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Judo champion Majlinda Kelmendi (left), seen here with former Kosovar President Atifete Jahjaga, will be Kosovo's flag bearer at the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Rio on August 5.

The 31st Summer Olympics are due to open in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, but for some athletes they will be the first. Kosovo, which became a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) less than two years ago, will become the newest addition to the Olympic family.

Majlinda Kelmendi, 25, a double world judo champion, will be Kosovo’s flag bearer at the opening ceremonies, one of eight Kosovar athletes competing in Rio. For her, it all seems like a fairy tale.

“It’s such an honor for me because it’s the first time that Kosovo is going to be in the Olympic Games and it’s going to be me who’s holding the flag. I have dreamed of this for a long time and finally it is coming,” Kelmendi told CNN.

When Kelmendi won her first world title -- in Rio in 2013 -- it was a first for Kosovo, which had been recognized by the International Judo Federation the previous year.

But when she defended her crown in Russia last year, Kelmendi had to contend with more than her opponents on the mat. Before she could take on -- and defeat -- French Olympic medalist Priscilla Gneto in the finals, she also had to fight the Russian authorities.

Kosovo's First Olympic Team Is Ready For Rio
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Because of Russia’s blanket support for Serbia, Moscow does not recognize Kosovo’s independence. As a result, it was unclear until the last moment if Kelmendi would be allowed to compete as a Kosovar. Delicate negotiations took place on the eve of the event in Kazan. Only following the intervention of International Judo Federation President Marius Vizer did Kelmendi gain permission to compete under her country’s flag.

On August 5, she will be parading it in front of the whole world. Recognized by more than 110 countries, Kosovo is still not a member of the United Nations. However, the country became a full member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in December 2014.

“When we got recognized by the IOC, it was the best thing that happened to Kosovo. Not just for sport but as a country, because now athletes and young kids can dream to be in the Olympics and represent Kosovo,” the judo champ said in the interview with CNN.

Urata Rama
Urata Rama

For Kosovo’s athletes, being admitted into the IOC was a huge relief. Four years ago, Kosovar shooter Urata Rama spoke to RFE/RL’s Balkan Service about her Olympic dreams. Back then, she and other Kosovar athletes still felt isolated from the rest of the sporting community.

Now Rama can focus exclusively on her results, not on whether she might be allowed to compete.

“Peace of mind, and total concentration, is most important for a shooter,” she said, speaking recently to RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. “When I started, I did not think I would make it this far, because success in this sport doesn’t come quickly.”

For others, it’s been an even longer wait.

Kelmendi’s judo coach, Driton Kuka, belongs to a generation of athletes whose dreams were wrecked by the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. He was supposed to compete for Yugoslavia at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but Kosovo (which had been stripped of its autonomous status it had enjoyed within Yugoslavia) pulled out its competitors because of the repression of ethnic Albanians by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

Yugoslavia itself was eventually banned from Barcelona because of UN sanctions related to the war in Bosnia, but Kuka’s career at the time was over. He was in his early 20s.

While Kuka didn’t fulfill his Olympic dream as a fighter, he has done so as a trainer. More than 20 years after the disappointment of Barcelona, he’s now going to Rio. A second judoka on Kosovo’s Olympic team, Nora Gjakova, is also his protege.

With recent doping scandals casting a cloud over the Olympics, Kosovo’s biggest medal hope, judo champion Kelmendi, says she hopes the Kosovar team will help restore some of the founding spirit of the Olympic movement.

“I feel so good that, maybe for one or two days, I can make people from Kosovo laugh, make them happy, and maybe forget that we have so many problems here,” she says.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) greets Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic during the latter's visit to Moscow in May, not long after Serbia's parliamentary elections.

"It would not be the end of the world if I do not form a government," Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic quipped while speaking to reporters this week. It's been three months since he comfortably won the elections, and yet Vucic has yet to name his cabinet. Vucic failed to give a clear explanation for this, but hinted that unnamed forces may be at work behind the scenes.

It seems there is no pressure coming from within his party, or from his coalition partners. And Vucic is as popular as ever, and has plenty of political capital to spend following his election victory. Yet he says he does not want to put together a government he cannot stand by. How could one form a government that is not to one's liking? Perhaps if somebody is handing that individual a list of unacceptable names.

"It goes without saying that there are many who would like to have a major influence on the [composition of the] Serbian government," was the cryptic explanation Vucic gave in his July 25 press conference.

Who, then, is putting pressure on the Serbian prime minister?

It is known that, immediately following the April elections, Vucic was in Moscow. After his meeting with Vladimir Putin, there was a statement on the Russian president's official site that made it clear that Putin wanted -- or expected -- to see individuals appointed who would contribute to "improving Russian-Serbian relations."

That's the root of Vucic's quandary, according to Serbian journalist Bosko Jaksic:

"After his May visit to Moscow it was clear to me that pressure was coming from that direction, and has only increased since then, since there is no one here [in Serbia] who could wield that kind of influence," Jaksic explained in an interview with RFE/RL in Belgrade on July 25.

"There is no one in the Progressive Party of Serbia," Jaksic said of Vucic's party. And if the Socialists -- coalition partners in the previous government -- "are putting any pressure [on Vucic], they can only do so with Moscow's help," Jaksic argued, "because on their own they do not have the bargaining power or political clout."

"It therefore seems obvious to me that word is being sent down from Moscow," Jaksic concluded.

Western Influence?

On the other hand, political analyst Dragomir Andjelkovic, who is considered close to the Progressive Party, believes that the pressure on Vucic is coming from the West, as Brussels might feel emboldened to interfere in Serbian domestic politics since the opening of chapters 23 and 24 of the EU-accession process.

Jaksic does not rule out Western influence, but would consider it merely a reaction to Moscow's meddling in Serbian affairs.

"The pressure coming from the East is the aggressive sort, which comes with concrete demands, and wants to dictate the shape of the new government," Jaksic said. "We only need to go back to Putin's statement. There is certainly pressure from the West, too, but more in the form of a warning: 'Vucic, do not let Moscow tailor your cabinet, because you will find yourself on a collision course with us.'"

Jaksic added that Vucic is partly responsible for the situation, "because he's been enthusiastically offering himself to both sides, encouraging the expectations of both [Europe and Russia], even though Euro integrations are nominally the priority."

Vucic, meanwhile, has suggested that the task of forming a government might soon be out of his hands if he fails to resolve his doubts. "There is no pressure, but if I cannot form a government by the first half of August, someone else will."

Who, precisely? More cryptic messages, it seems. But Putin's friendly arm around Vucic seems to be growing heavier by the day.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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