A lot of what I’ve seen in the north reminds me of Northern Ireland, that’s why the dialogue is important

“My fear is very much for the next couple of months because many of the proposed solutions around the new municipal elections, around the reduction in police forces and such, these may take time. And time isn’t necessarily the best friend of the current instability,” the British ambassador, Nicholas Abbott, said in an interview with KoSSev.

Abbott said that he is concerned over the specificities of the latest de-escalation agreement, while also recalling the English saying – “the devil is in the details.” Although he welcomed the recent agreement reached in Bratislava, assessing that the reduction in the number of special police units is a good way to go, the ambassador also underlined the lack of details as to who, where, when, on what basis, and where these units will go.

Although it is the UK’s position that the special police units should be able to operate in the north, he added that these units should not have a role in population centres.

They should not be used as regular police. There is a real opportunity to allow that responsibility to lie with the regular police force. Special police have particular training that is not served by them looking into buildings. In terms of removing a point of friction, it’s very important for those special police units not just to be reduced but actually to be moved out of the centres of population.”

Quite a lot has happened since the last time we spoke here four years ago. As an ambassador, did you have a feeling at that time how things would turn out?

No, I don’t think so. Goodness, when I arrived four years ago, I think we had a very different conversation at the time. Obviously, a lot has happened in that time, for all of us, with COVID, in terms of relationships in the region, what’s happening in Ukraine, all of that is really very important. If anything, what we are seeing, particularly over the last year, is that the Western Balkans as a whole is becoming an area of greater interest, of greater concern. Obviously, the events in Kosovo over the last few weeks have really highlighted that. This isn’t an easy time, not one would forecast. But there we are.

Are the current Kosovo government and Kurti a destabilizing factor not only in Kosovo, but also in the wider region, considering that we have a situation where both the EU and the US, and presumably the UK, you can tell us more, see Kurti as someone who disagrees with their repeated calls for de-escalation? Neither Serbs in general, nor the opposition in Kosovo agree with the actions of the Kosovo government.

Ultimately, you have to recognize that PM Kurti and his government are democratically elected, they have now been in power for over two years. They have established themselves domestically. And they’ve also probably, not to their regret, but certainly to their frustration, been forced to deal with some of these international issues that are a priority to us, and the dialogue has always been one of those. Establishing normalization with Serbia really ought to be a priority. What we have seen, particularly in the last year, is a whole series of events and issues that have only been difficult and frustrating. For many of us in the international community and the Quint, we very much hope that the progress in the spring towards the Ohrid agreement, the Implementation Annex, would have created a space in which many different issues could be dealt with.

Unfortunately, that isn’t where we are and we have to recognize that the unilateral action of May 26th by the Kosovan government to forcefully install mayors in the municipal offices has changed the parameters of the issue and in some ways has made things much more difficult. That does not necessarily mean that Kosovo and the Kosovo government are a destabilizing factor within the region. But that action, I think, has certainly been destabilizing in terms of relationships within this community, but in the broader communities within Kosovo as well. For many international partners, it remains a question of why that was necessary. I think, while there are clearly discussions at the moment how to, well, if not how to contain the situation, then how to move to resolve it. I think it’s going to take quite a long time to do that, and there lies the risks, because we are in an unstable security situation as well.

We’ve seen that there are some international efforts, including restrictive measures, such as the cancellation of Kosovo’s participation in “Europe Defender 2023.” The EU has also announced measures. And we’ve heard about Germany imposing some restrictive measures against Kosovo. Is there anything that the British government has done in this regard?

No, there hasn’t been specifically. We have looked at what measures we could take, and so we are aware of the things that we could do. Prime Minister Kurti was in London just under two weeks ago and saw the Foreign Secretary while he was there. I was at that meeting.

What messages did he receive?

The Foreign Secretary was very clear – we expect Prime Minister Kurti and his government and his security authorities to de-escalate the situation.

Meaning?

Exactly. The meaning is the most important bit. I think it’s very clear in our minds that that means municipal mayors not necessarily having to work from municipal buildings. We don’t believe that’s necessary. More importantly, the special police units don’t have a role in the centres of population. They should not be used as regular police. There is a real opportunity to allow that responsibility to lie with the regular police force. Special police have particular training that is not served by them looking into buildings. In terms of removing a point of friction, it’s very important for those special police units not just to be reduced but actually to be moved out of the centres of population.

And sent where? Somewhere visible to the population or?

Any police unit is likely to be visible to the population at some point.

But we are talking about the special police?

But special police units are trained for special tasks, that’s why they are equipped in the way that they are, that’s why they may have a certain behaviour that is simply not appropriate in other situations. All of that really needs to be taken into consideration. There is a role for KFOR, but KFOR is not a police force, there is a role for EULEX, and it is perhaps a little cheeky for the British ambassador to say that we need to see more of EULEX. But I think that’s necessary, I think this is a space in which the nature of policing is very important. Unsurprisingly, it would be better if the Kosovo Serb police have not left last November.

But here we are.

That’s what I was going to say. I would say the same about the judiciary and the prosecution. If you want to establish the rule of law in the north of Kosovo – it requires the police, judiciary, prosecution. I don’t believe that they can simply come from the south of the Ibar.

Do you think that the situation will deescalate over the next two weeks as was nominally requested and apparently agreed upon in Bratislava the other day?

My concern is specificity. I think it’s a good step politically to see that Kosovo is ready to take measures or move towards it, but we have to see that happen. We, along with other international partners and KFOR, have looked very closely at the presence of the police in the north. It is very much monitored, I think, and very much hope, that over the next few days, the next week, we’ll be able to actually judge whether or not there has been a reduction.

This has been confirmed by the deputy police commander, that the plan is being implemented and that 25% of police have withdrawn from the police building. However, we do lack information on specificities. First, how many troops are in the buildings, how many have left buildings, which buildings, which municipalities, and where did they go? Also, there is one contradictory element, that what we saw was published by Mr. Bislimi and confirmed by the EU on the elements agreed a few days ago in Bratislava, on the very day or the day after, Kurti added one important detail – special police troops that are leaving the buildings are not leaving (north) Kosovo but will be sent to other locations throughout northern Kosovo. How do you view that? Do you understand that this kind of information does not help the Serbian population to calm down their fears, concerns, psychological stress, physical fear, etc.?

The United Kingdom has a long experience of difficult policing situations because of our experience in Northern Ireland, where the police played multiple roles in situations between different communities where there are tensions and violence. A lot of what I have seen in the north has reminded me of that. And it’s why I think what we really need is not just to perhaps focus on percentages or words of encouragement. What we really need is to understand the impact of the behaviour of the police on the community, how that can be modified, and also how that can be changed.

My concern at the moment, as you mentioned, is the specificity of everything. You know, a certain percentage is a good way to go, it looks as if there will be a reduction, but as we say in English “the devil is in the detail” – who, where, when, on what basis, where do they go. As you know, the UK’s position is very much that the special police units should be able to operate in the north. There are particular tasks that I think in terms of crime, smuggling, trafficking or other issues that the community in the north wants to be addressed in any case.

Do I understand you correctly that you yourself do lack the details (of this agreement)?

At the moment, we only have the details that everybody has seen.

You also mentioned Northern Ireland. Do you think that the trust between the communities can be regained by regaining control of a territory by police troops?

No, I think there are many other issues involved. I think that the trust between the communities is probably at its lowest now that it has been for a long time, certainly, within my time here.

Although there are elements within the Kosovan government that are working hard to try and build trust between the communities, ultimately, the politics, unilateral actions, the escalations that we’ve seen, mean that we are in a very difficult situation. My fear is very much for the next couple of months because many of the proposed solutions around the new municipal elections, around the reduction in police forces and such, these may take time. And time isn’t necessarily the best friend of the current instability.

To what extent are you fearful of future potential ethnic conflicts?

I think the issue is not to be fearful but to be aware of the risks. I think that the risk is when you talk about ethnic conflict – it becomes much greater than it is. And the reality is that we are living in a small society, whether that’s Kosovo as a whole, or whether that’s the four northern municipalities. What that means is there is a greater level of sensitivity and small things can really matter. Small incidents, small misunderstandings can cause greater effect, and that’s what I’m actually afraid of. Because you cannot control everything. Not all actors are controlled. There is a random chaotic element to any conflict situation at whatever level. And I fear we are in that space.

Speaking of, as you said, small incidents, we have already seen two of them over the past few days. I do not want to prejudge any ethnic background; I’ll just mention them. Serbian returnee Svetozar Jozic’s house was set on fire in a village near Istok. Although the US ambassador visited the scene, sending a strong message, then it was followed by Kosovo Interior Minister’s visit as well, this is pretty much déjà vu. Something that we have been seeing on a constant basis for over twenty years. Again, without wishing to assume an ethnic motivation, an incident did occur, a criminal act, etc. Officials are there, sending very strong messages, strong condemnations, asking for fast investigations, and promising results, but then nothing happens. And then again, we have another incident. The question here, Mr. Ambassador, is what kind of message does such a reality send to the Kosovo Serb community, and Kosovo society as a whole?

It comes back to what you mentioned with trust. Ultimately, at the moment, we appear to be in a situation where everybody is not just reacting sensitively but almost fearfully. And everybody believes that they are trying to protect themselves in some way. I wholeheartedly agree with what the US ambassador said. This kind of action can only be condemned. As you said, there is an investigation and other things you mentioned. But even so, the fact that we are afraid that this is ethnically motivated is a problem.

And that ought not to be the vision of what Kosovo is about. Kosovo needs to be about much more. Kosovo is not about one ethnicity, it’s about more than that. And if it wishes to be a modern, liberal, democratic society, it needs to find a way of getting beyond what appear to be ethnically motivated crimes. Obviously, people like me want to see reconciliation, want to see people get over the history of the past. It’s not easy to do that. All participants or stakeholders need to recognize, need to acknowledge what had happened. That isn’t to create some kind of clean slate, it is really about acknowledging realities, and acknowledging facts, so that everybody can move on with their lives. You can talk about communities, you can talk about societies, you can talk about nations, states, but ultimately, it’s about individual people, individual families being able to move on in their lives. Maybe forgiving, maybe accepting, maybe not. Human emotion has a whole range, but at least to find the space to move on together.

You mentioned acknowledging reality, you mentioned individual cases. Speaking of acknowledging reality, is Kosovo a multi-ethnic society for you? Because acknowledging reality means that we’re talking about 90% of the population being Albanian. And how did we come to that situation that, I would say, two-thirds of Kosovan Serbian population has never returned to Kosovo immediately after the war? So, more than the double population is still outside of Kosovo. We are talking about IDPs. They have never returned to Kosovo. Can Kosovo as such be a success story?

I think Kosovo can be a success story. It feels at the moment that everything is weighted against that. It is not just the issue of minorities not returning. We as an embassy have tried to work on helping some families to do so. It is also, to be honest, an issue for the Balkans as a whole where we are seeing the demography change. Where people are just leaving. Because what is their future? Ultimately, again, the situation we are in at the moment is – what is the future that is wanted? And that is the question that I ask the Kosovo government, I would ask all the communities ‘What Kosovo do you want to live in? How can we as international partners help you create that?’ We have some very hard issues at the moment, clearly.

The security situation in the north is a hard issue that we need to contain or resolve in a way that ensures no more people are hurt, there is no risk of people being killed. Ultimately, at the moment, those are the risks we are living with.

Did you hear about the case the other day about what happened to an 80-year-old Serbian man here in a village in the Leposavic area? Two policemen burst into the yard of an 80-year-old man because he was wearing a sajkaca, he lifted his sajkaca as a very generous sign to greet anyone who would pass by. So, police officers burst into his yard, they told him that they felt provoked by his doing so and he should not be putting the hat on. The family testified to this. The police did not have that kind of information because the case obviously was not reported when we talked to them. When we asked the family why they did not report the case to the police, they told us that they felt extremely anxious, humiliated, concerned, and didn’t know what to do. They told us: “What kind of police? What rights do we have? We were attacked on our doorstep?” Did you show any personal interest into the case? And do you understand if the whole case proves to be true, what potential does this individual case have for long-term damage if the two communities, first, do not understand each other? And can police units exercise this kind of discrimination acts toward the population they were supposed to take care of?

It comes back to the levels of trust, but also to levels of sensitivity. There are a variety of symbols, actions that can be taken which at the moment are seen as provocations, when they really are not. Everybody is really worried, nervous, very worried, very sensitive. And I think what’ll happen is that this is a kind of misunderstanding and that’s a real risk, and a real danger.

Sorry, what if it’s deliberate? Hypothetically?

For it to be deliberate it would mean that the police were driving along towards someone in a particular hat. I think that’s unlikely; it sounds that way.

Not deliberate in that sense. When I say deliberate, what if the police really understood what the man did, but it was an inter-ethnic issue for them? That they weren’t really happy with the way he greeted them?

Perhaps they didn’t see it as a sign of respect.

That’s what they told them, that it was a provocation for them.

They see it as something else.

What if it turns out to be the case?

This does not mean that the behaviour is acceptable. Both sides, both communities, need to understand what the response is to what they do. You are quite right to put the owners of that responsibility to the police. They are an authority of the state. They have a responsibility to the community. Of course, they should be thinking in that direction. Unfortunately, as I say, I think at the moment of how things have played out over the last few weeks, each community is very much on edge. But I would completely agree that it is for the police to think about their own behavior when they are interacting with the public, leaving aside the question of protests and demonstrations.

You are the ambassador to Kosovo, your compatriot Mr. Alicia Kearns recently said in the British Parliament that British soldiers witnessed the smuggling of weapons from an ambulance into the facilities of the Serbian Orthodox Church here in Kosovo. KFOR said that they had no such information. The very next day, when the message hit the media, you met with Bishop Teodosije and from what was reported, you conveyed the message in a quite different tone. As the ambassador in the place about Ms. Alicia Kearns made such very serious allegations in the British Parliament, do you have the same information? Or to put it in a very blunt way: Did British KFOR soldiers report on the smuggling of weapons from ambulances into SOC facilities?

We have been very clear: the United Kingdom government shares KFOR’s position. We don’t have evidence that the Serbian Orthodox Church is involved in smuggling arms across the border from Serbia. Ms Kearns is a conservative MP, she is not a member of the government, she does have a very important role as the chair of the foreign affairs committee and she does take a great interest in what is happening, not just in Kosovo, but in Balkans as a whole. But in terms of that specific allegations, we have no that information. We do not have that evidence.

So, did I understand that this still might have happened or that the British soldiers did not report on that?

I think we are talking about an issue that is a broad and serious issue.

Yes.

There are clearly arms that come across the border. We raised that with the government in Belgrade, we talked to the government in Pristina. We talked to KFOR about that. But in terms of this specific allegation, we do not have evidence that this is what is happening.

Ms. Alicia Kearns who, as you said, is the chair of the Foreign Affair Committee, but she also came from the Foreign Office. Is there any procedure that she, as someone who comes from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, could not come public with such serious allegations without prior filtering her message through the filters of the Foreign Office?

Not at all. Alicia Kearns is a British Member of Parliament. As such, she is independent of government. And she has the right to put forward her views within parliament. That’s what she did.

This is not information she has received from the UK government. This is not information that somehow has filtered through the Foreign Office. Yes, she has worked for the Foreign Office before. I think she has worked for the Ministry of Defence. But in terms of these particular allegations, this is really her responsibility.

Is there any issue that I didn’t ask you about and you would like to convey a message, specifically to the Serbian community? I am pretty sure that you are aware that specifically after what Ms Kearns said recently, it certainly did not help to improve the image of the United Kingdom in the wider Serbian population?

My business is only part about the image of the United Kingdom. My job is really about its work with Kosovo, Kosovo’s communities. I am sure I have said this before when I spoke to you. I am the British ambassador to all communities in Kosovo, not just to the government. I think that’s very important.

We are in a very difficult time. I think it’s important that everybody thinks carefully and acts carefully. I think there needs to be consideration for the future. Personally, I think we need to find a different way forward. I don’t think we can simply go back to what existed before and that can only come about through cooperation. Cooperation between the international community, the two governments – in Belgrade and Pristina, but also with the community here. I think it’s very important that the community look at they can put forward their voice into a lot of these conversations. Often, in terms of international negotiations, it happens in capitals. And I think that in this situation, we really need to be closer to the ground and hear the community about what kind of future they want to have.

The community in the north and I believe that the situation is not much different when it comes to the Serbs in the South, they really do share a feeling that they have been voiceless towards both the international community and the Kosovo government.

Then it’s on them to find the voice.

How?

Again, I don’t think that the international community should be telling you how. I think you should be working it out for yourselves.

Mr Ambassador, thank you for talking to KoSSev.

Interview conducted by Tatjana Lazarevic

 

 

 



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