This past summer the world watched as the first Olympic delegation from Kosovo walked across the stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Even though a significant number of UN member states—notably Russia—still refuse to acknowledge the country’s claims to statehood, Kosovar leaders had succeeded in winning over the International Olympic Committee, an independent NGO with an important political presence. News agencies were quick to report on the historic event, thrusting Kosovo’s disputed statehood back into the minds of people worldwide.

The appearance of the Kosovar athletes on the world stage was just one in a long string of attempts by the small republic to circumvent the gridlocked international system by appealing to powerful non-state actors. Over 80 countries still do not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, with some in the region (including Russia and Spain) worried that recognition could ignite greater secessionist fervor in their own inchoate breakaway republics (such as in Chechnya or Catalonia). Kosovo is nevertheless a member of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and has pursued membership in the European Union and UNESCO.

In addition to working with these traditional non-state actors, Kosovars have now turned to a new platform to make their case for independence: the internet.

Digital Kosovo, an online platform launched in 2013 aims at advancing Kosovo’s presence on the internet. The platform, an initiative of the IPKO Foundation, the Republic of Kosovo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other partners, was created as a response to websites that purposefully or accidentally fail to list Kosovo as a legitimate location. For example, a travel website might list Kosovo as part of Serbia, or show the Pristina airport on a map of Serbia. In other cases, an online merchandiser might only deliver to addresses in Serbia or Albania, not Kosovo.

brussels-airport

Photo: A screenshot from the Digital Kosovo file on the Brussels Airport which incorrectly places Pristina in Serbia. Source: Digital Kosovo.

For Kosovars like Arlind Luma, one of the earliest users of the Digital Kosovo platform, this was a big problem. Luma, a Kosovo-based web designer and digital entrepreneur, frequently ran into problems while trying to participate in the global online market. “I had been doing a lot of work online,” he said by email. “And when I was trying to register on a lot of websites, there was no Kosovo and it started to bother me.” In desperation, Luma even reached out to several websites on his own, trying to convince them to change, but to no avail.

A few years later, Luma stumbled across the newly-created Digital Kosovo website. Founded by the Pristina-based IPKO Foundation, Digital Kosovo is a community-driven response to Kosovo’s disputed statehood, and seeks to better integrate the country into international online platforms though crowdsourced political activism. The process is simple. First, when users find an online service that does not recognize Kosovo, they can add the name of the organization to Digital Kosovo’s database. Afterwards, any user can log onto Digital Kosovo and join the site’s coordinated email campaigns, petitioning these organizations to add Kosovo as an option.

Luma, and others like him, joined Digital Kosovo, and sent emails to international corporations, including big names like Apple (which had failed to list Kosovo as a country option) and Expedia.com (where Kosovoars were unable to choose Kosovo as a passport-granting country until 2014). Luma helped spearhead an effort to create template messages for each organization on their list, allowing Kosovars with less-than-stellar English to send powerful messages to online organizations worldwide. Today, Digital Kosovo counts over 6,000 registered users and claims that its efforts have contributed to almost 100 recognitions. The platform’s largest success occurred in 2015 when online market giant Amazon.com finally listed Kosovo as a country in its shipping drop-down menu after activists sent over 1,200 emails.

In addition to making the online lives of Kosovars easier, the Digital Kosovo platform offers a new perspective on what statehood means in the 21st century. In traditional politics, a new state is created when the international community as a whole recognizes it as a sovereign entity. Under those rules, the path to recognized statehood seems nearly impossible for Kosovo.

But what about these massive international corporations that have been petitioned into recognizing Kosovo? Is it really necessary to obtain the approval of tiny nations like Cape Verde or Nepal (neither of which have recognized Kosovo) when giant multinational firms like Facebook (with 1.7 billion users) and Microsoft (with 1.5 billion users) consider Kosovo to be a distinct country?

The users of Digital Kosovo are certainly far from overthrowing centuries of international norms regarding state sovereignty. But their work is emblematic of a globalized future where, for better and for worse, the international involvement of non-state actors and massive corporations matters just as much as that of governments. Until then, at least Kosovars like Luma can rest easy, knowing that they’ll get the shoes they ordered online.

Photo (top): Rain Rannu / Flickr.

Posted by David Eichert

David Eichert is a graduate student with NYU’s Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, where he is studying Europe’s various human rights regimes. He holds a BA in Political Science and French Studies from Brigham Young University, and has worked & studied in France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Latvia.

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