The rule of law in Kosovo is a priority for the British government, but it is also the basis of stability for Kosovo itself. People are concerned about jobs, education, health but also about future negotiations with Serbia. When it comes to this year’s negotiations, it seems like we ended up in a cul de sac. At this moment, neither side seems willing to move forward. We need to see a change. That opportunity could present itself after the elections – the new British ambassador to Pristina, Nicholas Abbott told KoSSev in his first media interview upon arriving in Kosovo. The United Kingdom, along with other international partners, will remain involved in the dialogue process, although it is not for the international community to define what the way forward is, it is really for Kosovo and Serbia. However, even though there are no red lines, there are parameters, and one such parameter is that the UK does not support ethnic partition or delimitation.
Nicholas Abbott is the new British ambassador to Pristina. Previously, he was Head of the Strategy Department in the Middle East and North Africa Directorate at the FCO in London. Abbot also served as Deputy Ambassador to Algeria, Syria, and Baghdad. Since arriving to Kosovo two weeks ago, he has been busy meeting with individuals and parties. He has been trying to understand what they are saying and gathering first impressions. „So, for me, at this stage, the important thing is listening to as wide a range of people as possible. As I’ve been presenting myself, I like to say that I’m a British ambassador to all the communities in Kosovo,“ he said. An impressive diplomatic biography, primarily from North Africa and the Middle East, prompt us to ask: How come you arrived to Kosovo now?
„It’s time for a change,“ he said, smiling and quickly explaining that the change refers to himself, not to what might look like a new crisis in Kosovo.
Your predecessor was, during his entire mandate, very much outspoken on corruption, crime, fight against corruption and crime in Kosovo. Will there be any change in your rhetoric? Will you have some added value to that or will you continue with the same manner?
I think ambassadors all have different styles. That is very much something the foreign office promotes – we should be who we are. But I don’t think the issues that we are addressing as the British embassy here, as the representatives of the British government, will change. The rule of law is clearly a priority for us. We believe that is the foundation of stability within Kosovo. And it is clear as well that corruption is a problem here. That it is something that needs addressing, not only by us in the international community, but by Kosovans themselves.
Also, you arrived at a very busy time. You know that Kosovo is preparing for these extraordinary elections in early October. Do you expect any changes and what changes do you expect? Maybe it’s too early for you, but if you, at least, try to envisage them.
Yeah, there was a message I put out the other day, which is really that elections are an important part of any modern democracy. Kosovo is such a modern democracy. And, it’s an important moment for the people of Kosovo to choose who they want to be their leadership. I think.. is there going to be change. I think, clearly the political parties and their leaders are really in campaign mode right now, moving ahead. It’s going to be very interesting to see how successful they are. And where the people of Kosovo want to put their mark, if you like, and who they want to lead them over the next period. There are a lot of important issues in the country. I’m struck by the fact that, I think, that across the country people are concerned about jobs, about education, they are concerned about health, and, of course, they are concerned future negotiations of the dialogue as it is described.
Speaking about democracy, on the other hand, you are aware there has been a so-called war veteran coalition in Kosovo ruling since 1999, it’s been twenty years now. How does democracy, in your opinion, fit with such group of people in power, for that much time, and could you also envisage any kind of change with these elections, with these war veteran coalition changes, for the first time now?
Again, I think it’s up to the people of Kosovo to decide who they want to vote for and who they want to support. It’s not surprising that you have a generation of politicians who have been involved in government here. And really it’s up to the people of Kosovo to decide whether they want them to continue in government. But I see some of the parties are looking for a new agenda. Some of them are looking to put new candidates forward as possible prime ministers. Much will depend on the numbers in October, but also part of that negotiation that will take place afterwards, to form a government.
And if you have to compare these, what you are you talking about – democracy and a group of people with a clear war background. Do you think these two go well, one by another?
Well there is always… democracy goes through phases, goes through stages. We’ve seen that elsewhere in the world, as well. Democracy has its moments when certain people are involved and they may remain involved. In the United Kingdom that is not the case, we often find that a change of government means a change of personality. But at the same time we have people who have been involved in politics for a long time. And sometimes that experience is very useful.
Maybe it’s not quite a popular question for diplomats to speak about on the record, but, can you see any difference between Mr. Thaci and Mr. Haradinaj? Any difference in their politics?
I think that if you look at all political leaders in Kosovo, they are quite different. They all have different positions on some of these issues. Certainly, the current president and acting prime minister have had their differences, I’m sure. I think, I certainly don’t, as an observer, see some sort of a monolithic bloc within Kosovo. What I see is a very active and energetic political competition.
You also mentioned the dialogue, as one of the priorities, if I understood you correctly, for the UK to support.
Yet, in the past year, the public on both of the sides, have not heard much of this from the UK side – not in terms of the support to the dialogue, but a clarification on your position, and commenting on the events in 2019. Also, we have not seen that many events in terms of the normalization process, not very much happened on the scene. As an ambassador of the UK government, could you clarify, or how would you comment on what happened throughout 2019 between Belgrade and Pristina in this so-called normalization process?
We seem to have got ourselves in a bit of a cul de sac, as I would describe it. At the moment, neither side seems to be willing to move forward. We need to see some change in that. I think there may be an opportunity after the elections for it. The United Kingdom, along with its international partners, remains involved. We have taken…
That means what?
That means discussing, as always, discussing both with the political leaders, but also the people from different communities about what the way forward is. And looking in terms of what the key issues would be, ensuring that any future negotiation takes place possibly, I’d say, quickly. But I’m wary also that things may take time to happen. We really want to ensure there is a serious and legitimate negotiation. That these two resolve the issues between the two countries.
Could you be more specific when you say what the way forward would be and certainly it would require much time?
I think we have to be careful. It’s not for the international community to define what the way forward is, it’s really for Kosovo and Serbia.
That means that whatever Belgrade and Pristina agree, the UK would welcome?
No, I don’t think that has been our position. I think, you know, that we do have a position of principle around the issue of border changes. We, along with others, don’t believe that is a positive way forward. But, clearly, we are going to see how the negotiations proceed within certain parameters.
So there are red lines?
Red lines is a hard word, I think parameters is a better word.
Do you foresee any concrete (timeline), now it’s too late in 2019, but in 2020. Serbia is also ahead of the elections in early 2020. What do you think would be, if you really have to speculate a feasible time for a restart of the dialogue, that could be when?
I think the question would be post elections in October, how quickly the Kosovan government can be formed, how quickly they can define their position. So that they can engage with the Serbian government as soon as possible.
That means that still you can see some joint meetings and discussion already in 2020?
At this stage, it’s a bit like crystal ball gazing because, of course, I think it would depend on how quickly the Kosovan government can form after the elections.
I don’t know how much you are informed about Kosovo Serbs now. But if you would be in the shoes of the Kosovo Serb community, what do you think would be their priority interests, on one side, but on the other side also, their major concerns and troubles.
I think, I mean, it’s certainly not my position to speak for the Kosovan Serb community. I know that they are very capable of doing that for themselves. I suspect that for the majority of Kosovo Serbs, whether in the North or the rest of the country, are concerned about the same as all other people in Kosovo, it’s around those social and economic issues that affect us every day in our lives. Clearly, there are some of the bigger political issues that come into play. My impression, it’s certainly that at this stage, is that the Kosovo Serb community itself has been able to define its position, has been able to work out its relationships. And I would say what we are really looking towards is how do we built a stable Kosovo Serb community in the whole of the country.
Are you aware of the sentiments of the Kosovo Serb community in terms of difficulties to accept that they are living in a Kosovo system and that they are still very much faithful to the idea, actually, to the system they lived de jure until the 1999.
That is really why I am here today, to hear from people, to listen to them and over the next weeks and months, to build up a picture and what the UK can do about that.
The Britons are known also for quite sophisticated diplomacy and, I would say, also for good taste and manners in the way you publicly exercise diplomacy. What would be your diplomatic line in the upcoming months and years to both, actually, to all communities in Kosovo – Serbs, Albanians and all others, while they are striving to join the EU at the same time when actually the UK is quite busy and has already started getting out of the EU?
Sure. I think that membership in the European Union for Kosovo is something that Kosovo wants. I think that we are here to help them with that and to support them in that. The United Kingdom’s position obviously for us is different at the moment. That is causing some political interest at home and will take some time to work through. In terms of the UK, I think it shows the maturity of our democracy that we are able to go through these issues, whether it is executive or legislative. Yeah, positively, the things are working or will work themselves out, it may take some time. I would say the same for Kosovo. It may take some time. There are issues that everyone is clear about and as long as there is a spirit of cooperation, I think we will see progress.
You are still on two different lines. The UK’s is out of the EU while Kosovo and Belgrade, and Serbia are joining.
It is really for the people of Kosovo to decide where they want to be. The people of the United Kingdom have decided where they want to be.
Thank you for talking to KoSSev.
You are welcome.
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