw-based journalist and speechwriter. Follow him on Twitter at @Philip_Boyes. </p>