Kurti: The agreement with Serbia – within the mandate of my government
The Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti said in an interview with VOA that he hopes for an agreement with Serbia within the mandate of his government, which coincides with the mandate of US President Joe Biden and that of the current European Commission. In the year-end interview with our correspondent in Prishtina, Besim Abazi, Prime Minister Kurti also spoke about the energy crisis that has affected the country and regional relations.
VOA: Mr. Prime Minister, Kosovo is facing an energy crisis that has conditioned cuts in the supply of electricity to citizens. What is the way out of it?
Albin Kurti: The energy crisis is not only in Kosovo and the region; it is all over Europe. However, it has struck us as a poor population that we are. And in this case, by subsidizing consumption on the one hand and regulating the B2 block of thermal power plants on the other hand, we are trying to mitigate this situation, which will not be able to end quickly, since these days the base load is around 900 megawatts, while the cost reaches 1.4 gigawatts, and the entire production capacity, even if the B2 block worked, would not be more than 900 megawatts. In this situation we are forced to import electricity and we are doing this at pretty expensive prices, because the international stock market has been hit hard by ever-increasing gas prices. So, on the one hand, we subsidize consumption, we will help the poorest families, but on the other hand, we have also called on citizens to rationalize spending as much as possible and we are grateful for the positive response.
VOA: The opposition has called your actions delayed in the face of a warning crisis. Countries in the region have been declaring an energy emergency for months. Why did not you do such a thing?
Albin Kurti: Kosovo has two thermal power plants. One, Kosovo A is 60 years old, the other, Kosovo B is 40 years old. But, the technology inside them is even more than that, because the age I mentioned is just the age of the buildings, while the facilities there are at least a decade older than that. It is a situation with amortized equipment, technology and network and during these two post-war decades we have generally had sporadic and failed projects, without a proper strategy. For the first time this year, we will have next year a strategy preceded by analysis and study for energy policies and the energy sector in general and then we can have projects on how Kosovo in this third decade of this century can cope with the energy crisis. We have been criticized for having to buy electricity before, but such a thing has not been possible. Because you cannot buy electricity and store it in the refrigerator. You are very exposed to stock market prices and there is no country already in our immediate region that is an exporting country, everyone is importing. We are hit hard because we are poorer than others and we, on the other hand, are hit hard, as the household spends approximately seven times more on electricity than industry.
VOA: In connection with this crisis, you have been heavily criticized for rejecting the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s project to build the pipeline structure. The debate about pipeline was accompanied by discussions about Kosovo’s relations with the United States, which at the time of your first government were cold. What about now?
Albin Kurti: We have not ruled out the possibility of gas supply and use of gas and a thermal power plant in the future also through gas and we can do this later. However, now, when we do not have a strategy, to enter into projects for which we have neither the infrastructure nor the expertise, it seems to us an inappropriate rush. We have done everything in discussion with the American partners, namely the MCC and their ‘compact’ program, the funds for which will not go to waste, but will be reoriented until we have the strategy and see how we move forward. So, for no moment, has there been even a shake-up let alone damage to our cooperation with the US.
VOA: Also, for the fact that the pipeline is a regional project because it includes North Macedonia and is also connected to Greece, when does Kosovo need to expand this regional cooperation?
Albin Kurti: Undoubtedly, we have regional cooperation as a priority and we have already held joint meetings of the two governments with the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Albania. We have had reciprocal visits with Greece, but I do not think that such projects, which could not have started many years ago, at the end of this decade, could affect the good cooperation we have with all countries in the region, perhaps with the exception of our north neighbour.
VOA: You mentioned the meetings with Albania and North Macedonia that are both part of the Open Balkans initiative that you have rejected so far. Is there any possibility that Kosovo will change its attitude towards this initiative which is taking shape?
Albin Kurti: First, the Balkans are not just three countries, the Balkans are not even six countries as much as the area of the Western Balkans still not integrated into the EU. The Balkans are at least 12 countries…
VOA: But the others are in the EU, they are already regulated…?
Albin Kurti: But, if we call it the Balkans and the Open Balkans, I believe that the test of truth is Serbia’s opening to Kosovo. They do not accept our travel documents, identity cards, nor do they accept our stamps, certificates and diplomas, so with a Serbia closed to Kosovo, I do not know how we can have an Open Balkans. Meanwhile, on an even more individual level I would say, I believe that this is how the vast majority of the citizens of our Republic feel. Neither as a political determination nor as a cultural sensibility, I do not belong to those who believe in the self-sufficiency of the Balkans. I am convinced that Kosovo and Albanians in general have their place in NATO and the EU.
VOA: But does not some isolation of Kosovo from this initiative hurt Kosovo as it needs to break down barriers and wider access to a larger market and ensure the freedom of movement of people, goods and capital?
Albin Kurti: The Republic of Kosovo has never had more visits of senior political and diplomatic officials of the West as in 2021. And also, there have never been higher expectations for our officials than this year. Maybe, only in 1999 after the liberation there could have been more visits from abroad to our country. On the other hand, we participate in the Berlin process. We have expressed our readiness and interest in the common regional market. We also emphasize that investments are very important in the region. But these must be done with mutual respect and equality of all. Initiatives coming from Belgrade, I have the strong impression that they want to create a platform without the EU. We want the EU to be in every regional initiative both as a mechanism, but also as a value. We do not prefer that there are still EU funds in the Western Balkans without European values.
VOA: The EU supported the initiative through the Enlargement Commissioner, while the initiative is supported by US diplomacy and Mr Gabriel Escobar himself has stated that he supports the initiative that does not replace the EU. Aren’t there enough guarantees that Kosovo will overcome, I would say, some self-isolation?
Albin Kurti: I am convinced that the support coming from the west for the Open Balkans is more of a motive not to oppose the idea, than to support the project as such. Therefore, they do not want to oppose the idea, but it is not that they are actively participating then in such a project. And let us not forget that of these three states that are participating in the Open Balkans initiative, only one state has the consent of both the president and the prime minister; Serbia.
VOA: Opposition to the initiative seems to have caused a rift in Kosovo’s relations with Albania. Why is an initiative aimed at rapprochement between the Balkan countries deepening the divisions between the two countries, which have described their relations as fraternal?
Albin Kurti: I believe that our disagreement about the Open Balkans initiative, which in fact originates in Novi Sad, is a damage to our reports that is worth mentioning. Relations between Prishtina and Tirana are among the best in post-war Kosovo…
VOA: Even among prime ministers?
Albin Kurti: Definitely. But we have disagreements in the Assembly of the Republic of Kosovo, even within political parties, sometimes we have disagreements even within government cabinets, let alone between the two prime ministers. But, with the very fact that this disagreement is mentioned so much, I believe that this shows that in fact, there are very few or no such disagreements.
VOA: Kosovo’s relations with Serbia appear throughout developments in the Balkans. The negotiation process is currently deadlocked. What can unlock this process and what are your expectations?
Albin Kurti: Even the former chief negotiator of Kosovo, Mrs (Edita) Tahiri, had mentioned a few years ago that the talks between Kosovo and Serbia were practically stopped when the project of exchange of territories was put on the table. So, it is not that we stopped the dialogue, on the contrary, we had two meetings in Brussels and we had an agreement on the reciprocity of license plates, which is being implemented even while we are conducting this interview. Meanwhile, I believe that the dialogue is slowly but surely being put on the right track, and that is the track of a legally binding agreement, according to European values with the citizens as final beneficiaries and focus on mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia, which means that currently the reality is that of a mutual non-recognition.
VOA: Do you have any expectations even on timeframes? Within your mandate? Later?
Albin Kurti: I believe that the dialogue, talks and agreement between Kosovo and Serbia should end within the mandate of the Government of the Republic of Kosovo and that coincides with the mandate of US President Joe Biden and that of the current European Commission led by Ms Ursula von der Leyen and her Deputy, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell.
VOA: The last time you met with Mr Borrell, your deep disagreement over the issue of the Association of Serb-majority municipalities came to light. How will you overcome this issue?
Albin Kurti: I have always emphasized in Brussels the principles that dialogue and talks should have, and they are in fact European values, democratization, the rule of law, dealing with the past and at the same time a kind of symmetry or reciprocity of the rights of national minorities, for without such a kind of symmetry we will not be able to have lasting peace and long-term stability. Now the Association of Serbian Municipalities is a request of Belgrade as a high state instance.
VOA: Belgrade’s request but sanctioned in an international agreement?
Albin Kurti: It is not an international agreement since it has never been ratified in Serbia, one party does not accept it as an international agreement and let us not forget that it has not passed the test of the Constitutional Court in Kosovo. In 2013, the principles of that association were really established, but the substance came in 2015 and it was practically overturned in the Constitutional Court. My conviction is that Serbia intends to create within Kosovo a building that would be even more internationally legitimate than the state of Kosovo, because imagine an Association of Serb-majority municipalities installed in Kosovo as Serbia wanted it to be, it would be recognized by both Kosovo and Serbia while the Republic of Kosovo would continue not to be recognized by Serbia, maybe even by other EU countries further and especially by the two superpowers which are in the United Nations Security Council. So, there is an evil intention to create a legal structure within Kosovo, which is not only in the service of Belgrade, but also becomes internationally with even higher legitimacy than the independent state of Kosovo itself.
VOA: The Constitutional Court found violations within the agreement but its text roughly states that the Association should be formed based on the 2013 agreement. Will you accept such a thing?
Albin Kurti: I believe that the Constitutional Court says so since we had a ratification of those principles of the agreement of 26 June 2013 for the agreement of 19 April of that year and It is interesting how immediately, one or two days after the ratification of the first agreement of principles in the Assembly of the Republic, the negotiations for membership in the European Union are opened to Serbia. We suffer damage to the internal functioning while Serbia advances externally. The Constitutional Court, limited by such ratification in the Assembly of the Republic, seems to me to have felt a bit embarrassed and has said that it does not oppose in principle the idea of the Association of Serb-majority municipalities, but then says that none of the seven chapters of that association is in accordance with the Constitution which is violated in full 23 Articles, not in two or three Articles, but in 23 Articles.
VOA: But how will Prime Minister Kurti overcome the ’embarrassment’ of pressure on him to establish the Association?
Albin Kurti: With patience and hard work. I was elected Prime Minister of the Republic of Kosovo after February 14 which was a plebiscite victory, which was an unprecedented victory in post-war Kosovo and our commitments have been for employment and justice, these are our priorities as well, it is the pandemic which we are managing quite well and we do not exclude dialogue, we are ready and open for discussions and talks, but they should only be talks on the status of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, not on the status of Kosovo. We are not talking about the status of Kosovo which is not only that of an independent state, but of an independence that in the first four years was internationally supervised and, in the end, it was the international factors themselves who removed our supervision in 2012, they told us enough with the supervision now your independence will be complete. We cannot go back either before 2012 or before 2008.
VOA: You mentioned earlier the possibility of an asymmetry between the two countries given the state of minorities. Are you thus seeking a status similar to the Serbs in Kosovo for the Albanians in the Presheva Valley?
Albin Kurti: This was raised at the meeting we had in Brussels on 15 June and at that meeting, as the President of Serbia tried to justify Serbia’s interest as a state grieving the losses of the past, as caring for the rights of minorities in Kosovo, I said let’s see what Serbia does to minorities on its territory. They have the National Council of Hungarians, Albanians and Bosnians, since you believe that you are the best, let us use this model in Kosovo as well. So, I presented his request as his state interest and opposed it. He (Aleksandar Vuçiç) then elaborated on the state request as a minority interest and there was a chance for me to present how Serbia solves the minority issue on its territory, but of course they were even more upset than they were, since they wanted to maintain a kind of offensive, a kind of hegemony where what applies to themselves does not apply to you and what should apply to you does not have to apply to themselves. If you want a request to be legitimate you have to imagine the request in the form of a principle, but they only have requests that refuse to give them the form of a principle, hence the symmetry, the balance I laid out there was nervously rejected by the other party.
VOA: What about the mediator, how did he react?
Albin Kurti: The mediator did not react as he was more interested in having a result than in emphasizing the details of that discussion. I consider them as mediators but, unfortunately, they consider themselves only as facilitators and I think this is a way that Brussels is unfortunately not taking the place it deserves and which we all need. Brussels’ power over the Western Balkans region, over Kosovo and Serbia, is much greater, especially over Serbia, and a large part of this power that could be well used, unfortunately is not happening.
VOA: For many, the American presence is therefore essential. Based on your communications, is it likely, is there an opportunity to strengthen this presence?
Albin Kurti: The United States of America is well informed and knows all of us very well, of course we always welcome the American role and contribution, but at the moment they know the intensity and form of their engagement best.
VOA: European integration is related to the negotiation process, and if I may say so, the “carrot” offered to the parties to normalize relations between them is precisely this integration, although Kosovo is the last in the region. But, with such a European Union that is today tired of enlargement, reserved of enlargement, what could really be the “carrot” to push the parties to an agreement?
Albin Kurti: First of all, our priority is the normalization of Kosovo, I do not deny the importance of normalizing relations with Serbia with mutual recognition at the centre, however, I need to help the citizen in accordance with his will for the normalization of Kosovo and we are proving that it is possible that although we have not resolved the issue with Serbia, we can still function as a successful state and become stronger. For example, foreign direct investments in Kosovo during this first 9 months of 2021 were 53 percent higher than in the same period last year and 80 percent higher than in 2019. We have a government that has administered 1.6 million doses of vaccines without ever considering the Russian Federation and China as an option, only the vaccines approved by EMA and FDA i.e., European and American, and at the same time out of 773 daily cases within the weekly average we had 9 months ago when we entered the office, we dropped only to 9 cases. The population over the age of 18 has been vaccinated with at least one dose over two-thirds and with two doses over 60 percent. Citizens can be vaccinated without a deadline and even without being citizens of our Republic and I encourage those who have not done so and those who have already done so, to receive the third dose. Tax revenues have increased in Kosovo, we had over 588 million tax revenues from the Tax Administration this year while from Kosovo Customs, we have revenues of 1 billion and 320 million euros this year. Tax revenues are 26 percent higher than the previous year, 12 percent higher than 2019 and 28 percent higher than 2018. Customs are over one third higher than last year, 17.5 percent higher than 2019 and 21 percent higher than 2018. Then we registered around 10 thousand new jobs, we held 50 meetings as a government, with 458 decisions and a total of 112 draft laws. Economic growth will be in double digits, it is interesting that the second quarter of this year had economic growth of 16.3 percent while the third quarter had 14.5 percent. Exports have increased by 60 percent compared to last year and even 90 percent compared to 2019 while budget revenues are 30 percent higher, which shows that when citizens see an uncorrupted government, they are more willing to pay taxes and contributions, while when they have hope for the future, they also prefer to spend rather than save. These are figures of a state that is advancing from a low base, but is moving forward and in contrast to Serbia’s untrue confession that Kosovo is a failed state, our government is showing that both European democratic values and social and economic progress in Kosovo are not only possible but are already happening.
VOA: After these data that you list as successes of your government unlike February 2021 when you won by over 50 percent, October and the local elections did not repeat such a success. How do you explain this, Prime Minister?
Albin Kurti: It is true that in the local elections we had an unsatisfactory result for our political entity, but Kosovo showed an extraordinary democratic maturity. These were the first elections organized with me as Prime Minister. Even on 14 February 2021 and on 17 October and 14 November this year with local elections, Kosovo has shown that the opposition can win, which is the essential condition for a democratic situation. Now our support for the electorate has increased so much at the beginning of this year that at the end of this year, which is very preoccupied with the central government, we have not even managed to create large structures and a large organization to absorb that support, and this, I believe, appeared to us in the unsatisfactory result. Then, another factor, I believe, was the pandemic, where our political entity, which is known for large gatherings, in conditions of the pandemic we could only hold small gatherings, while for large gatherings we have not yet found a replacement as an organization. So, as far as we know, we are learning the right lessons and we will cooperate with the municipalities of Kosovo for the development and progress of all, leaving no one behind.