Aleksandar Miladinović, BBC reporter
When he spoke to the BBC in Serbian for the last time, immediately after his election as Prime Minister, Albin Kurti placed the dialogue with Serbia in fourth place among his own priorities.
In the past 18 months, barricades have been erected three times on the roads of the north of Kosova, mostly populated by the Serbian community, crossings have been closed twice, stickers have been affixed to license plates, the replacement of plates for Kosova cities issued by Serbia is being planned and postponed, and for border ones explosive devices are thrown at Kosova Police patrols – and that’s just a brief description of heightened tensions.
“If you look at the time I spend, it may seem to the public that this issue has risen on the list of priorities, but I believe that it has not fundamentally changed its place.
“Jobs, justice and ongoing problems are still there, and even fourth place is not so bad – I deal with many topics”, the Kosovo Prime Minister will say with a slight smile, while a portrait of Kosova President, Vjosa Osmani, watches him from the wall behind him, with which he manages the political processes in Kosova for almost year and a half.
On Thursday, August 18, Albin Kurti expects to meet in Brussels with the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić.
More than a year has passed since the last such conversation, although the negotiators met in a different format in May, in Berlin.
“It is too early to say how it will end and what character the meeting will have.
“This meeting was supposed to take place on July 19, but the Serbian president asked to postpone it for a month.”
Kurti and Vučić will meet with the mediation of Miroslav Lajčák, the European Union (EU) Special Representative for dialogue.
Could the meeting in Brussels be historic?
As we speak five days before the Brussels meeting, Albin Kurti does not have a concrete answer to this question.
“The talks are being conducted on two tracks, and the first is the meeting of the leaders where we will have two points: elements of the general framework for the agreement and current issues, and I believe that we will proceed in that order.
“These two points are very general, but I hope we’ll get into more specific topics as the talks unfold.”
As the second track, he mentions the talks of the negotiating teams led by Besnik Bislimi, the Vice President of the Government of Kosova, and Petar Petković, the head of the Office for Kosova of the Government of Serbia.
“Miscellaneous point” in the talks between the two leaders is already defined differently in the introduction of the meeting.
Belgrade insists on discussing the formation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities (ASM) established by the Brussels Agreement from 2013 and accuses the Kosovo authorities of not implementing it, Pristina states that Serbia does not respect the recently reached agreements on registration marks and energy.
The Kosova Prime Minister will readily assert that he “reached two agreements with Serbia and fulfilled both, but Serbia did not fulfill its part”.
“Regarding registration, Serbia missed the deadline in April and now we are in a problem.
“In terms of energy, the institutions of Kosova registered the company Elektrosever in two days, which had a week to provide us with fresh data on users – which was not done even after eight weeks”.
The temporary agreement on license plates was reached last fall, while in April its duration was extended for six months – until the formation of the government in Serbia.
According to that agreement, owners of license plates issued in Serbia cover their nationality marks with stickers when entering Kosova, while owners of cars with Kosova plates do the same when entering Serbia.
The recent agreement on energy, which has never been fully presented to the public, deals with issues of control over energy resources in northern Kosova.
It is also planned to introduce charging for the use of electricity to residents of those municipalities who have not paid their electricity bills since 1999.
“It is interesting that I am asked to continue what my predecessors did, while no pressure is put on Serbia to implement what they agreed with me.
“Maybe I’m a tough negotiator, but what I agree on – it gets done”.
On the remark that Christopher Hill, the American ambassador in Belgrade, also asked to talk about the ASM, Kurti will first remember with a smile that he has known Hill for 24 years because of the rich experience of the American diplomat, who has been involved in issues of Balkan relations for many years.
“Hill is a silent mediator between Serbia and Kosova, so he wouldn’t say something like that before Belgrade asks for it first”.
“It is interesting that Serbs from Kosova are not asking for this, because they say that they need jobs, justice, a better economy and, most importantly, the fight against corruption.”
“I believe that the EU could be more active and clearer.
“We have the right to expect more from the EU, especially to show more clarity and firmness about its own positions, especially when it comes to events like the latest barricades and incidents.”
From a firm decision, through barricades, to midnight postponement
Kosova snipers, Serbian war aggression, liquidations of Serbs, barricades built as fortifications for shooting, not blocking traffic.
The exchange of such verbal evaluations between Belgrade and Pristina is a prelude to the meeting in Brussels and is a consequence of the events of the last weekend of July.
The government in Pristina previously announced that from August 1, at the border crossings, they will start issuing entry-exit documents for all who enter Kosova with Serbian identity cards, which Serbia has been doing in the opposite direction for more than a decade, justifying it by not recognizing Kosova documents.
Also, owners of cars with registration plates of Kosova cities, but issued by Serbia, have been given a two-month deadline to register them with plates bearing the Republic of Kosova mark.
The day before the implementation of these measures, the roads in the north of Kosovo were blocked, Prishtina stepped up police patrols, in North Mitrovica, populated by Serbs, sirens sounded, and the media was flooded with unverified news about alleged clashes on the ground.
“There was an obvious lack of intelligence from various institutions, not only our country, about what was happening – Serbia’s aggressiveness towards Kosova and Belgrade’s desire to surprise, were underestimated.
“There were also calls from Brussels to postpone the implementation of the decisions, but I wanted to assure everyone that I was showing goodwill towards international partners not because the public was not sufficiently informed, but because the fear-mongering campaign led by Belgrade had much more influence than we thought”, says Kurti.
The crisis was not even temporarily resolved by phone calls from Brussels, but by the arrival of Jeffrey Hovenier, the American ambassador to Kosova, to an urgent meeting with the Government of Kosova, just before midnight on August 1.
The American ambassador announced to the media the scenario of removing the barricades and postponing the implementation of Pristina’s measures for a month even before the Government of Kosova formally made the decision.
“I am not interested in how others will see me in terms of independent decision-making, because I believe that Kosova is much more independent than Serbia – Serbia is much more dependent on Russia”.
Even this scenario is a victory for the Kosova Prime Minister.
And one that he will talk about in the first person singular.
“I started issuing those documents at midnight and 2,679 were issued at the border crossings – I knew they wouldn’t be able to remove the barricades at midnight and I issued documents at 19:00, with a waiting time of only 20 seconds, which is incomparably faster than Serbia.
“The barricades were a very simple example of their pre-prepared reaction that they were preparing because they knew we would be very gentle and effective – I did not seize the documents”.
However, despite claims that he chose a mild and effective approach, it is clear to Kurti that tensions and fear among Kosova Serbs have been raised to a higher level.
“I bear no responsibility for that. It is a consequence of the disinformation campaign led by Serbia.
“The campaign was very aggressive because they knew nothing was going to happen on August 1, and because they knew people would cooperate with the police at the border, they acted preventively”.
Comparison with the ideal and helpful criticism
Kurti himself is now acting preventively.
In anticipation of a new deadline for the start of the implementation of measures by the Government of Kosova, in a video posted on official communication channels, he spoke in Serbian – and this is not his first such message.
“My generosity, speaking in the Serbian language and direct communication is followed by increasing pressure and harassment within the Serbian community in Kosova.
“There are more and more Serbs who cooperate with me, but they are also increasingly exposed to pressure from Serbia,” says Kurti and cites the example of the resignation of a political adviser from the ranks of the Serbian community, just two hours after his appointment.
However, Kurti’s communication with the Serbs in Kosova was also criticized by those who are not part of the Serbian List, close to the official Belgrade.
Rada Trajković, president of the European Movement of Serbs from Kosova, said that Serbs “are more interested in the content of the message than the language in which it will be addressed.”
“It’s a very interesting phenomenon that you compare me with some imagined ideal of a perfect politician and feel free to continue doing it – criticism always helps.
“But can you imagine the Serbian president or prime minister speaking in the Albanian language or in another minority language?”
Kurti believes that such a view of his role also has other messages.
“It is a big imbalance in expectations – they are very high from me, and very low from the President of Serbia.
“On the other hand, the West’s low expectations of the Serbian president actually show what they think of him.”
To the claim that he did not do everything he could in relations with the Serbian community out of fear for his own rating and political image within the Albanian community, Kurti will categorically say the opposite.
“It’s not about my image, I don’t know why you think that way.
“As someone who knows my political background, it is clear to you that I do not take much care of my own image – I have been an activist all my life, speaking and living according to my ideals”.
He also claims that he is ready to repair relations.
“Although I don’t think that people are so scared by the situation in Kosova, I am ready to engage in a conversation with anyone who does not feel safe, although it is not so easy to fight the aggressive propaganda campaign carried out in the media in a language other than Albanian.
“With the campaign of scaring people, Belgrade may have some success, but you know what the path of dictatorship is – from a small victory, through a small victory, to the final defeat”.
What will September 1st look like?
Kosova’s prime minister is not concerned that what was interrupted before midnight on August 1 could be the starting point from which to resume on September 1.
“September 1st will be a normal day at the border crossings – either we will issue entry-exit documents, or both sides will cancel them.
“I’m not ruling it out, and I hope we’ll talk about it in the context of current affairs.”
When asked if this is actually his negotiating platform for the Brussels talks, Kurti says that he has already presented such a proposal to the Serbian president during a meeting organized as part of the cooperation initiative of regional leaders Brdo Brioni.
“I told him – recognize the documents of Kosova, and he told me that it was unacceptable because that would recognize independence.
“Although that would be good, I told him that it is not true – Slovakia, Greece, Romania do not recognize independence, but they recognize the documents of Kosova.
“If Serbia wants to join the EU, it is first important to join those EU members that did not recognize Kosova’s independence.”
And while the exit-entry documents could be a minor stumbling block, Prime Minister Kurti has no alternative for replacing the plates issued by Serbia for Kosova cities.
Kurti: “We will continue with the information campaign about plate replacements with numerous benefits – without VAT, excise and customs duties”. The replacement can start immediately, and the deadline for completing the process will not be September 1, but two months later.”
BBC: “But what will you do if nobody switches the plates?”
Kurti: “Belgrade is worried because I think people will accept the change, it is in favor of Serbs from Kosova. But it is clear to me that even when the process ends, it will not be the end – we need an agreement with Serbia because everything is partial until we reach a legally binding agreement on the full normalization of relations, based on mutual recognition.”
The first prime ministerial mandate of Albin Kurti lasted less than two months, the second one has not yet reached the halfway point, but the leader of “Self-determination” believes that already in this one he could be a part of just such an agreement.
“It is possible to reach a legally binding agreement based on mutual recognition in the next year or two, the sooner the better.”
“It is clear that Kosova’s being is healthy, but the relations between Kosova and Serbia are not – and we are not questioning our being, and neither are more and more international players”.
Fourteen years after the declaration of independence, Kosova was recognized by about 100 countries. However, the exact number is not known.
Pristina cites a figure of 117 countries, and Belgrade says that there are far fewer.
Among the countries of the European Union that have not recognized Kosovo are Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Greece and Romania, and when it comes to world powers, they are Russia, China, Brazil and India.
Since 2008, Kosovo has become a member of several international organizations, such as the IMF, the World Bank and FIFA, but not the United Nations.
Last modified: August 17, 2022