Abbott: Kosovo-Serbia dialogue is in a very difficult phase

The UK’s interests in the Western Balkans include national security, economic, and trade interests, and the development of the region. The Western Balkans have an opportunity here to show that actually they can be the market for manufacturing for the European Union and for the UK. At the same time, the UK is very concerned over the situation in Bosnia, and the appointment of a special envoy is really an additional resource to regional security. There is no strategic competition on this issue between the EU and the US, but to reinforce the US and the EU resources, the British ambassador to Kosovo, Nicholas Abbott, said in an exclusive interview for KoSSev.

Recently we’ve seen a new envoy, coming from the United Kingdom, that was appointed as the Special Envoy for the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue…

More than that, I think. He is appointed as the envoy for the Western Balkans.

On what will his focus be?

Initially, very much on Bosnia, the situation in Bosnia. He’s there now.

You know that he was presented in the Serbian press as the Special Envoy for the dialogue between BG-PR?

No, that is just not the case. He’s the Special Envoy for the Western Balkans appointed by the Prime Minister. Very much as the result of the obviously growing parliamentary concern about the situation in the region. We’ve seen former ministers like William Hague writing to the Times. I think that the Prime Minister of the Foreign Secretary recognized that the UK needed to increase its engagement in the Western Balkans. Obviously, the situation in Bosnia has been getting worse, and our allies and we wanted to put somebody who could focus on that, initially. At the same time, if he is the Special Envoy to the Western Balkans, then clearly there are other issues around the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue as well. We very much expect him to engage on that, with Special Representative Lajcak, with Special Envoy Escobar. And obviously, he will have the opportunity for bilateral conversations, as well.

I know there’s a kind of impression that he is coming from a security background, and this is all going to be about security. Regional security is clearly going to be a priority. There is no doubt about that. But, having spoken to him this week, we did have a conversation with him as the ambassador.

Did you discuss before or after the ministers’ meeting in London?

On Monday afternoon, after the foreign ministers’ meeting. He was very clear that he also wanted to understand better the bigger economic issues in the region, so we were talking about depopulation, the way of emigration, people moving out of the region, why are they doing that, what are the issues around the economies of the region. So he is not going to be doing only regional security, he wants to understand the region better. He already has a lot of knowledge from his job in NATO. And I think it’s going to be very positive for us, but also positive as well in terms of the processes, mechanisms that are going on.

Security as priority

That means that the UK is getting back to the region, because we haven’t seen it recently much? And what are the current UK interests in the Western Balkans?

I think ‘getting back’ is a bit too strong. I think that if you look at our presence in the region, it pretty much stayed the same since BREXIT. We’ve had Minister Morton,who has regularly visited the region, who is regularly in contact with her counterparts, this is really an additional resource to having also a special envoy. In terms of UK interests, well, they are across the board. In terms of the Western Balkans, we clearly have national security interests. We clearly have economic and trade interests. We are also very interested in the development of the region. Full stop. I mean energy is an issue that comes to mind really strongly at the moment, as some of the challenges we are facing this winter, whether in Kosovo or elsewhere.

The ministers’ meeting in London of informative character

If one reads the UK’s press release after the ministers’ meeting in London, if you’ve read what the Kosovo Albanian press wrote about the meeting, then if you’ve read the statement from the Serbian foreign minister… I get an impression as there were three different events. And how enthusiastic is London about the outcome, when it comes to the discussion with the foreign ministers?

The main ambition was to bring the foreign ministers to the UK to discuss on problems that the region is facing. I think, for me, for start, it’s important to say there was no great ambition that it was suddenly going to introduce change. This was an opportunity for our foreign secretary to meet many of the foreign ministers for the first time. That was the initial thing. There is also, obviously, having the opportunity for the Special Envoy to be there and for he too – to be listening in, understanding the different views across the region about what is happening. I don’t think that nobody could say there is a shared perspective. It’s an opportunity for them to understand all that. And at the same time to communicate that the UK is serious about engaging on the issues. As I say, there is no strategic competition on this, this isn’t suddenly about the UK – because we are outside of the European Union – trying to compete. We are not. What we are trying to do is reinforce what the US, what the EU, are doing and bring our knowledge and expertise to it.

The UK is not behind the operation in October, but we are clear: Organized crime is detrimental for all communities

Let us go back to some local issues, hard issues. Just to recall what happened on October 13th, during this day, as was officially declared an anti-smuggling Kosovo police operation, launched throughout Kosovo, strongly echoed from Pristina all day long that it has nothing to do with ethnicity, however, in the majority of Serbian population, it was still seen, even two months later, as an ethnic issue, an anti-Serbian operation. There was information that the United Kingdom was behind the October 13th operation. Firstly, it was said by the minister during a press conference, although he did not name the country, but he said that the operation was launched by an international ally in Kosovo who is not a member of the EU any longer. The same day, it was officially confirmed by Mr. Vucic in Belgrade that Great Britain is behind the operation. My question is – is it correct, if yes – why?

The simple answer is – no. The idea that either I or my OSCE colleague were behind the police operation in the north of Kosovo is ridiculous. Let me reemphasize that – it is ridiculous. The Kosovan police work very much independently.

They said – in coordination (with the UK)?

It was not done in coordination with the UK, in any form.

Did you talk to Kosovo officials about this issue after it produced a lot of dust?

We followed the operation and we talk to the authorities after the operation, but no sooner. But the dust it produced was fake news. Utter disinformation. No hint of any truth in it. The idea that somehow I’m directing police operations in Kosovo is beyond ridiculous.

They didn’t say embassy, the just said a partner?

Sure… What is important in this is, at the same time, we work closely with the Kosovan institutions. We work closely with the customs authority, the tax authority, with the police. These are the institutions we are working with.

When you say ‘close’… what does it mean?

It’s often in providing training, in providing support. But it is not in terms of operations, so we are not in any way involved in the operations that they do.

Yet, the following day, yours was the first international address to support this action.

Absolutely, because we do support action against organized crime. Organized crime is detrimental to all the communities in Kosovo. It is not of any help. It is not some kind of social support network. These people are often involved in criminal activity that is dangerous, violent and obviously illegal. It is perfectly normal that the state of Kosovo should want to ensure that across its territory that activity is limited and reduced. And that’s what this was. I’m sorry of the people in north of Kosovo feel that this was targeted against them. But there is no proof of that. This was an action that took place throughout Kosovo in different locations.

There was a man injured, who, as per the information so far, was not part of the protest. So, we already had casualties.

Yes, absolutely. But in this kind of operation, with the way that the operation fell out, there is always this risk. There is this risk of what could happen.

When you say “fell out” you mean what?

The way in which the operation took place, the response that took place within those different locations, it led to an increase and escalation of violence. And very unfortunately, some poor gentleman, who was just at home, was very badly injured. Unfortunately, these are the risks of what could happen.

You are also aware of other security risks that day. That the operation took place in the center of the city, in very close vicinity of the biggest school, and that, at the time of the operation, there was a pregnant lady working in this pharmacy. There were far more security risks against the civilian population. Let me also add one more thing, when it comes to the owner of the pharmacy sought by the police, I was told by many people in the city that he almost never goes there. But that he could very easily be found, as I was told, in a gym or café. It is also about the medicines. That certainly helps people to believe in a political background to this anti-smuggling operation.

To be honest, these are questions you have to ask the Kosovo police. We are not involved in that operation. I don’t have answers to those questions.

I’m just asking in the light that you support, with this public press release, the operation. That’s why I’m asking.

Absolutely, because we do support the Kosovo police acting against organized crime. They have to decide how to do that and they have to be responsible for how their operation falls out. But in terms of them acting against it, as much as the police have the right to do so and the responsibility to do so in the United Kingdom – so do the police here.

Would you still support future anti-smuggling operations, even if they could clearly result in severe violence or human casualties?

Often, the security operations within the environment that they are working, where clearly the people they are going up against are armed, then they are going to have to respond in a proportionate manner. They have to clearly understand the risks involved, as does anybody who wishes to oppose them. Does that mean the police should not act? No, I think that the police should act. We would expect them to continue to act against organized crime.

Must these operations be 100% secured somehow, if they are carried out in a civilian suburb?

What happened in October was not purely the responsibility of the police. It was also the responsibility of the public response. I think that there is a bigger issue for political leaders, community leaders to be thinking about that. We’ve now seen the United States take action against organized crime, criminal individuals, who operate in the north of Kosovo. How does that play out? How does that play out now for the political leaders and the community leaders in the north? Should they be defending those people in the same way… What position should we take? Our position is very clear – organized crime is detrimental to all the communities in Kosovo! I think that the reality of such operations is that they involve risk. And I think that the public also needs to understand that.

On Open Balkan: Anything that supports trade is positive, but it is up to the countries of the region to decide on

Let’s get back to more prosperous topics, although a controversial one here in Kosovo. What is the UK position on the Open Balkans initiative? It seems that the United States have a clear line, but what is the line for the United Kingdom?

Obviously, the United Kingdom, throughout its history, is a trading nation. That is what we have built our history on. Anything that helps with that is positive. So, we would very much want to encourage inter-regional trade, the economic relations between the different countries. What form that takes – is for the countries of the region to decide. We are seeing with the Open Balkans that there are some very different views about whether people want to be involved or not. I think it’s a positive initiative in terms of the issues that it raises. But, ultimately, it is for the governments of the different states to decide.

Let me rephrase the question. Which tune is better to your ears – when Mr. Vucic speaks in a similar tone about opening the borders, bringing at least several nations across the Balkans together, or when Mr. Kurti says that this is a clear threat of a third Yugoslavia, i.e. a hegemonic Serbia striking back at the scene again, the same was said by Osmani?

Both of those are political commons. What I am talking about is regional trade and cooperation. What we are talking about there is – how do you view the Open Balkans politically. We don’t take a position on this. As I said, the political acceptance of the different initiatives is up to the states of the region. We are not taking position on that. But clearly the region’s economies need better cooperation. The moment the economic challenges that are faced in this region are huge. We’ve seen the immigration of young people every day, every week. And nobody is getting stronger because of that. The negotiations about the membership in the European Union are really going through a difficult period. At a time like that, we need people thinking about – how do we get our commoners to work, how do we work together to do that, to create a regional market that is big enough and that is also, and this is a big issue for us, as well, it comes back to the rule of law.

How do you create an environment in which others wish to invest? There are real arguments in favor of the Western Balkans, there is a bigger concern at the moment around the costs and the issues of manufacturing in the far East, in China in particular. It seems to me that the Western Balkans have an opportunity here to show that actually they can be the market for manufacturing for the European Union and for the UK.

Pristina would say that the Brussels process is already enough. Do you see that the Open Balkans initiative goes against the Brussels process or no?

Unfortunately, it ends up back in the political rhetoric. It ends up back in the political issues. We regularly say that we support the EU-facilitated dialogue and often that can sound as if it’s a repetitive cliché. But it is why it’s so important. It is not just about a political agreement. It’s about a normalization of relations that allows such things as economic development, because that is what the region needs. It’s what the people of the region want.

Dialogue in a very difficult phase

Which brings us to this dialogue process. You partly answered what can improve the dialogue process, what is your diagnosis of the dialogue at the moment?

I think it’s in a difficult phase. A very difficult phase. I don’t think that either of the party, share a common on what the dialogue is about. And what’s really needed is some fundamental kind of thinking about what is it that we are trying to achieve through this process.

What do you think Pristina is trying to achieve and what is Belgrade trying?

I think it’s very clear. Pristina is looking for a mutual recognition. They want the opportunity to be members of the United Nations, they want to be recognized as an independent state.

And Belgrade?

Belgrade, I think, has an even bigger challenge, because a lot of it is about what is the future that Serbia wants. My colleague in Belgrade is the one who should really be answering this. For me, sitting here, there are some really big questions about what relationships Serbia wants with Kosovo, with the European Union, with the UK. Fundamentally, this is what it is all about.

Again, let me rephrase. In case Belgrade is not willing to provide recognition, what do you think is the future of the dialogue?

You can see a future where we are able to support a process that allows two, in our view, two countries, to continue to negotiate and manage and to mitigate the small and medium-sized challenges and problems that are faced and the natural friction that can exist between the two countries. For Kosovo Serbs, I think that is the real challenge because it means that the kind of, what looks to me sometimes like a gray situation continues. It could be that, that could be the future of it. But there is another future which I think is – both sides, and the European Union, with our support, looking at what this is really about, what it’s meant to be about. There is some truth in saying we’re now in 2021, this isn’t 2013, well okay, but what does that actually mean and what is it that is really important that needs to be resolved.

What would you say to those majority of Kosovo Serbs, I’m free to say, that would tell you – we are even fine with this kind of unstable situations, this is how we lived and survived not over decades but over the centuries, we’ve survived 500 years, very often they would tell you, under the Turks, if that’s the price to keep the connection with our motherland and have this, kind of Serbia recognizing this reality, we can live hard and pay the price, what would you say?

I’d say it’s a very high price to pay. I’d say that in the modern world things change very quickly. The dynamics are very different. I think that it’s a very hard position to live in. I think it’s hard for your children. It’s hard to bring them up in such a situation. And what needs to happen is that these issues need to be resolved so that, not just the potential, but just the everyday life is better and simpler. And people can focus on what are the normal priorities that any human being has, particularly with families with children, health, education, jobs, ensuring that there is a kind of social stability in life, which, I think, is still lacking in many parts of Kosovo.

Before we move on, I’ll be mean, were those messages told also in Northern Ireland to people there over decades and years?

I think, ultimately, if you look at Northern Ireland, I ought to be reversing the question to you. What you had at Northern Ireland was that there was eventually a fatigue because there was just a popular movement that had decided what was happening to them, whether it was the state taking on, in our terms, a terrorist group, it just couldn’t continue and there needed to be a path towards peace. You were talking about swallowing frogs earlier, it meant both sides had to swallow frogs. Some would still argue that the agreement that was made was not perfect, but that’s the nature of these things. There still remains an element here where both sides believe, you mentioned in your article the other day, both sides believe they are righteous, so it’s not about something practical, it’s even not about pure interest. There is something almost spiritual or moral in this, that needs to be proved. Frankly, until people can set that aside, I’m not sure you’re going to make progress.

Association as a current challenge, however, we need people to discuss real problems

Will the Association be formed? If yes – what kind of form do you expect?

I think that the challenge has become – what is the Association. Frankly, I can talk to people in the northern municipalities, I can go and talk to the each of the mayors in the northern municipalities, or go and talk to the mayors of Gjakova, Peja and Gjilane, and each would give me a different view. And this is the challenge now. This is where, in some ways, we need to get back to basics. What are the issues that the Association is meant to address? When it was first conceived, it was conceived to do certain things, it was conceived to address certain political issues that probably no longer exist now. So what is the Association really about? This is where, certainly, we do not believe any association is some kind of mono-ethnic organization. The Association is really meant to be a number of municipalities who have shared interests, shared concerns, and who wish to address certain issues.

But that already exists in Kosovo.

Exactly. It exists. So what more is needed? What is it that is expected?

Serbs would tell you that the way the Brussels Dialogue was made, it was clear that it was understood as a association of Serbian majority municipalities, although it wasn’t clearly mentioned as such in the first agreement, as it was done with the police chief commanders. Furthermore, Serbs expect autonomy in health, education, and culture, and municipal self-government.

Again, if I had a solution to this, if I had a perfect association in my pocket, I would be giving it to you now. It’s not about what we think – the UK, or any other international partner. This is about a conversation between the communities in Kosovo, about what they want, any association, whatever name it has, what they want it to address. This again, I think, is about getting back to real basics.

Could this Association, in your view, be exactly that frog for both sides to swallow, but that would ultimately lead to the deal, recognized by EU. As of recently, there are more and more voices within Serbia saying that their fear is that the Association would just be formal tick in the box without a real meaning that could bring both sides to the deal… What do you think of this?

I think, ultimately, it cannot only be Belgrade that decides what the Association looks like.

I’m just saying formally, that Kurti could, at one point, swallow a frog and say – okay, there will be Association, but just a formal tick in the box, no real essence, like an NGO, and Belgrade could present it as a victory to its electorate.

I don’t know. I suspect not. I think at the end of the day, if it’s only something to tick off the box, it’s never going to make a real difference, therefore, the issues would still remain. What we really need is people talking about the real issues.

Kurti really sees employment and justices as priorities

Getting back to Kurti. Has Mr. Kurti met your expectations, also Mrs. Osmani?

I think modern diplomacy does not include expectations. I don’t go around with a kind of report card that we send in. Diplomatic relations are a lot more complicated, and a lot more immediate. The Kurti gentleman is still new, although, obviously, there was a brief Kurti government the year before. We are still in the phase where this government is still working out what it’s there to do. They’ve been voted for very much with a focus on jobs and justice. And I think that the prime minister holds to that. He sees those really as the government’s priority. For no government in the world has the 2021 been easy. The pandemic has made everything much more complicated. So in some ways we are still waiting to see where this government is going to go.

We have a progressive government. We have a government that certainly understands the principles that it wants to be guided by. But at the same time, it is coming to terms with almost the kind of what is the practical resource and capability that they have to make the changes that they want to. I think we’re still working through that.

Osmani and Kurti must listen to Kosovo Serbs

What do you think of his and Mrs. Osmani’s rhetoric in relation to Kosovo Serbs or their relations to Kosovo Serbs?

I think there needs to be much more of open conversations. I think both of them need to be both in contact with the Kosovo Serb community. They need to be listening to the Kosovo Serb community. They need to be ready to set out more than just a relationship with Serbia. I think that they need to understand that Kosovan Serbs are Kosovan Serbs.

Threat of Greater Albania is about the same as a threat of Greater Serbia

Do you see any threat of Greater Albania? It has become a big issue recently and it started with a concrete action this spring, as soon as Mr. Kurti was elected, it looked like his primary job was to prepare the election in Albania, including his own voting there, up until the recent meeting of the two governments…

…I think that the threat of Greater Albania is about the same as a threat of Greater Serbia.

And that is?

That there isn’t one. I think that, ultimately, this is not disinformation. But this is a kind of issue that people like to bring out now and again to scare people. To scare the horses, as you say in English. I see no movement towards the Greater Albania. Also, I would be somewhat more worried about people talking about Serbian World.

Recently, on the eve of the meeting of the two governments, there was Albanian EuroNews has conducted a survey resulting in 79,2% of those who supported unification.

I think people feel very emotionally attached to their ethnic identity. That’s true here, that’s true in Serbia.

Why is it that the Serbian World is more concerning, even if there is a clear difference between the wording – Serbian World versus concrete survey with a vast majority of those to live in one country (cf. ethnic Albania)?

I don’t see the same level of influence from Albania in Kosovo, as we are seeing it with Serbia in Bosnia. We see the influence that Belgrade tries to have in northern Kosovo, we don’t see Kosovo doing that in Albania.

But Kosovo was in Serbia, at least, even for those countries who recognize the independence of Kosovo. They know that it was one country. And part of the identity of the Serbs in the north is Serbia, plus the institutions are there?

Of course, that’s exactly the case. But in terms of nations, it’s no longer the case.

Have you recently checked some Albanian textbooks, or some articles that were very vocally talking about one land of Albanians.


Have you seen, for instance, flags of Greater Albania in North Mitrovica? They have been exposed for months, years even?

We are talking about the red-black flag?

No. We’re talking about the ethnic Albania, including part of Montenegro, Kosovo, west of Macedonia, south of Serbia, part of Greece and Albania.

No, I haven’t.

Your general comment on the 2021 and your message for 2022?

Let’s hope 2022 is better and that we can all move around more.

What do you think of the outgoing year?

I think it’s been really quite hard. It’s been tough. My concern at the end of this year, I think, having hoped that we were coming out of the pandemic, that the way in which we do business would return to something like we have known before. I’m weary when talking about normality. I think it’s not the case. I think we face further challenges and it’s making the area I am working in, international relations, quite hard.

Thank you for talking to KoSSev.

By Tatjana Lazarević



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