Zyra e Kryeministrit

Interview of Deputy Prime Minister Bislimi for Danas

September 9, 2023

Prishtina, 9 September 2023

Let’s be specific at the very beginning of this conversation. How do you assess the current situation in the north of Kosova at a time when the “mentors” of the negotiations from the EU and the USA are still on vacation?

We would like the situation in northern Kosova to be better but at least there are no tensions. We would like to reach out more to our citizens there, but Belgrade undermines these efforts and prevents Kosova Serbs from using the services and enjoying the rights that they are entitled to. It has been and still is Serbia’s aim to portray Kosova as a failed state and its institutions as unable even unwilling to integrate the Serb minority, which is simply not true. In this regard, Serbia does not refrain from sacrificing Kosova Serbs to try to make this point. The security and institutional vacuum created on November 5th was supposed to serve this objective. We recognise that the current mayors do not enjoy full legitimacy, but we made every effort including postponing the deadline of elections and later even the deadline for party registration to ensure that Kosova Serb representative run for these offices. Institutional vacuum does not serve anyone. Same with the police, a citizen who needs protection needs to be able to call the police for help. Kosova is a multiethnic state; in this regard, it is our aim to ensure that community members are integrated institutionally. We are cognizant of the fact that the absence of Serb police officers does not instil sufficient confidence, and we are doing our maximum to change this, however this cannot be done without prevention of Belgrade’s constant pressure and intimidation on Kosova Serb citizens who decide to join Kosova police.

You are an economist by profession. You know very well what it means to prevent trade in goods. It brings harm to ordinary people. How long will the “embargo” on goods from Serbia last, because it is not a small market?

There are no trade barriers for goods produced in Serbia, there are several barriers applied to Kosova products trying to enter the markets inside the territory of Serbia. And those barriers pertain for almost two decades. The current decision is solely a security issue, given the evidence of weapons being smuggled to Kosova, using the regular routes and trucks for goods transport. Such an intervention in Kosova’s domestic affairs in the security sector is a serious violation not only of the most recent Basic Agreement (according to which Serbia has agreed to establish normal good neighbourly relations with Kosova), but also of other agreements. We need to ensure that Serbia drops territorial pretensions and hybrid insurgency methods not to instigate tensions in the north. In this regard, better control of the flow of goods is part of the security measures that had to be undertaken. Given the openness of our economy and the presence of many alternative countries of origin for imports, this measure can neither produce any harm to citizens nor lead to a shortage of goods. The situation in all other municipalities in Kosova serves as best proof for this.

The government of which you are the vice-president talks about “stopping the smuggling of goods and medicines”, which led to the existence of Serbs in the north of Kosova, who are in some kind of “camp” as hostages of unsuccessful dialogue and constant escalation of violence.

If you refer to official statistics on the import of goods for needs of Kosova citizens in the four northern municipalities in the last decade, you will conclude that almost 90% of the annual consumption was a result of illegal smuggling activities. No community should rely on smuggling for essential goods. Kosova’s legal framework allows for legal import of all goods as well as finances from Serbia. Insistence to rely on official and legal instruments for interstate trade are basic ingredients of a functioning democracy, rule of law and good neighbourly relations, hence any use of terms such as “camp”, “hostage”, ‘Escalation of violence” in relation to that misplaced and only misused to portray a distorted picture of the reality in the ground.. Despite what Serbia intends to project, citizens move freely from north to south Mitrovica, they even trade with one another and buy each other’s goods. So how should we explain regular supply of any goods and medicine in one municipality and “threats to the existence
” only few hundred meters north?

I will understand your answer, because in the relations between Pristina and Belgrade there is “reciprocity” of ugly measures of mutual punishment of citizens. Are there similar examples of sanctioning the rights of Albanians in the municipalities of Bujanovc and Presheva, along the administrative line with the Republic of Kosova?

There is a major difference here. While Kosova Serbs enjoy all the rights legally, they are instructed and intimidated by Serbia and its institutions not to use them. In the Presheva Valley, Albanians are discriminated institutionally and enjoy substantially less rights than Kosova Serbs in Kosova. An example of institutional discrimination against Albanian community in Serbia is the passivization of addresses, something unimaginable in Kosova. Moreover, as we speak, Kosova is unilaterally implementing the agreement on the recognition of diplomas, while Serbia is implementing a delicencing of already recognised diplomas.

It has recently become clear that Pristina is trying to match Belgrade in this “match of reciprocity” as much as possible by supporting the Albanians in the “Presheva Valley”. What is the purpose of that in the current situation?

Brussel’s dialogue is not only about normalisation of bilateral relations but also the normalisation of both societies vis-à-vis their communities. I observe with great concern the strong willingness of authorities in Belgrade to constantly and aggressively discriminate Albanians living in Medvegje, Presheve, Bujanovc or Novi Pazar. The lower this discrimination, the lower would be the need to use scarce resources of our budget to support them. Of course, I would prefer to see the state authorities in Belgrade allocating public money for cultural activities in Albanian municipalities there, for activities that preserve their inheritance, promote their language and the rest. Instead, we observe zero investment on education, heavy discrimination on employment, and even barriers for kids to use textbooks in their native language. From this perspective our allocated fund simply intends to cover the gap created by state authorities of Serbia. Improved treatment of Albanians in Serbia would also improve perception about Serbia in Kosova in general and send genuine signals of Serbia’s intentions for reconciliation..

There is an attempt to include the problem of Albanians in the south of central Serbia in the agenda of the Brussels dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. This was not supported by the US and the EU. Why?

Allow me to remind you of a paragraph from the preamble of the Agreement on the path to normalization between Kosova and Serbia (27.02.2023):

“Aware that the inviolability of frontiers and respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and the protection of national minorities are a basic condition for peace.”

We will insist on the protection of the Albanian minority in Serbia with the same energy as the other side is doing this for the Serb community in Kosova, and I believe it would be a paradox to behave differently. This topic is inevitable, if both sides, meaning Kosova and Serbia, are aiming to reach Comprehensive Agreement on full normalization of relations.

In accordance with the sanctions imposed by the EU against the Government in Pristina, in what direction can we expect the dialogue to continue and if we had any dialogue at all, which could solve many problems that are obviously “pleasing” for the political survival of the Kosova Prime Minister, but also the Serbian president?

The dialogue is multi-faceted but in our view it should focus on two main pillars, namely the implementation of the basic agreement and talks on the full normalization of relations. Kosova supported the basic agreement and offered to sign it. The other party refused signing and is on daily basis not only reaffirming the position that it has not accepted the plan, but also heavily working on violating its provisions. The best strategy to openly obstruct its implementation is through escalations, and Serbia is very successful on this. Serbia has not only redirected the Brussels dialogue from normalization to crisis management, but it has also managed to promote EU from a facilitator to a negotiator. EU statement of June 3rd, together with imposed measures afterwards do confirm this. Nevertheless, there will be a new high-level meeting in less than two weeks, and the expectation is that EU will ensure the equality of parties in the dialogue by removing punitive measures ahead of this meeting.

The reality would be the return of members of the Serbs from the north to the KPS. It is the government in Pristina that should take a step that would eliminate the tension in the sector respecting “minority rights” in this security sector. What is the problem?

Kosova Serb police officers left the police force, this was the beginning of the problem, and even more, it is the main manifestation of the source of escalations in security in northern Kosova. The issue with vehicle plates was taken as justification by Serbia to put in motion something much more serious, which we know, has been in the pipeline for a very long time. I agree that Kosova Serbs should be part of the police and for this very reason, we have opened several calls to ensure that we recruited more Kosova Serbs who can serve the citizens of Kosova regardless of their ethnic background. It is an undeniable fact that more of them would have been recruited, had they been allowed by Serbia to apply. Unfortunately, the newly-uniformed police have been threatened to resign in BIA arranged meetings in Rashka. Thus, that less interference from Serbia will inevitably produce more stability and more security in the four northern municipalities, and so contribute to the stability of the whole region.

When do you expect the announcement of new local elections for four municipalities in the north of Kosova?

We have developed procedures and the Ministry of Local Government and Administration will soon formally promulgate the respective by-law. This will give citizens the instrument to change the political landscape and to showcase that there is public willingness to engage in the new electoral process.

Do you expect that the Serbs, without an honest dialogue with the authorities in Pristina, will give up on what “Belgrade told them” in the new local elections? Are you ready to talk with them, that is, at this moment with “Srpska Lista”?

Kosova and Serbia should not pressure local Kosova Serbs to choose. We do engage in local dialogue with Kosova Serbs and I have participated in nine rounds so far. Prime Minister Kurti has met with them in several occasions, and our deputy prime minister Emilja Rexhepi is doing this on regular basis. In addition, line ministers are organizing parallel sector focused meetings. We have tried in various formats, some of them have been quite useful. I wish Belgrade would support Kosova Serbs in receiving from Kosova what they are entitled to, without threating to exempt them from financial flows from Belgrade or even intimidating them in other forms, whenever they engage in discussions with Kosova government representatives.

It is clear that there is a connection between Serbs and Albanians in terms of organized crime and corruption, how do you see that this can be prevented if there is no coordination between the police and security structures of both sides?

This is a very good question. Our Police and our security structures in this regard, are without any doubt willing to engage with their Serbian counterparts, in coping with this challenge. However, until now, there was no single sign on the side of official Belgrade to engage in this cooperation. Quite contrary. We know that security situation in the north, imposed by illegal structures of Serbia, is also fuelling all kinds of criminal activities and corruptions that are run by these structures.

The ban on the entry of Serbian goods into Kosova also harms Pristina. Large reserves of coal that Kosova would sell in the surrounding area must pass through Serbia. Do you have any calculations of how much damage these measures have caused to Pristina and the economy of Kosova?

All measures are harmful, but in Serbia they get noticed only now. Kosova entrepreneurs have faced for two decades all possible barriers when trying to penetrate in the Serbian market or even use its road infrastructure as transit, but only few have paid attention. There is no better way to normality in our relations, including trade, than to fully and without precondition to implement the Basic Agreement which provides for full recognition of all documents and symbols which will make it easier to conduct trade.

The government in Pristina, which Belgrade does not recognize, had several sessions with the one in Tirana, but the attitude of Prime Minister Edi Rama, as if he is not completely in agreement with what Pristina expects from him? What is the problem?

Apart from Serbia, our relations with all neighbouring countries, most notably Albania, are excellent. The only foreign policy challenge is the normalisation of relations with Serbia, and this challenge affects all our neighbours who are impatient to see this chapter closed so the whole region can move forward. Belgrade should accept that Kosova is its neighbour, and it should make the best out of it. We are ready to move towards the path of full normalization of our relations.

Pristina ignores the “Open Balkans” project, so is the “Munich process” what your government is aiming for, or is there something else?

Kosova supports all regional integration initiatives that derive from, or support the EU integration process of our country and the region. Berlin process provides the best platform for this, Open Balkan was a substitute and not complement. Some of us realized this from the beginning, for some others, it took a little more time.

What do you expect from the new autumn dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, and will it really happen, after not respecting the “Ohrid Agreement” and what are the USA and the EU preparing for you?

Serbia has agreed to the text of the Agreement and its full implementation take us to a new and more stable situation than we have now. With the Basic Agreement (February 27th) Serbia has agreed to treat Kosova as an equal sovereign member, has recognised our territorial integrity, agreed to conduct normal relations as with all other neighbours and to support Kosova’s membership in international organisations. We understand that the formal recognition is not there and this was a major concession by Kosova. It is important that we built stable relations as equal members of the international community.

Such major decisions are to be taken by courageous leaders and I hope that Serbia’s leadership will find strength to implement the Basic Agreement in its entirety. Kosova was ready from the very beginning and still is, to do its part. We are ready to further review and improve the institutional set-up for Kosova Serbs within the confinement of its Constitutional framework, but it has to be clear that this is part of Kosova’s jurisdiction, which Serbia recognises, respects and does not seek to undermine.

What can Serbs in the north of Kosova, but also those south of the Ibar, expect? Without their institutionalization, it is difficult to expect a reduction in tensions and risks of new cases of violence?

The majority of Kosova Serbs live in the south conducting their everyday life peacefully with Albanians and other communities. It is clear that Belgrade encourages tensions only within the territory, which it considers “occupied”, the north, and not the rest. As such, its strategy can only be understood within the frame of previous risky discussions on partition. It is clear that it is not about the lack of rights but it is about secessionist ambitions. Serbia’s position is untenable, in one hand the propaganda keeps churning out stories how Serbs are under terror, then your President says that fewer Serbs left Kosova than they left villages in Serbia. Our citizens in the north should expect full willingness and interest of the Kosova government for meaningful integration, full exploitation of available fiscal instruments for economic growth, improvements in education and health, proportional employment in public and private sector. Identical to that of all other citizens who live in Kosova, consume public se
rvices and pay for them, respect the legislation, including the official currency in circulation.

What will Pristina’s attitude be towards the ethnic Albanians, of whom according to the last census in Serbia there are about 61,000?

We should have in mind the fact that Albanians in Serbia, who do in majority live in Presheva Valley, are historically connected with Kosova. So, as I underlined earlier, it is our obligation to deal with problems that are growing every year with regard to the rights of Albanians in Serbia.

Kosova police arrest Serbs on suspicion of having committed war crimes. They are in pre-trial detention. The security forces of Serbia released three Albanian police officers, who were previously suspected of “terrorist incursion” into the territory of Serbia. How to defeat mutual extremism in which the judiciary is often just a “cover” for raising tensions?

Arresting war criminals is not listed as an activity in the list of extremism, sending military troops in a neighbouring country and abducting members of their security forces is. We cannot draw any parallels between these two cases. We know well what has happened in Kosova during the war, in 1998, 1999, which was brutal and nasty, with over 11,000 Albanian civilians being killed. Bringing justice for these war crimes, and crimes against humanity, is obligation of our judiciary.

What do you, as the Vice President of the Government in Pristina, know about the course of the investigation into the murder of Oliver Ivanovic. Are there any “Albanian logistics”?

I remember well that when Oliver Ivanovic was assassinated (January 2018), nobody in Kosova, including local Serb inhabitants in northern Kosova, were pointing a finger towards Albanians as possible perpetrators. Ivanovic was demonized by SNS of Serbian President Vucic, as well as by many Serbian media, as a ‘traitor’ and this lasted for months before the act of the assassination. Our judiciary is working on this case, and we are certain that sooner, rather than later, they will come with final results on this case. Just recently, Serbia apologised to Germany for spreading false rumours about an alleged Kosovar perpetrator.

Tell me, the public is certainly interested in this, what does the dialogue in that Brussels room between the representatives of Pristina and Belgrade look like, when the cameras are turned off? Who says what, who insults whom, how do EU representatives react, what do you eat and what do you refresh yourself with?

All negotiations are difficult by default, but the dialogue is the only way how we can address the issues with one another. For us, in this context, it is of utmost importance to prioritise the rights of all citizens in our multi-ethnic democracy and never to instrumentalise or sacrifice them for political outcomes. We are aiming for a final Agreement, and there is no doubt that any agreement, in the end, will confirm that Kosova and Serbia are independent countries, and that they should establish normal and good relations. This is the only way forward, and it is in line with aspirations of both countries to become members of EU. Other details are of secondary importance.

Who wins and who loses, regarding Kosova, that is an eternal question to which you have the right to give your answer?

Conflict resolution and dialogue is not about one side winning and the other side losing. We all stand to benefit from a full normalization, including the region and the international community in general. We all lose from maintaining animosities. Willingness to deal with the past is a necessary precondition for any long lasting peace and progress.



Last modified: September 9, 2023

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