Ambassador Lawrence Butler served as a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service for 40 years, including two years in Belgrade. In this story, he reflects on his experiences in Kosovo that culminated with the opening of a U.S. Information Service office in Kosovo in 1996. Currently, he works as an independent defense and diplomacy consultant in the United States of America who divides his time between Washington, D.C. and his home state of Maine.
I am the first American diplomat to ever be assigned to Kosovo, though I’m not in the history books for that. I was seconded, which meant I was lent by the State Department to the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe for the so-called Mission of Long Duration set up in Vojvodina, Sandžak, and Prishtina that started at the end of 1992. In December of that year, I got a phone call saying, “You’re going to go to Kosovo in January and open an office with the KEBS, the CSCE, in January 1993.” And that’s how I became the first American ever to be assigned to Kosovo.
Briefly stated, we covered Peja. We were based out of Peja, but we covered Istog, Klina, Deçan, Gjakova, and Junik. And then we had Gllogjan, over a little bit to the west. There was a mix of small Serb villages off in the west part, but for the most part they were Kosovar Albanian. Our job was to observe and report human rights. Our objective was to prevent a spillover of the conflict from Bosnia. That’s why we were scattered throughout the former Yugoslavia. Though it was called the Mission of Long Duration, we were gone by June, so we weren’t there very long.
This mission ended because Milošević basically denied the mission, after six months told them to leave, and they left. But we were effective as long as we were there and then Milošević said, “Get the hell out.” We were the early link for the Kosovar public because they saw us. They knew us. We were available. We visited every town. We would sit in the villages where we could have people come and join us and talk with us.
I worked very closely with the LDK branches in all those main five towns, as well as the Committee for the Protection of Human Rights. I still remember them well, such as Professor Muhaxheri, who’s still alive and still around. He was the LDK representative. And then there was a really nice guy Tahir Demaj, who was from the Committee for the Protection of Human Rights.
I was first in Kosovo in January, February, and March 1993, and there was another American at the end of my three months, and I was allowed to go home. I was then happily back in the United States again still working on European Union stuff and Brussels and worried about trade wars involving bananas and other things when, out of the blue, I got this phone call saying that I was going to go to Belgrade to be deputy ambassador in the summer of 1994. So less than a year and a half later, I was back in the former Yugoslavia. This time I was in Belgrade as the number two in the U.S. Embassy.
I was asked to go back to the former Yugoslavia in part because I had spent time in Kosovo, in part because I had a language similar to Serbian, so I could go quickly without any language training. But also I had a reputation of being stupidly unafraid to go anywhere, and the guy who was running the Embassy wanted a deputy who was going to be out all the time doing things. So we did a lot of things.
I had a fantastic woman colleague who will never get credit for what she did. Her name was Liz Bonkowsky. She was the political officer in the U.S. Embassy whose full-time job was to travel to Pristina to maintain contact with Ibrahim Rugova and the LDK and anybody else she could talk to down there. She was the face of the Embassy. But I went down [Kosovo] fairly frequently as well and developed my own personal relationship with Ibrahim Rugova as the deputy U.S. ambassador.
We didn’t have an ambassador because our diplomatic relations weren’t at that level. The head of an embassy when there is not an ambassador is called a chargé d’affaires, and the number two is called the deputy chief of mission. When I got there, I was the deputy chief of mission. But my boss never left Belgrade. My job was to go to places like Srebrenica. I went to war crimes sites in Bosnia. We were up in Vojvodina a lot. We were in Sandžak. We went to Montenegro. But my heart was in Kosova, so I spent a lot of time down there trying to understand what was happening.
So things were happening and we were watching them, but there was not a whole lot we could do because we didn’t have a permanent presence. Trust me: the drive from Belgrade to Pristina was not the most pleasant drive in the world. It was okay until we got to Niš. And then from Niš on, it is exciting — not in a good way. It’s a challenging drive to get there. And now we were in Pristina, and life was not good for anybody there. The air was dirty because people were burning coal and wood, and we were surrounded by hills, so we had air pollution. Police checkpoints were everywhere, and we had a growing sense that things were going to happen.
But our main focus was stopping the conflict in Bosnia. In November 1995, during the Dayton Accords, Richard Holbrooke negotiated with Tuđman, Itzebegović, and Milošević to end the conflict. U.S. NATO troops were uncertain, but our focus was now on making it work. But also we could turn our focus to democracy in Belgrade.
At this point, we started to see American congressmen coming to visit. And, of course, Eliot Engel, who was the chairman of the House of Representatives’s caucus for Albania and was a huge supporter of everything involving Albania, indicated he wanted to visit. And the Congress passed and enacted a law that authorized us to open an information office in Pristina. And there was a conversation back in Washington, from which I was then directed to negotiate with Milošević to get permission to open the information office.
Now it’s important to understand, in December of 1995, the charges d’affaires who was in charge of the embassy, was asked to go back to Washington to work for Holbrooke. He was given a promotion, so I was put in charge of the embassy. So I became the acting ambassador, if you can call it that.
I was working with Vuk Drašković and others in opposition to Milošević, and especially trying to deal with Mira Marković, the so-called Red Witch. But I got permission to go negotiate with Milošević, and Milošević said, “Sure, go ahead. What do I care? Go ahead and open an office up there.”
We had this remarkable day. Eliot Engel, Ibrahim Rugova, and Miloš Nešović, whom I felt so sorry for, who was the Serb deputy governor of Kosovo, were standing there while we raised the American flag. When Rugova smiled, his face almost split in half, because he was smiling so wide. It was a happy day for him to see that flag go up.
The feeling I had, and the cheers that went up when that flag went up over Pristina was “Finally, the Americans are here!” It was a powerful moment. It’s just one that’s in my mind and will be with me forever. It was one of the few times I truly knew why I am here. Planting the flag in Pristina sent a message about the right to self-determination. There’s probably somebody out there who says that that fire was already burning. Maybe we started it. Maybe we just added fuel to it. But it was a tangible, visible symbol of commitment to what would eventually become an independent Kosova.