/From our special correspondent in Kosovo/
When Serbia lost control of Kosovo in 1999, the common story of the two countries was far from over.
24 years and one declaration of independence later, the world media is continuously filling the headlines that Kosovo-Serbia tensions are increasing again. Some even warn of another conflict in Europe.
“The Western Balkans currently has only two options. The first is to follow the European values of liberal democracy and embrace the multi-ethnic concept. The second is nationalism,” Ramadan Ilazi, head of research at the Kosovo Center for Security Studies (KCSS), tells Nauzal.
“The liberal democracy project of the multi-ethnic societies of the Western Balkans will only make sense if there is a real prospect of joining the EU. The nationalists strengthened when this perspective weakened,” he points out.
What do you think are the main challenges that Kosovo faces in the process of integration into the European Union?
There are two in total: the domestic one, which concerns the fight against corruption or the creation of viable democratic institutions, and then the one that concerns the Serbian-Kosovo issue. Both the EU and the US have already made it clear that Kosovo’s path to the Union is through dialogue on the normalization of relations between the two countries. After all, the strategy for the Western Balkans, which the European bloc adopted in 2018, already says so.
The normalization of relations is perhaps the biggest obstacle at the moment – neither we nor Serbia will move forward without overcoming it.
And how is Kosovo doing in this regard?
Very bad, just like Serbia. With colleagues from the region, we focused on the readiness of the Balkan countries to join the EU. According to the resulting report, Kosovo is only in the early stages and very far behind the others.
We do have a vibrant media scene and better indicators of democratic performance that make it look like we are ahead of the rest, but if you look at our judiciary, for example, it is very bad.
Regarding relations with Serbia, it seems to me that we have taken a step backwards. In 2013, there was great progress – the first ever agreement between the two parties. It had a total of 15 points, six of which related to the creation of an association of Serbian municipalities in the north of Kosovo. However, unlike the others, they have not yet been fulfilled.
In the following years, only a minimum of bright moments came, and from 2016 everything went downhill. If we hadn’t turned to populism, we could have been somewhere else. The situation with Serbia is much worse today than in 2013.
How do you perceive the attitude of the current government in this regard?
Kosovo largely blames Serbia, and this argument has merit. On the other hand, we fail to realize that there is a larger context here. Russia is actively trying to create new conflicts to distract the West from the situation in Ukraine, and I don’t think Kosovo can afford that level of hostile relations with the EU and the US.
Our government is demonizing the Union. This attitude can always be justified in some way, but I do not think it is healthy for society to move towards anti-European sentiments. These can be misused by different actors to promote different agendas. And in the Western Balkans, we are all quite vulnerable to harmful foreign influence.
Is the government itself moving into this anti-European mood?
Rather, it inspires it. I don’t think she is anti-European or acts in that direction, but the way she talks about the EU could transform into anti-EU sentiment. And I think it’s a mistake.
Prime Minister Albin Kurti should think more about the choice of words and not focus only on what message he wants to send to the West and other world players. He should think about how his words affect our citizens and what they think about it. When he demonizes the EU for asymmetrical relations, it affects people regardless of the validity of the argument.
How is communication with the Serbian community in Kosovo?
They should choose words more wisely in this case as well. Serbs living in Kosovo should be seen as residents of Kosovo. You cannot associate them with the Serbian government. It’s irresponsible and you’re undermining their agency and their ability to deal and talk with you independently. Therefore, I do not think that it is up to the Kosovo government to decide who the Serbs in Kosovo want as their political representative.
Years of neglect of the North, years of the status quo have created a situation where violence is the only way. We saw this on September 24, when there was a terrorist attack in Banjska, where four people died. And while what I said is true, I think it was also part of Russia’s game to divert attention away from Ukraine. It’s just my speculation, but we shouldn’t allow this.
Interview from Serbia
There is a pretense that everything is fine. But tensions have been escalating for months, Serbian historian Milan Igrutinović from the Institute of European Studies in Belgrade describes in an interview for Nauzal.
And again I come to the creation of an association of Serbian municipalities. We have to do it not because others want us to, but because it will bring the Serbs living in the north closer to our country and our society. If we don’t, we send them – our fellow citizens – the wrong signal that we see them as a threat in some way.
We have to send a message that we are open to them and we want to give them the rights they want or think they need to accept the state of Kosovo. The alternative in the North is the status quo. You can manage such a situation for several years, but then it explodes and escalates into violence.
If the radical right were to come to power, which is a trend we are already seeing, the north could also secede. But this would make our multi-ethnic state fail and all these nationally based “projects” could lead to a new conflict. We have to prevent this, we saw what happened in the 1990s.
So if nothing changes, history can repeat itself?
Yes. I think the Western Balkans have only two options at the moment. The first is to follow the European values of liberal democracy and embrace the multi-ethnic concept. The second is nationalism. In our region, however, this manifests itself with doses of fascism, when one ethnic group does not consider its society to be friendly towards someone else.
I think right now nationalism is on top in our region, and it’s getting stronger everywhere. The people who proclaim that we need an open democratic society and a liberal democracy are in retreat, facing attacks.
The liberal democracy project of the multi-ethnic societies of the Western Balkans will only make sense if there is a real prospect of joining the EU. The Nationalists strengthened as this prospect waned. Charles Michel (President of the European Council, note ed.) but now he gave us a “promise” in the form of 2030 and we must be ready, which also means abandoning nationalistic tendencies.
It may be a naive notion, but the alternative is conflict. Every day we see elements that make this scenario more realistic and it is very scary.
You mentioned that the Kosovo government doesn’t treat the Serbs in the north quite the way it should treat its own citizens. Can we perhaps talk about discrimination?
This will be a strong statement from me and it has its buts, but it is true that the government’s attitude towards the Serbs in the north is not the same as towards those in the rest of Kosovo. I think our government has failed to understand this community, they look at them and see Belgrade. They could have done much more for understanding, but they failed.
Calling it discrimination is strong, and I’m not sure in which cases it can be legally called that anymore.
Czech Republic and Kosovo
Ramadan Ilazim is no stranger to Czech realities either – he recognizes Jan Palach from the photo on my trick without any problems. “People in the Czech Republic should know that their fight for freedom was a great inspiration to us. Many personalities of your country have played a significant role in shaping ours,” he stated.
This year’s rotation at Prague Castle was also discussed. “We were all happy when he won the election,” he said to the new head of state. “In Europe, we need more leaders who understand what is at stake, and Petr Pavel is one of them. He is ready to say and do what is needed,” Ilazi noted.
Pavlo’s predecessor in office – Miloš Zeman – stated, among other things, that he does not consider Kosovo to be a democratic state. Since this fall, however, the Czech Republic has had its first full-fledged ambassador in Kosovo, Bohumil Mazánek.
Can you elaborate further on your thoughts regarding Russia’s role in the September events in northern Kosovo or its relationship with Serbia?
This is a purely personal analysis, not true information, but I think that Russia has a very strong influence in Serbian security institutions – intelligence services, army and police. At the moment, however, it also seems to me that Serbia wants to somehow distance itself from Russia, which the pro-Russian elements in these offices do not like. What happened on September 24 is perhaps a manifestation of this conflict within the country.
Sanctions against Russia due to Ukraine also represent a certain internal discord. Should President Aleksandar Vučić decide to accept them, it is not entirely certain that he will survive politically. I think this is also why the USA has a more welcoming attitude towards Serbia; despite everything, they mainly want it closer to Western structures, while Russia is trying to do the opposite in the case of the entire Western Balkans.
Another strong actor in our region is China, but it hides its influence very effectively through economic, not political interests. In reality, however, it is political and, among other things, they want to maintain a certain pressure on the EU.
Let’s go back to the Brussels Agreement of 2013 and the still non-existent association of Serbian municipalities. Will it change under this government, or do we have to wait?
That is the key question. I think we are in a situation where the West doesn’t trust our government and they don’t trust it, and the basis of all this is the association mentioned. The West does not believe that we will do this, and we, on the contrary, do not believe that if we do, it will lead to our integration into NATO and other Western structures. We’ve already been burned a few times in this regard.
In the past, when the decentralization process took place and new Serbian self-governing municipalities were established in the south of the country, there was a campaign that proclaimed that we would invite Serbia to Kosovo. However, the dark scenarios did not come true and there are now positive examples from these municipalities. Not that they are without problems, but it is certainly not as bad as in the north. However, the same arguments are now heard in connection with him.
Another is, for example, that the creation of an association in Kosovo would essentially create a Republika Srpska (one of the entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, note ed.). However, Kosovo is not a federation and neither the EU nor the US wants us to establish an association despite our constitution. They want it to go according to her.
It’s a clear thing for me. No one can say they are against it because of fear. People had it even back then and they were wrong. Today we have the full support of the West, which guarantees us that nothing like this will happen, and some are undermining the process anyway. I think it’s irrational and it doesn’t exactly show that the EU and the US have a partner in our government.
What does today’s Kosovo state and nation actually stand on?
The process of building our state took shape in the 1990s. We wanted to create a state not because of any expansionist goals, but because it was the only way through which the Albanian majority in Kosovo could live freely and without persecution. From the beginning, there were three political goals: freedom, democracy, independence.
What was happening in the 1990s in Kosovo was a reflection of what was happening in wider Europe. The idea of democracy that was being built in what was then Czechoslovakia or Poland resonated with us very much. We have learned and been inspired by this democratic liberal awakening.
As far as citizens are concerned, they are very liberal. We have direct democracy at the local level, and in general our democracy is very vibrant – for example, we’ve never had one prime minister for more than seven years. These values are embedded in our society, but this does not mean that there are no actors who try to change it and put religion, for example, in the foreground.
These efforts have always failed so far, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen in the future. The key to preventing this is bringing Kosovo closer to the European Union.
Humbled &privileged to be the first Ambassador of the Republic of🇽🇰 to present Letters of Credence to the President of 🇨🇿@prezidentpavel .
This occasion signifies a historical milestone in relations between
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— Albesjana Iberhysaj (@albesjana_i) October 6, 2023
This article was created with the support of the BIRN Reporting Democracy program.