Kosnett: The new government will join the mini-Schengen table

Kosnet Lazarević KoSSev Intervju
Foto: KoSSev

„I think that Albin Kurti intends to be the Prime Minister of Kosovo. He knows he hasn’t been elected to be Prime Minister of the Republic of North Albania, or Greater Albania. He knows better than that. But, he will have to take office and show the people what his intentions really are“ – the US ambassador to Pristina, Phillip Kosnett said in an interview with KoSSev.

In spite of many months negotiations to form a Kosovo government and numerous announcements of the quick formation of a coalition between Vetevendosje and LDK, we have actually seen the failure on Monday to form such a government. Do you expect it will be different today? Do you expect that the coalition will be finalized over the course of the next few days?

I think it’s clear that on October 6 the people of Kosovo voted for change and LDK and Vetevendosje are committed to building a coalition that will bring about change and progress for all the people of Kosovo.  I share the eagerness of Kosovo citizens to actually see this process completed so the new government can form and get to work. I don’t know how many more days it will take but I think everybody involved knows that this is a great opportunity and they’re not going to miss that opportunity.

Let me put the question in another way. Could you rule out any possibility of a last minute surprise that the minority community MP’s votes would be missing now when actually we have seen many announcements, it will take (place)—but still it doesn’t take?

I am confident that this is going to work out and that government will be formed that pays proper attention to the voices of all the people of Kosovo.

At the same time while we are waiting for the government to be formed would you agree or disagree with the perception that in first place the PDK structures are not really ready to give up a vast portion of the influence they are exerting over the institutions?

Let me answer that more broadly—my government expects that all the political parties whether they end up in the government, or in opposition, will behave in a constructive manner putting the interests of the nation first. 

You are still not answering… can I rephrase the question?

I’ll answer in another way.  Of course, all the political parties look forward to their next opportunity to be in government: that’s what political parties do. What I hope and expect is that PDK and AAK and all the other parties that find themselves in opposition will act in a constructive manner as opposition parties can and should—looking for opportunities to cooperate with the government.  I understand your question.  I think what’s important is that all the—everybody in the political class keep in mind the interests of the country, the interests of the citizens. And the citizens made their desire clear on October 6.

A follow up. Are you aware of the perception of the general public that they are seeing intentions up until now of the majority party – it is still exerting influence. For instance, one of the explanations why the government has not been formed so far—many are ready to claim that it is because there is an inside obstruction, in the first place by PDK structures, not to let the government form?

I am more interested in talking about what the next government is going to do than I am at these questions of the political maneuvers and how the election took place and so on. So, let’s talk about what we expect the next government to do.

 Speaking of the next government,  do you think that the new government will be stable enough, (if the government will be between LDK and the Self-Determination Movement), to make difficult political moves including the suspension or abolition of the taxes, that we have now for more than one year. 

I have confidence that the new government is going to be able to act in a responsible and forward-looking manner across the board, Tanja, on issues of justice, on issues of prosperity and economic development, and also on Kosovo’s relations with its neighbors  Our position is that we believe that Kosovo and Serbia should get back to the negotiating table as soon as possible and not throw up obstacles to that, specifically, we continue to call for the suspension of the tariffs and we call on Serbia to end its campaign of de-recognition.  What we really want to see is not—is for parties to be competing to see who can be more creative in creating conditions for improved relations, not who can throw up the most obstacles.

Are you an optimist that it may take place soon upon the formation of the government at least, and what, practically would it mean?  Would, in your opinion, be a simultaneous move from Belgrade and Pristina’s side, or it should happen one after another?

I think that what’s important is that both governments need to move decisively to resume discussions and get back to the table and create economic opportunities and opportunities for cooperation on other issues, including things like missing persons, law enforcement cooperation, creating again opportunities for trade and investment. Because we think that the economic future of Kosovo depends in large part on improving relations with its neighbors, not only Serbia. Let’s talk about mini-Schengen for a moment, for example.

There are a lot of questions about the mini-Schengen proposal in Kosovo, people have pointed out various weak points in the initial formulation of it. Our view is that Kosovo is being invited to participate in the mini-Schengen process as an equal with the other countries in the region, that Kosovo should send a delegation to the next mini-Schengen session and put forth their ideas—if they don’t like the current shape of it they should argue for change, they should try to shape it.  I think that other countries in the region recognize that in order for there to be a strong regional economy, every country in the region needs to participate, including Kosovo. I do believe that the next government of Kosovo will have the self-confidence to go to the table to negotiate confidently and as an equal with Serbia and with other countries.

Mr. Ambassador what do you think is more correct, that Kosovo is not invited to join the mini-Schengen table, or that Kosovo does not want to join the mini-Schengen table? 

I think the door is open for Kosovo at this point and they should take their place around the table. You know as Kosovo becomes more active on the global scene and eventually, I am completely confident, it will join the United Nations, it will join all these international organizations.  Kosovo is going to be an equal participant with every other sovereign nation and no time is better than now. 

So, did I understand correctly that the invitation has arrived to Kosovo?

Yes.

Still Srpska Lista is very much important in this new tango that will be waiting now for the new government and the current government in Belgrade. Recently we have seen very strong opposition from Kurti’s side to have Srpska Lista join the government.  On the other side the Kosovo Constitution is very clear that he needs to provide the consent of the majority of MPs. Do you think at the end of the day that Kurti will install a Srpska Lista minister in his government and if that happens, what does it mean when he says, he will do so but he (the minister) will be in the opposition?

So, I want to be careful not to speculate about the future.  I think that Mr. Kurti is familiar with the responsibilities of the Prime Minister and he understands what the Constitution says about the role of the minority parties and he knows that Srpska List is a political reality that cannot be ignored. What specifically, how that will manifest itself, I think we’ll see.  But I believe that Mr. Kurti understands that being the Prime Minister of a country is very different from being an opposition political leader and he is committed to working with all the minority communities in Kosovo. We’ll see once the government is formed—he has offered all the correct assurances so far.

On one hand we will have a new government in Pristina, on the other side we have the current government in Belgrade that has been actually facing huge problems recently. Something that Kosovo was blamed for a while before the elections, of failing to get consent, now we are seeing this in Belgrade also. Do you predict any difficulties once the negotiation tango is about to start?

Ambasador KoSnet
FOTO: KoSSev

Well, I am not Ambassador to Serbia, but I will say that I firmly believe that President Vucic and his government are committed to improved relations with Kosovo and they are committed to making the dialogue process work. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy negotiation for obvious reasons.  There are a lot of historical disagreements, the level of trust between the two countries is very low – everybody knows this. But, I do believe that the new government in Kosovo, and whatever government emerges from the elections in Serbia will continue this process.

When we had our first interview last year at the end of December, it was the New Year’s interview, you told me, as a very fresh ambassador, that you expect the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina to start in the first half of 2019 rather than later. Now, it did not happen. So, what is your lesson learned, and what do you predict for 2020?   

I think a lot of positive things did happen for Kosovo in 2019. The fact that there was a fair and free election in October—there were issues that concerned us, there were reports of a number of parties acting inappropriately, intimidating voters and so on, but what we’ve seen is a pattern of elections in Kosovo improving over time.  I can look back to all the people who were predicting violence in the streets on election day. That didn’t happen. If you remember, earlier this year people were threatening to pull Serbs out of the Kosovo Police, out of the judicial institutions in the north, which would have been a terrible setback – that was avoided. I think that we’ve continued to see progress on justice issues, rule of law issues. I think that there is a very strong desire to fight corruption across the board. We’ve seen a growing recognition that people in Kosovo won’t truly have a future of equality and justice unless every citizen of the country is equal under the law, unless every citizen in the country has economic opportunities. So, I think that conditions are better now than they were a year ago for real progress.

Had partition been prevented, as you mentioned the threat of stepping out from these institutions, speaking of the Serbs? So, has partition been prevented, or delimitation?

I’ve spoken about this before – let me outline the U.S. position again. The U.S. position has not been, has never been, to actively favor some grand exchange of territory, some major border adjustment or any border adjustment. The position of the U.S. administration has been that if the people of Kosovo and Serbia, not only the politicians, but the people, agree on a comprehensive settlement of the problem that involves some land adjustment, we would not rule it out, out of hand, we would look at it.

What do you see as a tendency? It’s two people… 

We also have consistently said that any such agreement has to be supported by the people, and I think it’s obvious that there is very little support in Kosovo, in any community, for that sort of grand exchange of land and populations that people were talking about.

About the Serbs?

I don’t see majority support in the Serb community for that, and I certainly don’t see majority support for that in other communities. Now, if once the dialogue talks get going again, that the parties, Kosovo and Serbia, want to discuss some border demarcation, some sort of adjustments…

Which is different from partition?

…if they want to talk about that our view is that the negotiators should not be prohibited from talking about that.  But that word “partition” you’re using is a very dramatic word.  I simply don’t see any support for partition…

…land swap?

…for a land swap, for an exchange of populations, for that sort of grand, sweeping change – I don’t see any support for that.

How do you see Kurti’s approach towards the Serbian people? On one hand, Kosovo Serbs applaud his very outspoken promises on fighting corruption and crime, but at the same time, I must tell you that they are also very frightened by his aggressive, even threatening messages towards the way how he sees the Albanian nation. Serbs see him as very ethnocentric and also quite inconsistent with his claim that he’s a social democrat. And one more follow-up: What would you advise him? So, how do you see that and what would you advise him?

Well, what I have advised him is to make clear that he intends to be the Prime Minister for all the citizens of Kosovo. That he needs to get out and meet with people from all communities. Not just the political leaders—ordinary citizens—listen to their concerns, make clear that he’s not just going to sit in his office in Pristina.  It’s no secret that he has strong feelings about Albanian national identity, he’s very proud of that. In my country, just as in Kosovo, it is natural for people to feel an affinity for the history and culture and language that they grew up with. That is not an inherently negative thing. You can go to America and you will see celebrations of Italian culture, Mexican culture, whatever, and people are flying their flags on those days. They’re also flying the stars and stripes – the American flag. And there’s no question that they’re Americans first.

I’d also like to mention that one of my goals for my time here is, that by the time I leave Kosovo, when I travel to the north, that I can see blue and gold flags in the north, alongside Serbian flags. There’s nothing wrong with people with Serbian roots being proud of their Serbian culture, Serbian history and all that. Nobody’s trying to take away the Serbian flags, but it would be nice to see Kosovo’s flag flying more often, too.

 

What is the earliest time for the dialogue?

Really – I can’t predict it, it’s hypothetical. I do think that in addition to the formal dialogue process we are also interested in seeing continued discussions, cooperation between institutions in Kosovo and Serbia, governmental and non-governmental. We’ve talked a lot about the political scene in this interview, but let’s not forget the role of the private sector and civil society organizations in building ties across borders.  I met with activists on missing persons issues, for example, that have dialogue of their own across the border because these are issues that deeply affect families.

Both the U.S. and the European Union remain committed to supporting Kosovo and Serbia in reaching a comprehensive and sustainable agreement that will build a better future for all the citizens of both countries. Questions of who is going to sit at the table, what meetings or which special representatives are going to be at, and so on, I think that that’s going to evolve over the few months—I don’t want to speculate about all of that precisely. I will say that the new special representatives from the European Union and from the United States are all deeply committed to making this work.

 So, you want them in the dialogue?

I am saying that the issue is bigger than just the politicians. I am not as concerned about who sits at what table. I am concerned about making sure people are talking to each other.  When we talk about the economic future of Kosovo: I am most inspired when I meet with young, energetic entrepreneurs: m. Many of them in the tech sector who aren’t letting politics get in the way. They are trying to build a better life for themselves and turn Kosovo into an economic power. This country has enormously talented people in all communities who want to make this country another Estonia, another Singapore, another Israel. A country that uses its brain power to build the economy.

And, that’s an area where Kosovo and Serbia have a lot in common. If you look into the future, they are great opportunities for entrepreneurs, for business people in the two countries to cooperate with one another.

There is the question of war crimes in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina?

I think that it is difficult for any country to move towards the future without forthrightly and honestly looking at its past. And there are a lot of issues involving war crimes and missing persons, and – war time sexual violence which is an issue people are increasingly paying attention to, after many years of shying away from it.  I think that there are many issues that people in Kosovo and people in Serbia need to discuss and resolve if they are going to move into the future together.

Do you believe in the Special Court and what is your comment on recent intensified activities of the specialized Chambers? Are you fine with this silence and this in-transparency from the Specialized Chambers even this many years after it was established? Despite what we hear here and there from the media that their activities have intensified. Do you believe in a just and fair and consistent outcome?

I have a lot of faith in the Special Court as an institution and in the individuals who are staffing it now. It’s natural in any court process for there to be an investigative stage which takes place discretely, privately and then eventually you move into a trial phase where things are more open to the public. That’s the way courts work in a democracy. I know that there is widespread feeling that the Court’s been active for many years and there hasn’t been not much to show for it publicly.  I think that will happen. I want to add though, that I think any effort to try to abrogate the court’s mandate or shut down the court would be completely unacceptable to the United States. We believe that the court is playing an important role in shining a light on the past and bringing people to justice and we expect it to continue to operate.

Do you still see any threat? Because we’ve seen in the first phase, especially in the PDK run government there was a huge obstruction which required the involvement of your predecessor and other ambassadors. Do you see still such a threat that the obstruction could continue?

I think that there are people who are dissatisfied with the court and wish it did not exist. It exists for a reason and I think that it would be a grave disservice to all the people of Kosovo as well as to the victims of all communities for anyone to suggest that Kosovo needs less justice rather than more justice. The answer – I believe that the court will continue to operate and it will demonstrate its value.

Yesterday, the Special Prosecution filed a group indictment against the accused in the case of Oliver Ivanovic. If I am not wrong, up until this moment the announcement from the Special Prosecutors Office has not arrived in Serbian, in spite of such huge interest by the Serbian community for this case and in spite of the fact that Serbian is also a Constitutional language. How do you comment and what kind of message are the Prosecution sending that even for such a case, we cannot get the documents in Serbian language?

That is very broad question—let me answer it terms of language rights as you discussed.  The Constitution of Kosovo and Kosovo’s laws make very clear that there are two national languages here, that people should be able to seek services in both languages and that the ministries should be publishing documents in both languages and so on. I have heard lots of complaints in my time here that there have been deficiencies in that—documents not being translated or being run through Google translate, which is imperfect. I do think this is the sort of issue that affects the daily lives of citizens and that’s the sort of issue that the new government should focus on improvingements, if they want to demonstrate that they are serious about improving the lives of all Kosovo citizens.

Thank you for talking to Kossev.

 

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