What is the Kosovo’s government position on the dialogue with Serbia and how does it see its commitments within the Washington agreement? Is there an alternative to the dialogue for Kosovo and what topics does the Kosovo government expect to be discussed in future rounds in Brussels? We have discussed these questions with Albin Kurti, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, on the Prespa Forum Dialogue, which took place on 1 and 2 July at Ohrid, North Macedonia.
European Western Balkans: Let me begin with asking you about what you talked about today at the Prespa Forum Dialogue – the problem with mini-Schengen and the necessity of having other forms of regional cooperation such as SEFTA. What is in your opinion the key difference between the mini-Schengen and SEFTA which you propose?
Albin Kurti: First of all, we do not know what mini-Schengen really entails. I do not see why we need mini-Schengen when we have the Berlin Process, which has now been including, since the Sofia Summit, the Common Regional Market. So why would we need mini-Schengen if we have the Common Regional Market from the Sofia Summit? On the other hand, I do not think it is appropriate to call it mini-Schengen. It started in Novi Sad, and I do not see how we can do this initiative without mutual recognition of Kosovo and Serbia. Because the level at which the policy in Schengen zone of different countries cooperate with each other is unimaginable between Kosovo and Serbia, as long as we do not have mutual recognition.
EWB: But some might say that entering mini-Schengen is a commitment made by Kosovo within the Washington Agreement signed last year. What is your opinion about this? Is Kosovo going to back off from this commitment?
AK: Last year, we had a decision by the Constitutional court which showed that the previous government was not only illegitimate, but also anti-constitutional. Because, when it was elected – on the 3 June 2020, it actually did not have a majority. It did not have 61 MPs out of 120, but only 60. I think that among the public opinion in Kosovo there are enormous reservations towards the previous government and the readiness of the institutions who were never for this mini-Schengen initiative. I think that we are acting accordingly, and those who proposed mini-Schengen initiative should have the burden of proof to show what is it really the content of it and why it is needed when we have the Berlin Process.
EWB: From what you have said, it could be interpreted that you consider the Washington Agreement to be illegitimate in itself with all of its clauses. We have heard from the US Government that the agreement is valid in their eyes. Is this going to be a problem, in your opinion, in your relations with the US administration?
AK: I am one of the leaders who endorsed president Biden, in contrast to president Vučić, who was lobbying hard for President Trump. I did not say that what has been signed in Washington that I will just throw away – not at all. The last point, which was the recognition of Israel to Kosovo has been implemented and that is the most valuable part of the agreement. You must know that the two texts are not the same. For example, in the text of Serbian side, it was written that the embassy from Tel Aviv will be shifted to Jerusalem, but it did not happen yesterday as it was supposed to. So, two different texts, two unilateral commitments.
We do not want to negate it in principle, but at the same time we have to be careful, because there are also some points which are problematic for our constitution that have been signed as a commitment by the previous Prime Minister. Just to mention, the fact that we are not going to lobby and engage for membership in the international organizations. That goes in collision with the Constitution of the Republic of Kosovo.
EWB: What is your impression, how does the US administration see the Washington Agreement and its clauses? Did things fundamentally change with the Biden administration coming this January?
AK: I have already made four new proposals in relation to Serbia. One is reciprocity of rights of minorities – in Serbia there is a national council for Albanians, and for Bosniaks. I believe we could have the reciprocity of rights. Then I proposed the SEFTA (South East European Free Trade Agreement), similar to the one that Norway, Iceland and Switzerland have with the EU, namely EFTA, EEA.
Next, we should focus on missing persons’ issues. The last one is that we just had the NATO Summit in Brussels. President Biden came and stayed eight days, he came for NATO Summit, first and foremost, and also for G7 summit. I also proposed that Kosovo and Serbia do jointly Peace Declaration that we are not going to attack each other. Because, with the exception of Serbia, other countries want to join NATO or already did. I think that these proposals are actual, and we should engage them.
EWB: I was talking about the Washington agreement bearing in mind that many were thinking that this agreement will fundamentally stop being important for the new administration if Joe Biden wins the elections, and he indeed won. Generally speaking, do you see a big difference in the US approach towards Kosovo and Serbia-Kosovo relations, since the change of the administration in Washington, especially when it comes to relations between the US and the EU administrations on the dialogue?
AK: On one level, US maintains its stance for independent Kosovo, in spite who wins the elections there. But then, again, there are certain differences. President Biden wants to strengthen Trans-Atlantic relations between the US and Europe. He is a social democrat, and he also has a value based policy, where out of dialogue he wants to have a transformative result, not transactional approach.
EWB: Regarding this last round of dialogue which you had with president Vučić in Brussels, it has been said that it is very positive that this meeting took place, but also what we heard through different statements from both sides is that there was not much trust and that two sides are very far apart. What is the positive that you can take from this meeting, and where do you think that the dialogue can go from here?
AK: I think that you must agree with me that it is difficult to conduct talks as long as there is no distancing from the regime of Milošević. It is very necessary to have real distancing, an introspection, a self-critique in order to get properly future-oriented and reach solution with reconciliation. I do not see an alternative to mutual recognition, and I do not want to avoid the elephant in the room. Couple of times there was this attempt to discuss about technical details of previous rounds of talks, but we are political leaders. Technical details are for professional experts, state officials which are a part of our teams. But for leaders, we should not avoid the elephant in the room, and I think, that is, the lack of mutual recognition, namely – mutual non-recognition.
For me, dialogue in Brussels which is relying on the General Assembly resolution of 8 September 2010, is about the status of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. We have abnormal relations, and we shall normalize them. To this end, as that resolution says, there are four goals we should achieve – peace, security and stability, cooperation, affirming European path and perspective, and improving the lives of the citizens. I believe that with constructive dialogue, we may have progress.
EWB: We do know that Serbian side is quite strongly against the idea of mutual recognition in the present circumstances and with present Kosovo borders. Where do you see the room for compromise? You have mentioned that for you the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities, which was agreed in the Brussels agreement and also in the separate agreement in 2015 is something which would be bad for Kosovo and that your government would not implement it. Where do you see a room for compromise in the absence of the talks on the ASM on the one hand, and on the border change on the other, which you have mentioned numerous times in the past?
AK: Kosovo with the new government, the top three in our winning list are leaders of three institutions – namely, Madam President Osmani, speaker of the Parliament Konjufca, and myself as Prime Minister – we have won on this ticket of jobs and justice, and we are the most successful government since Kosovo got liberated, let alone since Kosovo declared independence.
Let me point out that exports in Kosovo in these five months increased by 66%, economic activity turnover by 15%, government revenues by 30% and we have a prospect of a 7.9% of GDP as economic growth for this year. Our tax administration managed to collect 60 million euros more than last year, and our customs 108 million euros more than in the same period last year in the first five months. We are managing the pandemic quite well. When we took office on 22 March this year, we had 781 newly infected per day and 17 deaths. And now, it is a one-digit number of newly infected with zero deaths. We have made sure that we had 2 million vaccines, with zero vaccines from Russian Federation and China. We have administered 200.000 doses and 400.000 vaccines already arrived. Hospitalization went down by 86%, newly infected by 99%, active cases in general by 97%.
We have had 221 police operations, we have destroyed 7 criminal gangs, we have confiscated 400 kilograms of cocaine and 7 million euros. We have had arrested 933 persons in 101 raids and 221 police operations. We are strengthening the state of Kosovo. Kosovo is becoming a success story. And the old salami tactic – what do you give me for recognition which will never happen is not going to work. The President of Serbia said that he was never going to recognize Kosovo. With this approach, he has put himself as a stumbling block to the agreement, because all previous concessions by my predecessors were given to Serbia in the light of future recognition, for which he said it will never happen.
EWB: You have focused already on the beginning of your mandate on internal issues such as the fight against corruption, etc, and you have said that the dialogue is not among your priorities. Having in mind what you have said, do you believe that for Kosovo it is viable that the dialogue is completely put to a halt, and that you can just focus on your own development?
AK: Of course, I would prefer Serbia to recognize Kosovo, but if Serbia does not want that, we have to continue to live without that recognition. I am not having any plans to replace past dependence of Kosovo from Serbia with new dependence of Kosovo from the recognition of Serbia to our independent country. So, for 13 years now, we have lived without the recognition of Serbia. It would be good if Serbia recognizes us, but I am not going to pay for that, neither with the territory of Kosovo, nor with the functionality of our state. Kosovo is independent. 26 out of 30 NATO countries recognized it, 22 out of 27 EU member states recognized Kosovo. Russia and China do not recognize us, but the US, France and the UK in the Security Council do. We will have to move on.
EWB: I would understand this answer as a yes from you. Are you concerned that a lack of dialogue could have security repercussions in the entire region? The public in Serbia is now quite concerned about several incidents that have occurred in Kosovo in the recent days. Is there a fear that there could be escalation of violence in a case that dialogue is simply put to a halt and that things go back to the time before the dialogue?
AK: We are a peaceful government, and we are going to take care of all the citizens of Kosovo. There are no inter-ethnic problems in Kosovo. Actually, you have Serbs in Kosovo who complain about the pressure from Serbia. When I was Prime Minister for the first time, I appointed Aleksandar Stanković from Ranilug as my advisor, but after two hours, he resigned because of the pressure from structures from Belgrade. Basically, Serbs of Kosovo are under pressure from Belgrade. We want to help them as well. Because, as you know, almost 100% are forced to vote for only one party, which is under control and financed by Belgrade, and that is really sad. I think there should be democratic pluralism and not nationalistic homogenisation.
EWB: Many would agree that many Serbs feel under pressure from Serbia, but also there are different concerns about threats from ethnic Albanians. In the recent year we have seen several incidents – in Belgrade, this is one of the hottest topics in recent days. Do you believe that this represents a problem in Kosovo?
AK: We do treat all incidents, but also it is not nice that in a church which is not finished because they did not manage to do that, since it was during the period of Milošević in the university campus, a half-finished church, to come and do political liturgy. It is not nice. Without asking for permission. Because, even according to the Brussels agreement every time you come, you should ask for permission. Without asking for permission to come and conduct a political liturgy in a Milošević church which was built in ’97 in the university campus. Because, Milošević used to expropriate university campus territory, and also publicly owned enterprises and property in order to build the church. Instrumentalization of church by Milošević is something that we should condemn, and not turn it into political liturgy.
It is my impression that now, with the new government, there is some interest of Belgrade to cause incidents and to turn this issue into a security one. Trust me, Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo, wherever they are in a market or in an enterprise, or working for international organizations, they have no problems. Zero incidents today, zero incidents yesterday, zero incidents the day before yesterday. I am just afraid that there are political roots to incidents, which are not happening due to our ethnic differences but due to someone’s political interest. Certainly not mine.