Serbia in the Western Balkans is behaving like Russia in its neighbourhood: the Bosnian entity is trying to turn Republika Srpska into Belarus and Montenegro into Ukraine. In essence, Serbia does not recognize the statehood of non-EU countries – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, and even Northern Macedonia. On the contrary: it considers these states temporary and engages all its capacities to destroy their statehood.
Due to the traditional “disagreements” between the states that emerged from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, which have escalated in recent months, in Western political and media circles our region is again treated as in the 1990s – as a barrel of gunpowder. The cause of all conflicts is, just like the mentioned nineties – Serbia, that is its policy of more or less open interference in the internal affairs of all the countries of the Western Balkans.
In an exclusive interview with Pobjeda, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, says that today Serbia is behaving in a paternalist and hegemonic manner, just like “little Russia”, towards the countries that emerged from the disintegration of the greater Yugoslavia”.
Recent tensions on the Serbia-Kosovo border are also evidence, after which Kosovo forces were forced to react. Two months after the incident, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti claims that, despite the turmoil at the border, relations between the two countries have remained unchanged.
“Relations between Kosovo and Serbia are the same: they are neither better nor worse” explains Prime Minister Kurti. “We are dealing with a state that does not recognize Kosovo, which is autocratic and pro-Moscow”. On the other hand, Kosovo is an independent and sovereign state, it has its own territorial integrity, but also many problems.
POBJEDA: What are the problems of Kosovo?
KURTI: Our biggest problem is Serbia, which can neither imagine nor accept Kosovo as an equal neighbour state.
POBJEDA: Does the peace and stability of the Western Balkans depend on the relations between Serbia and Kosovo?
KURTI: The countries of the Western Balkans need long-term peace and stability, and in order to achieve them, we need democracy, justice and development, which are the basis of European values. Unfortunately, the current situation in the Western Balkans looks like a miniature replica of the Russian Federation.
POBJEDA: In what sense?
KURTI: Serbia in the Western Balkans is behaving like Russia in its neighbourhood: Republika Srpska is trying to turn the Bosnian entity into Belarus and Montenegro into Ukraine. In essence, Serbia does not recognize the statehood of non-EU countries – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, and even Northern Macedonia. On the contrary: it considers these states temporary and engages all its capacities to destroy their statehood. There are two causes of growing tensions that Serbia is producing.
POBJEDA: These are?
KURTI: Lack of democracy and failure to deal with the past. Serbia is exporting these two internal defects to the region, destabilizing it. In that sense, Serbia understands the dialogue between our two countries as a dialogue on the status of Kosovo, on the internal issues of Kosovo, and not what it really is: a dialogue on the status of our relations and their normalization. In order to accept that, Serbia needs to change a lot: it needs to democratize, establish the rule of law, and face the past… Finally, we need to create a kind of symmetry of reciprocity of minority rights.
POBJEDA: What has been a concrete cause for tension in recent months?
KURTI: The Brussels Agreement on License Plates expired on 15th of September 2021, so in accordance with the obligations and rights of citizens, we decided on reciprocity. Our citizens have been going to Serbia for more than ten years, but they were forced to pay five euros and set up temporary Serbian license plates upon entry. This principle did not apply to vehicles from Serbia entering Kosovo. As a state, we decided to introduce a measure of reciprocity, after which members of the illegal structures of Serbia in Kosovo blocked the roads. The government was forced to send a special unit to protect our border police, since the Serbian blockade was unusual – barricades and bulldozers. In the meantime, the vehicle registration centre in Zubin Potok burned down – fortunately the hand grenade did not explode – and it was clear that this was an organized attack on our country’s institutions.
POBJEDA: Who was involved? Who are the people who organized the barricades and blockades?
KURTI: The information from our security institutions shows that these are people with criminal records. Some of them also took part in the coup attempt in Montenegro in 2016.
I have already said that Serbia does not recognize the independence of Kosovo, but it cannot ask us not to recognize ourselves. We want to remove barriers, but as long as Serbia insists on barriers, we will respond legally.
POBJEDA: You know that the term “reciprocity” is interpreted in one way in Serbia, and in another way in Kosovo.
KURTI: The citizens of the Republic of Kosovo have always demanded that they be treated the way Kosovo treats the citizens of the countries in the region. We demand equal interstate relations, respect for universal rights and justice among societies. In other words, the Republic of Kosovo wants its citizens, entrepreneurs, professionals, workers to be treated in the same way as the citizens of other countries – without prejudice, without interference, with the respect necessary to perform their life and professional activities. Citizens of Kosovo and the Kosovo authorities must not be discriminated against or hindered in their possible intention to interact with the Serbian authorities in a commercial, civic or other state context.
POBJEDA: “We want to leave extra time for some in Pristina to change their bad decisions. If they do not want to, we will take measures in order to protect the interests of Serbia” – said President Aleksandar Vucic recently. How did you understand this message?
KURTI: I didn’t understand. Whenever Serbia says to “defend itself”, you should know in reality it is attacking. We have been convinced of that for the last at least three decades.
We saw that in the case of the application of reciprocity of registration plates and the situation that arose at the border crossings Brnjak and Jarinje. Unfortunately, Serbia reacted violently even then, gathering troops at the border, including T-72 tanks, “Lazar 3” armoured vehicles and BOV M16 MILOŠ multi-purpose combat vehicles; at the same time, it hired Russian MIG29 fighter jets, as well as Russian-made helicopters for cross-border flights.
Serbia spends much more on the military than the five Western Balkan countries combined. Despite that, she received help and donations from the EU, without the obligation to apply European values. Instead of being democratized, Serbia has been militarized by Russia and China.
POBJEDA: At the time of the incident on the border of your two countries, the Ambassador of the Russian Federation in Belgrade visited the border accompanied by the Minister of War Nebojsa Stefanovic. What kind of message is that?
KURTI: While the Minister of Defence of Serbia and the Russian Ambassador in Belgrade were inspecting the Serbian military forces at the Jarinje border crossing, which also contained armoured vehicles, MiG-29 military planes that Serbia received from the Russian Federation were hoisted above them. At that moment, through no fault of Kosovo, tensions rose sharply. The intention was to intimidate us, to threaten us…
POBJEDA: Did they intimidate you?
KURTI: Of course not. Kosovo did not back down, in the end everything ended in Brussels. I am pleased that we have managed to establish a measure of reciprocity in the registration plates.
POBJEDA: Speaking of the Russian Federation, that country has had its liaison office in Kosovo for sixteen years, which employs tens of diplomats. You recently declared two Russian diplomats from this office undesirable and “dangerous to national security”. What is the role and function of the Russian liaison office in general?
KURTI: We declared two Russian officials in Kosovo persona non-grata because of their harmful activities that violated the national security and constitutional order of the Republic of Kosovo. Our institutions will not hesitate to act whenever security and the constitutional order in the country are violated. In relation to all Balkan states, Kosovo is most opposed to the policy and influence of the Russian Federation. In this regard, Kosovo’s state institutions work closely with our international partners, especially the EU, NATO and the United States.
POBJEDA: What exactly do you mean when you say that Kosovo opposes the influence of Russia?
KURTI: It is clear that Russia is constantly trying to weaken the EU, to the point of its disintegration. Just as Serbia is nostalgic for Yugoslavia, which it dominated, and in which Slobodan Milosevic commanded the Yugoslav army in the 1990s, the Russian president as well is nostalgic for the Soviet era, when Soviet forces ruled Eastern Europe. That nostalgia for power is an additional similarity between Russia and Serbia, which increases the risk to the stability of the Western Balkans. However, I believe that your efforts will fail. We know them well and our alliances and partnerships with the West are unwavering.
POBJEDA: Serbia claims that Kosovo is not respecting the Brussels agreement, i.e., refusing to establish the Association of Serb Municipalities in Northern Kosovo. Are those who see the ASM as the new Republika Srpska in the Balkans right?
KURTI: During 2013, great pressure was put on the deputies to reach that agreement quickly. Transparency and information were lacking. Today, the Kosovo institutions are headed by people who opposed the agreement in 2013 and who won a plebiscite victory in the elections of 14th of February 2021.
POBJEDA: Vjosa Osmani, Glauk Konjufca and You?
KURTI: That’s right. Secondly, the judgment of the Constitutional Court of Kosovo from December 2015 rightly states that the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities is not integrated into the Kosovo legal and constitutional system. In addition, the Constitutional Court found that the very idea of the ASM violates 23 articles of the Constitution of Kosovo, which does not provide for any territorial integration on ethnic grounds. We have such a creation in BiH: it is called Republika Srpska, it was built in Dayton and it serves Belgrade not Serbs. Belgrade, therefore, wants a similar creation in Kosovo. In BiH we have a state that is not a republic and within it a republic that is not a state. Within Kosovo, Belgrade wants an Association that will be called a republic, but will not be a state. I hope that we have learned some lessons from the past and correctly studied and analysed Serbia and its policy. Which, unfortunately, we felt on our own skin.
POBJEDA: In February 2020, Matthew Palmer, then US Secretary of State’s Special Representative for the Western Balkans and today a key US man for electoral reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina, did not rule out the possibility of “exchanging territories” between Serbia and Kosovo in an interview with the EU Observer. Has this dangerous idea finally come to an end?
KURTI: I want the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia to be conducted on the rights and needs of citizens, and not on territorial exchange. We are a democratic state and such solutions will not be on the table. My victory in the elections showed that the people of Kosovo do not want the division of territories. I don’t think Serbs want that either. Only the President of Serbia wants division. However, since I am the Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic no longer mentions the demarcation with the Albanians and territorial solutions. Instead, he seeks the “Bosnianization” of Kosovo: an autonomous Serbian entity within our Republic to make Kosovo a dysfunctional state. He failed, of course. There is no division of Kosovo.
POBJEDA: President Aleksandar Vucic conditioned the continuation of the talks in Brussels on “returning the situation to that before September 20”.
KURTI: Talks between technical groups led by chief negotiators are under way in Brussels. The success of the negotiations and normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia primarily depends on Belgrade’s readiness to change its approach and itself. There is no pluralism in Serbia. You have one party. That party is also the state. And that state is the church. And that church is a party. There is no pluralism. They are just pretending to be a democracy.
POBJEDA: Do you have the impression that Prime Minister Edi Rama understands the President of Serbia better than you?
KURTI: Recently the Government of the Republic of Kosovo and the Government of the Republic of Albania had a joint meeting, during which we, together with Prime Minister Rama and his ministers, signed thirteen new cooperation agreements. The meeting of the two governments and the signed agreements are in the background of EU integration, which is our perspective. Agreements like these will allow us to translate the visions and programs of both governments into more concrete actions in order to be efficient and fruitful.
POBJEDA: You did not answer my question, so let me try this: Prime Ministers Rama, Zoran Zaev and President Vucic are proposing the “Open Balkans” project to the countries of the Western Balkans. Is that idea acceptable for Kosovo?
KURTI: We cannot have an Open Balkans while Serbia is closed to Kosovo, until it accepts our passports, identification documents, diplomas, certificates and Kosovo stamps. The Open Balkans is more like the Balkans that is open to influences from the East, especially from the Russian Federation and China; open to autocracy, corruption, war criminals… All of this are contrary to European values of democracy and rule of law. In a way, from Serbia’s point of view, the Open Balkans means that the other countries of the Western Balkans remain open to the Russian Federation and China in the way that Serbia is. Kosovo opposes that intention, insisting that Europe is our continent and the EU our destiny.
POBJEDA: To what extent has the inconsistency and passivity of the EU, as well as the constant looking through the fingers of President Vucic, contributed to the destabilization of the region?
KURTI: EU member states have turned consensus as comprehensiveness into “veto weapons”, which is being abused by both Serbia and Russia.
POBJEDA: Does the new US administration understand that? What do you expect from their return to the Balkans?
KURTI: We always welcome the American engagement in the Balkans, but the United States itself decides on the type and intensity of that engagement. The government of Kosovo is working closely with President Biden’s administration to strengthen democracy, implement necessary reforms for NATO and EU membership and deepen friendship to ensure lasting peace and security in the Western Balkans and Europe. The presence of American troops in Kosovo is a manifestation of America’s commitment to Kosovo and its sovereignty, but also to peace in the region and Europe, as well as the fight against preventing the spread of malicious third-party factors.
As our strategic partner, the United States has given confidence to our country, so the Kosovo Security Force is for the first-time part of the “Defender Europe 21” exercise on the territory of our Republic. The participation of Kosovo forces in the exercise, in which 27 countries participated, while 16 of them were hosts, clearly testifies of Kosovo’s intention to create a safe and peaceful environment in Europe and beyond. The support given by the US military during this exercise is a link in the US support chain for the development of our country, and especially for the construction of the military capacities of the Kosovo Security Force.
The KSF served peacefully during its first joint landing with the U.S. military in Kuwait and assisted U.S. and NATO partners in evacuating Afghan refugees, demonstrating its ability to serve side by side with NATO members.
POBJEDA: A new European Commission progress report on Kosovo said “political instability in Kosovo has limited government action, including EU-related reforms”. The situation in the north of Kosovo was described as “challenging” especially in terms of corruption, organized crime and conditions for freedom of expression. Are you satisfied with the EC report?
KURTI: The annual report measures progress over two six-month periods – before and during our government, which differ as day and night. In the last six months of our governance, we have institutional stability, democratic legitimacy and high trust in institutions by the citizens, which is a great social progress. In the field of rule of law, in the first six months of our government we adopted the Rule of Law Strategy, the draft Criminal Procedure Code and the Law on the Anti-Corruption Agency, finalized the draft verification document and the first draft law on verification and confiscation of unjustified property. All this will strengthen and improve the judicial system and the fight against crime and corruption.
In the area of the fight against organized crime and corruption, from April 1 to September 30, 2021, 519 raids and 283 police actions were carried out. We have also intensified the fight against smuggling, tax evasion and crime throughout the territory of the Republic of Kosovo.
In the area of vaccination and pandemic management during November 2021, we had a single-digit number of deaths from covid-19; we have given over 1.6 million doses of the vaccine, 64 percent of the population over the age of 16 received one dose, while 57 percent have received two. We are still the first country in the region in terms of population vaccination, which is an indisputable progress.
POBJEDA: What are the economic indicators?
KURTI: Competitive economy and economic development are important criteria for progress towards the EU. Based on current projections and statistics on economic development, we expect to have impressive double-digit growth by the end of this year, which will strengthen us as the country with the highest percentage of economic development in Europe. According to the estimate of the Central Bank of Kosovo, our economy will grow by 9.9 percent. Budget revenues have increased by a third, we have greatly reduced government spending and the Assembly has adopted the budget for 2022, which is 8.7 percent higher than the year-on-year budget review. Turnover in the economy increased by 30 percent, exports by 68 percent.
POBJEDA: Why, then, did “Lëvizja Vetëvendosje” (Self-Determination Movement) win only four municipalities in the local elections in Kosovo on October 17? What was not clear to the citizens?
KURTI: Maybe there were omissions on our part, on the part of our structures. However, I believe that citizens do not want less of the Self-Determination Movement. On the contrary – In the elections of 17th of October, we were first in the total number of votes at national level, just like in the parliamentary elections. However, local elections are, unlike parliamentary elections, a different kind of game and election rules. It’s more or less like tennis, where you can win a lot of games, but lose the set in the end. According to the total votes of the citizens, we are the first in the Republic in the local elections, although we will have mayors in only four municipalities. Where we are in opposition, we will make a good and strong opposition; where we are in power, we will make good and efficient government. Serbs in Kosovo are not second-class citizens.
POBJEDA: What is the status of Serbs in Kosovo? Are they, as official Belgrade claims, second-class citizens?
KURTI: They are not. Serbs in Kosovo make up between five and six percent of the population and are not discriminated against. As the Government of Kosovo, our program will help Serbs as much as Albanians. If you ask Serbs in Kosovo what their main complaints or demands are, they will say employment and justice.
It is interesting that no Serb in Kosovo has ever protested that the Association of Municipalities with a Serb majority has not been implemented. Belgrade is always the one who is angry. What Serbia is trying to impose on Kosovo’s statehood and our constitutional order is not the wishes or will of Kosovo Serbs, but an expression of Serbia’s own hegemonic aspirations.
We are committed to the affirmation of the Montenegrin community
POBJEDA: How would you assess the relations between Kosovo and Montenegro after the change of government in 2020?
KURTI: The Republic of Kosovo and Montenegro have close cooperation in many areas. The reform agenda is promising, because we have room to intensify cooperation in the fight against crime and corruption, which we must fight together on both sides of the border. Also, more can be done to facilitate free movement of citizens and remove barriers to greater economic development and investment in both countries. We are ready to cooperate and coordinate the activities of the Government of the Republic of Kosovo with the Government of Montenegro in regional initiatives. We are grateful to Montenegro for its support and commitment in international organizations. Kosovo and Montenegro share common aspirations for EU membership and are partners in joint efforts to democratize and develop the region.
POBJEDA: The Montenegrin community in Kosovo, announced in May this year, should become a constitutional category of the Republic of Kosovo like Serbs and Bosniaks, and gain minority status. Do Montenegrins have a minority status in Kosovo today?
KURTI: Together with the representatives of the Montenegrin community in Kosovo, we are committed to affirming the position of the Montenegrin community, as well as building trust and neighbourly relations between our two countries and peoples.
We want Albanians in Montenegro and Montenegrins in Kosovo to enjoy all their collective cultural and political rights, which is a healthy basis for good relations between our two countries and for a better future for both peoples.