In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to EU Special Representative in Kosovo Samuel Zbogar.
On February 17, 2008, Kosovo declared independence. The International Court of Justice subsequently stated that the declaration did not violate international law.
Since then, the newborn nation, yearning for a prosperous economy and constructive international ties, has undergone ups and downs and received diplomatic recognition from 110 countries. Eight nations, including the United States, Britain and France, recognized Kosovo one day after its declaration of independence.
However, aside from the question of recognition, Kosovo faces other issues as well. It wants to join the European Union (EU), forge stronger ties with NATO, improve its economic indicators, make progress on its human rights record and sustain European values.
The European Union has assigned a special mission to Kosovo, and Samuel Zbogar, the former Slovenian foreign minister, is the head of the EU office in Pristina. He was appointed by the former high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, in 2011.
A multilingual diplomat, Zbogar served as the Slovenian ambassador to the United States from 2004-08. From 2008-12, he was Slovenia’s foreign minister under President Danilo Turk.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Samuel Zbogar about the EU’s aspirations for Kosovo, its generous donations to the country and the future of the economy.
Kourosh Ziabari: Is there a consistent European Union policy in regard to the recognition of Kosovo? There are five EU member states that do not recognize Kosovo. Has the EU failed to implement a cohesive and unified approach regarding the independence of Kosovo?
Samuel Zbogar: European Union member states indeed do not have a unified view on the status of Kosovo. However, they all agree on its European path, and Kosovo shares the European perspective of the region. The best example is the recent adoption of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) by the European Commission. Although five member states do not recognize Kosovo, all EU member states have been supportive of continuing the SAA process with Kosovo. Kosovo is clearly on the European path, and the SAA will cement Kosovo’s position in the mainstream of the EU’s policy for the western Balkans.
Ziabari: What is your view regarding Russian influence on the recognition of Kosovo? Nations such as China, Iran, Belarus, Cuba and Venezuela, which have refused to recognize Kosovo, are close Moscow allies, and some of them have implied that they do not recognize Kosovo on the grounds that its independence was driven by the United States. What is your take on that?
Zbogar: The European Union’s position toward Kosovo’s status is neutral, and it would not be appropriate for me as the head of the EU office in Kosovo to speculate about the reasons of some countries, including EU member states, for not recognizing Kosovo. What I know is that for the regional stability and the possible future enlargement of the European Union, it is very important for Kosovo to fulfill many conditions—not because of us, but for its own sake. Primarily, I have in mind economic reforms, but also further development of rule of law and the fight against corruption.
Ziabari: The majority of EU nations maintain close economic and diplomatic ties with Kosovo. Will this closeness complicate the EU’s relations with Serbia, especially at a time when Serbia is negotiating to become a member of the European Union? As an EU official, which country do you give the priority to in forging stronger ties with?
Zbogar: Kosovo and Serbia are involved in a dialogue, facilitated by the European Union, with a very clear goal: to normalize relations in order for both of them to further progress on their European paths. The council concluded on December 16, 2014, that it will continue to monitor Kosovo’s and Serbia’s continued engagement toward visible and sustainable progress on the normalization of relations with the other, including the implementation of all agreements reached so far—so that Kosovo and Serbia can continue on their respective European paths, while avoiding that either [of them] can block the other in these efforts, and with the prospect of both being able to fully exercise their rights and fulfill their responsibilities.
If you are asking me about priority, the key priority for the EU is the normalization of relations, so that both Kosovo and Serbia can continue on their respective European paths.
Ziabari: Economic indicators show that Kosovo does not have stable economic conditions, and according to the World Bank, as of 2011, 30% of its population lives below the poverty line. How does the European Union help Kosovo to improve its economy? How much is the value of the EU’s financial assistance to Kosovo? Is the EU Special Representative office providing any kind of assistance to Kosovo to help it recover from its economic ailments?
Thanks to these funds, many good things have happened in Kosovo: the implementation of energy efficiency measures in 63 schools throughout Kosovo; two hospitals in Pristina; the Water Treatment Plant near Mitrovica; [and] the Palace of Justice compound, with a value of €25.2 million of EU funds to the heating system in Pristina. We have now started with the IPA 2, the new instrument that covers the next budgetary period [between] 2014-20 with €645 million. The approach with IPA 2 has changed, since the EU assistance will be programmed and developed in order to co-finance government priorities in sectors with sound long-term public policies.
Economic development is crucial for the future of Kosovo. At the beginning of this year, we have seen a wave of illegal migration from Kosovo to EU member states. When asked about that, my answer was always that the reasons are—but not exclusively—economic ones. Citizens need a renewed sense of hope and stake in the future of this country, especially those that feel so marginalized and discriminated that they are ready to flee their own home for an uncertain future abroad. They need jobs and economic opportunities.
So, we are advising the Kosovo government to redouble its efforts to work for their effective socioeconomic integration. We mean this very seriously, and we put our money where our words are. The EU can get involved, and [it] is already doing so on at least three levels: by helping Kosovo draft economic policies; by investing EU funds in recognized priority areas such as agriculture, small and medium-sized enterprises, energy or tourism; and, last but not least, by organizing European investors in a structured dialogue with local authorities, as we did through the European Investors Council.
Ziabari: You mentioned in an interview that the European Union Rule of Law mission in Kosovo is the largest EU Common Security and Defense Policy mission in the world. Why has the European Union invested extensively on introducing peace and security into Kosovo through a CSDP mission?
Zbogar: Rule of law is one of the fundamentals upon which the European Union is built, and therefore, [this is] the condition for any future form of cooperation. It was clear in the period of so called “supervised independence” that Kosovo could not cope with all security and peace and order threats, so an important number of policemen and policewomen, investigators, prosecutors, judges and custom officers from EU member states—but not exclusively—were sent to Kosovo, making EULEX the biggest European mission abroad. Last April, with the exchange of letters between then-EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Catherine Ashton and Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga—ratified in the Kosovo Assembly—the mandate of EULEX was transformed and extended until July 2016.
Ziabari: Do you consider Kosovo’s Muslim majority population to be an impediment in the way of its European integration? Over 90% of Kosovo’s population is Muslim, the largest in Europe.
Zbogar: We think a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society is one of the assets of Kosovo. Legislation is written in a modern way to recognize and guarantee important rights to each and every citizen, and daily habits show that religious freedoms are respected. In Pristina or Prizren, it is not rare to hear a muezzin sing or for bells from a Catholic Church to ring. The international community also very carefully observes how the tradition and property of the Serb Orthodox Church is respected and protected, because as you surely know, some of the most important sites of their tradition are in Kosovo, recognized as having universal value by being placed on UNESCO’s list.
Ziabari: In a January 2015 report, Human Rights Watch voiced concerns over the aggravation of the human rights situation in the western Balkans. It lamented the absence of a firm decision regarding war crimes during and prior to the 1999 Kosovo War. Are you optimistic that the rights situation in Kosovo will improve, particularly in regard to press freedom, freedom of assembly and rights of minorities?
Zbogar: The European Union publishes every autumn [the] so-called Progress Report, where one of the chapters is explicitly dedicated to human rights, including freedom of expression, religious rights and gender issues. In the context of Kosovo, one of the most flagrant questions is the return of missing [people], refugees or internally displaced persons. Once [the] right to your house or your property is touched, your life changes, and there are still simply too many people who did not or could not come back in Kosovo.
In the context of war crimes, Specialist Chambers should be specifically mentioned. The Specialist Chambers will deal with the allegations from the Council of Europe report of January 2011. Since the report came out, this dark cloud with allegations of very serious crimes has been hanging above Kosovo. It has a very negative effect on the image and perception of Kosovo internationally. That is why the EU established the Special Investigative Task Force (SITF) to [examine] the cases mentioned in the report. And once you have an investigation and indictments, you also need a court to process them. This will be the exclusive role of the Specialist Chambers.
Ziabari: The number of Kosovo citizens emigrating from their homeland to other European states has increased. A 2010 World Bank survey shows that one in every four households in Kosovo has at least one family member living abroad. Given the economic problems Kosovo faces, including unemployment, inflation and low incomes, will the emigration of citizens decrease in the future? Are there plans to address this issue?
Zbogar: As already mentioned, the crisis from the beginning of this year was successfully brought under control. It happened with a coordinated action of Kosovo authorities, neighboring countries and EU member states. But until the deep reason for people wanting to go out—and they are predominantly economic—is changed, the potential danger for a new wave is there. That is why government efforts in creating new jobs and improving the overall atmosphere is so important. We always like to say that our goal is to bring the EU to Kosovo without people having to move anywhere.
Ziabari: You have stated that Kosovars are the only citizens in the western Balkans who need visas to travel across Europe. Do you think visa-free travel will be introduced?
Zbogar: Yes, Kosovo is the only one in the region whose citizens still need visas to travel to EU member states. Every serious discussion in Kosovo about [Europe] sooner or later touches upon this subject, and I can tell you that there is lot of understandable frustration among people because of that. We have set a clear roadmap with achievable goals that Kosovo has to fulfill in order for the European Commission to assess whether all the criteria have been met. It will then be up to the European Parliament and the EU Council to make the final decision.
But even then, once it enters into force, visa liberalization would mean that Kosovo citizens will be able to enter the Schengen area for up to three months for tourism and business trips only. It does not mean Kosovo citizens will be able to work or study in the EU. For these purposes, national visas, issued by individual member states, will continue to be required.
Ziabari: How do you see the future of Kosovo, its economic and political conditions? Can we anticipate a normalization of relations with Serbia?
Zbogar: It is two years since the April 2013 agreement between Pristina and Belgrade, facilitated by the European Union. For the people in the north, dialogue is going too fast; for people in the south, it is going too slow. Fifteen years for some represents a difficulty to change overnight; for the others, it translates into enough of waiting.
In such a situation, it is good to remind ourselves what changes have taken place. Let me list a few of them. Kosovo law is being applied throughout Kosovo. It seems like a natural state of affairs, but not long ago people lost their lives trying to achieve—or prevent—that. Elections, municipal and general, were held across Kosovo. We have legal and legitimate Serb mayors elected in all ten Serb-majority municipalities, and Serbs from across Kosovo are represented in the government and assembly. Kosovo police are now unified and operating across Kosovo. The integration of the judiciary, agreed in February, is ongoing [and is] to be completed in the autumn. Kosovo police and customs are at all crossing points, and Kosovo is collecting duties and customs there. Parallel security structures are dissolved, integrated or are in the process of being integrated into Kosovo institutions.
Let me conclude by reminding you that Kosovo is still in a phase when any recognition in any international organization gives them great joy and pride. But I would like to say that the most important game Kosovo is playing is the economic one. Having a clear vision on the priorities in that field is crucial, since it is for the victory of all citizens, not just some of them.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.