An Interview with the Former President of Kosovo

Felicity Garvey 20 November 2018

Atifete Jahjaga was announced as a consensus presidential candidate by three Kosovar political parties on 6 April 2011. The very next day, she was elected president in the first round of voting. She was also the first female president of the Republic of Kosovo, the first non-partisan candidate and the youngest female head of state ever. “My name came into the mix, along with certain other figures in the country. And, to my surprise, and to the surprise even of – at that time – political party leaders, and to the surprise of the general public, I was the first ever president to be elected in the first round of voting, with over 80% of the votes.” Jahjaga said, “It was a historical moment for me, for my family, but also for the entire country of Kosovo. But, I did not realise what kind of environment I’d be entering, being a woman… being a young leader. I did not realise that I would really have to show not only a hundred percent or two hundred percent but sometimes three thousand percent in order to prove that I was actually up to the position.”

She may have been a stranger to the political establishment, but not to the pressures of leadership. Before her time as President, she was Lieutenant Colonel General of the Kosovo Police at the age of 30, making her both the first woman and youngest individual to hold this position. “I was heading one of the biggest institutions in the country – the Kosovo Police. At the same time, the most trusted institution in the country.” She noted that this was “a strange switch” from the old way of thinking. “Before the war, the police used to be a tool of state. It had been used as a tool of repression. After the end of the war, our main focus was introducing the gender element, the women element within the Kosovo Police, because it was a very male dominated organisation. […] I strongly believe that the women have contributed to building this trust… An organisation that they once feared turned into one that was serving them.”

The presidency was, however, still a shock to the system. “I was not psychologically prepared,” she noted. “In the beginning, when this offer came to me, I did not allow myself to ask about myself or my own career or my own future… It wasn’t a question about me, it was about the country. It was about the people.” Ms. Jahjaga explained that, despite this, the focus shifted onto her – and particularly her gender – as she faced a great deal of sexism. “The headlines… I would be very happy if they were challenging me on my decision, or my vision rather than ‘oh, what is she wearing today’ or what kind of hairstyle, or heels or bag.” It was not just the press but her own ministers who were guilty of this. “Many times I was faced with an uncomfortable situation because I heard the comments, whenever they were invited by me to come to a meeting, they had two permanent comments. One was ‘oh, gosh we are going to this club of the ladies’ – because half of the cabinet were women – or one which was to me, even more offending: ‘this kindergarten cabinet’. They did not realise that I had really picked the best out of the best.”

She spoke avidly of her work with the Jahjaga Foundation, a not-for-profit dedicated to the democratic development of Kosovo and the Balkans, particularly through the enfranchisement of women, youth and marginalized groups. “I’m a strong believer that by investing in women, you don’t only invest in the individual but you automatically invest in the family, the society and the future of the country.” She noted that over half of Kosovans are women and over half are under thirty. “That is why my presidency was about women’s empowerment and youth empowerment, because that was the base for setting up sustainable growth and progress for the institutions of Kosovo.” As part of setting up a sustainable future, she also looked to the past – commenting that the work done with survivors of sexual violence is: “my biggest pain and at the same time my biggest pride.” The Foundation’s work regarding women, youth, anti-corruption and reconciliation follows on from her time in office: “I saw that even after leaving office, there had to be another kind of platform on which to push this agenda which was in the interests of the country.”

Ms. Jahjaga also had a few parting words of advice for any students – especially young women – looking to make their mark on politics. “You need to believe in yourself.” She asserted. “You need to believe in your potential and don’t you ever, ever allow anyone to say that you cannot do that, because there is nothing in this world that cannot be done if you really believe and invest your time… And never, ever make a compromise with your values.”