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It’s been seven years since the last NATO bomb fell on Kosovo, driving the Serbian government out of the majority-Albanian province and ushering in a tentative and uneasy peace. But as international consensus appears to be inching ever closer to granting Kosovo total independence from Serbia, passions are burning hotter than ever, with Serbs and Albanians hurling insults at each other, accusing each other of atrocities, and engaging in a bizarre series of stunts on the Web. And it wouldn’t be Washington if they didn’t hire lobbyists to carry their water. A group of European governments and the United States have set an end-of-the-year deadline for a final agreement on Kosovo, and all forces — European governments and many in Congress, the National Security Council, and the State Department — are moving in the direction of independence for the historically disputed province. Attempting to reverse the tide, by now an overwhelming international force: Venable‘s lobby operation and lobbyist James Jatras, a controversial figure who has long worked on Serbian and Yugoslav issues and who has garnered attention for his anti-Islamist rhetoric, support for Serbia, and 2004 testimony for the defense in former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s war-crimes trial at the Hague. Independence for Kosovo, says Jatras, is now “the default mode” of the debate concerning Kosovo’s final status. “It’s our job to hit the reset button,” he says. It’s one expensive reset button to push: The Serbian National Council of Kosovo and Metohija, an organization made up of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo and Serbia, is paying $600,000 for six months of Venable’s work. And it’s not paying for an alligator-shoe fete-the-staffers-at-the-Capitol-Hill-Club campaign. To the contrary, it’s a gloves-off, passions-flaring, in-your-face effort, the likes of which are seldom associated with blue-chip lobby shops. The “Kosovo Liberation Army maintain a reign of terror over Kosovo’s still-dwindling Christian Serb population in what has become Europe’s black hole of organized crime activities,” proclaimed a full-page ad that Venable placed in the June 8 issue of Roll Call, using the name the American Council of Kosovo, which claimed links between Kosovar leaders and al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and the government of Iran. “It was meant to be attention-getting,” says Jatras. “But I would challenge anyone to show that it’s inaccurate.” Taking Jatras up on his challenge is Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). He demanded that Venable retract the accusation that Kosovar leaders have terror links and drop the Serbian National Congress as a client. “Venable should cancel this campaign and end this contract because it is ethically fraudulent,” Engel wrote in an e-mail to Legal Times. “Venable is a registered foreign agent for a foreign entity, but has set up the misleading �American Council for Kosovo.’ There is nothing American about the group — especially not the hate-rhetoric it contains.” The Roll Call ad, Jatras says, is not hate rhetoric but something that “brings to light” the Albanian Kosovar leadership’s “hate activities.” The pro-independence lobby has many champions in Congress, but none is as vocal or as passionate as former Rep. Joseph DioGuardi (R-N.Y.), an Albanian-American, and his wife, Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi. The two run the Albanian American Civic League, a Westchester County, N.Y.-based Albanian lobby group. “Venable was hired to scare the State Department away from what they’re doing,” says DioGuardi, whose hot-tempered and impassioned tone stands in stark contrast to Jatras’ calm and even-keeled delivery. “It’s all bullshit,” he lets loose, barely two minutes into an interview with Legal Times. “Nothing in reality resembles [Venable's claims]. [Jatras] is Greek [Orthodox] and that’s the way he was raised. You’re talking to some of the most fundamentalist people in the world. They’re still fighting the crusades.” Jatras, for his part, responds to the attack coolly, saying that his religion is outside the bounds of debate. “That shows you something of the level of the people we’re dealing with.” The Serbs aren’t the only ones showering money on D.C. lobbyists. The lobby efforts of the Alliance for a New Kosovo, a pro-independence group, are being spearheaded in Washington by Jefferson Waterman International and funded by wealthy Kosovo Albanian businessman Behgjet Pacolli, who has been embroiled in a controversy of his own. In 2000 he was arrested on charges of money laundering in Switzerland. Records are not available for 2006, but Senate lobby disclosure filings show that Pacolli footed the alliance’s entire $250,000 lobby bill from mid-September through December 2005. Ken Gates, the lobbyist at Jefferson Waterman heading the alliance’s lobbying, declined to comment on his firm’s involvement in Kosovo. The drama is playing out not only in Washington and on the ground in Kosovo but also on the Web. In May, Venable launched a Web site, savekosovo.org, which labeled an independent Kosovo as akin to the Taliban. Within days, domain name registration records show, another site, savekosova.org (using the Albanian spelling of Kosovo), went online with an identical design and title, mimicking the Venable site. Gentian Dejolli, head of the Albanian Council in Europe, insists his site was online first but admits to copying part of the Venable site’s design. “They copied us, and I copied them. We change their lies to the truth,” he says.
Andy Metzger can be contacted at [email protected].

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