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Ahead of highly anticipated talks between Serbia and Kosovo on the 18th March in North Macedonia, Euronews reporter Sergio Cantone met with Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti for the latest episode of The Global Conversation.
The European Union expects the former wartime foes to reach a deal on how to normalise their relationship, after both countries endorsed an 11-point plan at the end of February.
But Kurti told Euronews he is sceptical that the agreement will be signed next week: “We were supposed to sign the agreement on the 27th of February. Unfortunately, President of Serbia did not want to, and to this end, this basic treaty which has been proposed by EU 27, is a solid ground to move forward, and we hope to finally achieve it on the 18th of March.”
Background: a long conflict
Kosovo has changed hands throughout history, being absorbed into Yugoslavia after the second world war, however in 1963 it became an autonomous province.
The large Albanian community in Kosovo repeatedly resisted incorporation into Serbia and Yugoslavia, given their status as a large non-Slav minority in the “land of the Slavs”, so in 1974, Yugoslavia granted six republics, including Kosovo, theoretical autonomy.
However, throughout the 1980s, tensions grew between the Albanian and Serbian communities in the province, with the Albanians favouring greater autonomy for Kosovo, while the Serbs favoured closer ties with the rest of Serbia.
In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic, then head of the Serbian community party’s central community, reimposed Serbian rule in Kosovo, prompting strikes and violence.
The conflict in Kosovo erupted when separatist ethnic Albanians launched a rebellion against Serbia’s rule and Belgrade responded with a brutal crackdown that prompted the NATO intervention.
Some 13,000 people died in the conflict, mostly ethnic Albanians.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008, almost a decade after a guerrilla uprising brought an end to repressive Serbian rule, however Belgrade does not recognise Kosovo’s independence, instead considering it a breakaway province.
Recent flare-ups between Belgrade-backed minority, the Kosovo Serbs, and the central government have sparked concern about a return to conflict.
So, after decades of conflict and tension, the EU hopes that upcoming talks will help relax the taught relationship between Serbia and Kosovo.
The European Union’s 11-point plan to pave the way for peace was begrudgingly accepted by both nations at the end of February, and does not commit Serbia to acknowledging an independent Kosovo, but it would recognise documents like passports, degrees and license plates.
A key point is that Serbia would not block Kosovo’s membership of international bodies.
The Global Conversation
What are your expectations for the 18th of March when a resumed talk with Serbia will take place?
Albin Kurti said: “We were supposed to sign the agreement on the 27th of February. Unfortunately, President of Serbia did not want to. To this end, this basic treaty which has been proposed by the EU 27, is solid ground to move forward, and we hope to finally achieve it on the 18th of March.”
He added: “I’m going again to North Macedonia in good faith with goodwill, to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo is a normal country, but it doesn’t have normal relations with Serbia. In these last two years, we have had an unprecedented economic and democratic progress in our country, which puts us in terms of rule of law and human rights and the growth at the top of the Western Balkans.
“However, I admit that we have to normalize relations, and to this end, this basic treaty which has been proposed by EU 27, is a solid ground to move forward, and we hope to finally achieve it on the 18th of March.”
Serbia is asking, for instance, for Kosovo to comply with the obligations of creating the community of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo. Do you think that this part of the EU-brokered agreement is acceptable for you?
Albin Kurti said: “When Kosovo was declared an independent country 15 years ago, it was also declared a multi-ethnic society, even though 93% are Albanians, 4% Serbs, and 3% are Turks, Bosnians, Roma, and Gorani.
“Our constitution, which was basically written by the former president of Finland, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martii Ahtisari, cannot sustain a mono-ethnic entity like association of Serb majority municipalities. So, this would not pass in our constitutional court, just as it didn’t in the past, and it would not pass in the Strasbourg court of human rights.”
He added: “I’m here as Prime Minister of all citizens, no matter what their nationality, national identity or ethnicity or religious background. So, I want to satisfy all the citizens according to their rights and needs and requests. But mono-ethnic solutions are not possible due to the laws of our democratic republic.”
Self-determination is excluded, we are talking about autonomy.
Albin Kurti said: “That’s why we are talking about the self-management of the Serbian community. [It’s in] Article 7 of the Basic Treaty, which we endorsed, and the self-management of the Serbian community also refers to the Council of Europe as an organization, which means that we have to refer to the Framework Convention on the Protection of the Rights of the National Minorities.
“I think that we can do the same in Kosovo, where we would not fall into territorial ethno-nationalism like it was in Bosnia.”
Here, the Kosovan President made reference to the Republika Srpsa, a contentious entity which was formed in 1992 at the outset of the Bosnian War to safeguard the interests of the Serbs of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
He continued: “But we could move forward towards EU integration by respecting each individual in spite of our backgrounds, also taking into consideration the peculiarities of ethnicity and culture. [We need to consider this] self-management, as a protection of rights, not as a territorial position on rights, which would separate and segregate communities.
Self-management means organization and a network of different representatives of this minority, like the Serbian one, openly interacting together.
Albin Kurti’s response was brief: “I see self-management in terms of full functionality, not in terms of a territorial position.”
Did you have any sign by the members of the Council of Europe that you can get the green light soon to join it?
“A vast majority of the members of the Council of Europe are positive regarding the application of Kosovo, and I hope that we are now going to speed up the procedures in order to have final voting there, to become members of Council of Europe. For us, it is very important because it would be beneficial for the citizens themselves even more than for the country.
“For us, it is very important because it would be beneficial for the citizens themselves, even more than for the country, because also in this dialogue with President of Serbia in Brussels, I always emphasize that the normalisation of relations should have citizens as their end beneficiaries.”
After the Russian aggression against Ukraine, we have seen the tensions growing in this part of Europe. What is the relation, according to you with the war in Ukraine?
Albin Kurti said: “The Russian invasion and military aggression in Ukraine was shocking, yet not surprising, because we have seen the despotic President Putin in recent years moving from a politician who used to lament the fall of Soviet Union, into a politician who is nostalgic about the Russian empire.”
“When you also add the amassing of troops around Ukraine, it was clear that the assaults will arrive. In my view, the war in Ukraine will define not just the security of our continent, but the future of the world in this century.
“So, in Ukraine, it is not only a national liberation struggle of the Ukrainian people, it is also a frontline where democracy, freedom, human rights are being defended. There have been several effects in Kosovo; the immediate effect was that it triggered the trauma of the people from the genocide of Milosevic’s Yugoslavia.”
It was not recognized as a genocide by the court. If I am not wrong, they recognized war crimes, they recognize violence in the population, ethnic cleansing. But genocide was about Bosnia.
“The genocide in Srebrenica has been recognised. I think it was not only in 77, but also, I was here. And what we were suffering was a genocide; indiscriminately women, children, pregnant women were killed and burnt down.”
Those responsible have been have been tried.
“A trial has still not been held for Kosovo. But what we suffered was a genocide.”
But this is not the point of view of the international tribunal.
Albin Kurti responded: “The day will come where also international tribunals will speak of this. Unfortunately, Milosevic died in The Hague in prison, without seeing the day when he would have been sentenced.”
But why are you connecting this episode to the war in Ukraine? Is that from a moral ethic point of view, or there is a political continuity?
When pressed on the significance of Russia’s invasion for his nation, Kurti said: “There are two important elements here. The first element is that in 2022, every week the Kremlin was talking about Kosovo. If not Putin, then Medvedev or Zakharova, or Lavrov.”
Don’t you feel protected by the KFOR, the NATO troops that are present in Kosovo?
“There are 48 forward operational bases of Serbia in the so-called ground safety zone around the border of Kosovo, 28 are military and 20 are general, where they have increased the combat readiness of their units. And they also invited the Russian ambassador to Belgrade to inspect the regrouping of troops with MiG 29 in the air when we had problems in the north.”
This Russian visit is concerning for Kosovo: “Imagine if your biggest neighbour (Serbia) does not recognize your country? Your neighbour then does not distance themselves from Milosevic, or Putin. They allocate 3% of their GDP for military equipment and make sure their troops around the border are combat-ready. This cannot be neglected.
“Of course, Kosovo is not in NATO. NATO is in Kosovo. We feel safe. We are not afraid, but we are very vigilant.”
Do you expect some positive outcome in terms of mutual concessions by the two sides?
Albin Kurti told Euronews: “We want normal relations. We understand that full normalisation of relations must have, as its centrepiece, mutual recognition. I’m not saying that mutual recognition should be the only thing on the table. I am ready to discuss all the issues patiently.
“I don’t want any kind of rush, any kind of quick fix to the detriment of our long-term security, peace and stability. And again, in good faith, with goodwill and intentions, I am ready to make this agreement, which does not have only two factors, Kosovo and Serbia, but also the European Union, which is the frame within which we negotiate and towards which we want to adhere.”
The EU needs a big political gain. Do you realize that you are the one who could give them this?
To this, Kurti replied: “Well, I cannot make agreement with myself. I have to make an agreement with Serbia, with EU. And on 27th of February, I was ready to sign.”
You could get a fast track, right, to join the European Union, don’t you think so?
Albin Kurti said: “When I handled the application in Prague in Czech Republic last December for membership of the EU, I said I don’t want a fast-track nor back-door track for membership… I believe the EU should be homegrown, not self-made. We need help from the EU, but we should build [wanting to join the] European Union as a value ourselves… So, I am not very much in favour of back doors and fast tracks.”
He added: “I believe the European Union is the most important political project of peace and prosperity. And likewise, historical process since the Second World War. I want to join, to benefit, but also to contribute. The EU is helping us on all fronts, but at the same time I want also to help the EU, keeping in mind the contrary progress reports of European Commission for Kosovo from last October, which is the best one so far without any backsliding or without progress.”