Gratitude to former Congressman Eliot Engel, as Kosova celebrates its MCC success story - Gazeta Express
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Gratitude to former Congressman Eliot Engel, as Kosova celebrates its MCC success story


Gazeta Express

26/10/2022 14:40

Gratitude to former Chairman of the House Committee of Foreign Affairs, Eliot Engel, as Kosova celebrates its MCC success story

By Ruben Avxhiu

One of the greatest success stories in the youngest country in Europe, in Kosova, is without doubt its cooperation with the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

Kosova has completed the $49 million “Kosovo Threshold Program” and is making progress on the MCC-Kosovo Compact, which totals $236 million.

To celebrate these achievements and promote the new phase of this work, Alice Albright, MCC Chief Executive Officer, visited Kosova this week and met with national and local leaders, the MCC staff, dedicated professionals, current and former officials, and civil society activists. She happens to be also the daughter of the late State Secretary Madeleine Albright, a hero to Kosovars, and Albanians everywhere.

MCC is described as Kosova’s “biggest foundation” focused on “innovative solutions for sustainable energy landscape, transparent governance and inclusive society.” Its impact on the development of the Kosovar society and economy promises to be substantial.

As we celebrate this remarkable success for Kosova and our relationship with the United States of America, we should take a moment to express our gratitude to a great friend of Kosova and of the Albanian-American community who played a key role in securing Kosova’s acceptance to MCC: Congressman Eliot Engel.

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Congressman Eliot Engel speaks at a conference in Prishtina, on November 20, 2017, as Kosova launches its $49 million MCC threshold program. (Photo by Fatos Shala)

The Albanian-American community is often praised for its role in helping the resistance against the Serbian occupation, for working in Washington in favor of Kosova’s freedom and independence. Little has been said about its work to support and strengthen the new independent country.

From Michigan to Texas, from Connecticut to Florida, and in more traditional places like New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Illinois or in relatively new ones like Iowa, members of our community worked with U.S. Senators and House members, with the staff of the White House and the State Department officials to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Kosova.

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From the left, Jason Steinbaum and John Calvelli (longtime advisors to the Congressman), Pat and Eliot Engel (then-Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the House of the Representative), Harry Bajraktari and John Bitici (Albanian-American supporters and friends of the Congressman), during one of Engel’s last visits to Kosova, at the corner of Tony Blair Street and Eliot Engel Steet, in Peja.

A leading role, without doubt, was taken by Eliot Engel as he rose to prominent positions in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. From increasing the number of recognitions worldwide to working with institutions to strengthen the new democracy, his contribution to Kosova’s success story is unparalleled.

Engel was introduced for the first time to the issue of Kosova, in 1989, when he was a freshman congressman in Washington by one of his constituents, Harry Bajraktari. A Kosova-born, successful businessman and community leader, Bajraktari had realized the American dream and dedicated his resources to educate American politicians and diplomats about the developments in the Balkans. He and Engel became friends and built a working relationship that lasted for more than three decades.

Engel found in the aspirations of the people of Kosova the just cause of freedom and democracy. He became their voice in the House of Representatives and became a hero in the eyes of the Albanian-American community.

A lasting legacy of his work is without any doubt the inclusion of Kosova in the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the only country in the region to benefit from this program.

As Harry Bajraktari and other Albanian-American leaders worried about the early difficulties of the institutions and the economy in the nascent Kosova Republic, they kept urging Engel and their friends in Washington DC to find smart new ways to help the process.

Eliot Engel and Harry Bajraktari, making the Albanian symbolic eagle-hand gesture, during a visit to Bajraktari’s office in Westchester, New York.

They were fortunate to have in Jason Steinbaum, the Staff Director for the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, a valuable and resourceful friend. He had worked for Congressman Engel since 1993 and remains one of the best experts on Kosova and the Balkans.

Just like Engel, Steinbaum had been impressed with the resistance of the Kosovar people to the oppression and the forced colonization by the Serbian chauvinist state and had embraced their cause for freedom and democracy.

Speaking of his role in the process, Engel said “when everyone was saying Kosova had no chance to get an MCC program, my staff director, Jason Steinbaum would not accept ‘no’ for an answer.”

With his help and the support of the Albanian-American community, Congressman Engel pressed and made the case to the Millennium Challenge Corporation Board to select Kosova as eligible to begin developing an MCC Compact. It was not easy. Some of these programs funded by the US Government have the potential to bring real change in the world, which eventually benefits peace and security everywhere. There are, however, too many struggling nations and endangered regions to choose from around the world.

In the end, MCC agreed on a $49 million threshold program to spur economic growth and reduce poverty in Kosova. Congressman Engel was a guest of honor at the signing ceremony in Washington, D.C. He also traveled to Kosova to launch the work of the Foundation. Two other people whom Engel credited for working hard to make this happen were Petrit Selimi, then-Kosova’s National Coordinator for Threshold Development and Andrew Russell, a representative of UNDP.

Engel’s friends in the community, including Harry Bajraktari and the current owner of Illyria’s newspaper, Vehbi Bajrami, couldn’t be prouder. For his contribution to this achievement, Jason Steinbaum was awarded the Kosova Presidential Medal of Merit by then-President Atifete Jahjaga.

Harry Bajraktari, who had also bestowed Kosova’s Presidential Medal of Merit, a couple of years earlier, called Kosova’s acceptance to the program, “a great moment in history.”

“Travelling with Chairman Engel to Kosova to launch the program was a moment of great pride and filled with the sense of accomplishment,” he said.

In the following years the MCC program has given impressive results towards lowering energy costs for households and businesses, improving transparency and accountability of Kosova’s institutions, and promoting gender equality, especially in the technology and energy sectors.

It was based on this success that Kosova was invited to sign the $202 million MCC-Kosova Compact. Now this great work is moving up to another level.

As Kosova moves forward and the relationship between our two nations grows stronger, Albanian-Americans remain eternally grateful to the work and contribution of our great friend, Eliot Engel.

“I had no doubt at the time that Kosova would succeed in meeting all the requirements and that $49 million was only the beginning of the new great journey for Kosova,” Bajraktari said on the day the MCC-Kosova Compact was signed. “Words cannot express the joy of seeing all this become reality. God bless Kosova and the Albanian nation, and God bless the United States of America!”