Interview with BERNARD NIKAJ, the Ambassador of Kosovo to Belgium

EPA-EFE/ALESSANDRO DI MEO Scene

Foreign Minister of Kosovo Behgjet Pacolli in Rome Description

Since the 1st January Bulgaria assumed the rotating presidency of the Council, where the European perspective for the Western Balkans region is a priority.The ambition of Sofia is to achieve a clear action plan with each of the countries of the region and gain wide support among member states and European institutions. New Europe met with the Ambassador of Kosovo to Belgium, BERNARD NIKAJ, to discuss the state of play between the EU and Kosovo, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of its independence from Serbia later in February.


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NE: The Western Balkan countries have high expectations from the Bulgarian presidency since Sofia made the process of the region’s belated integration process as its priority. What does Kosovo expect from it?

 Nikaj: Kosovo considers itself to be a part of the enlargement process in the same way as any other country in the Western Balkans. We expect that the Bulgarian presidency will provide us with a strategy and give the country a clear and ambitious European membership perspective. In 2015, Kosovo and the EU signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, which provides a contractual framework for our relations, but we want and are ready to move forward according to our merits.

NE: In his State of the Union speech in September 2017, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for keeping a credible European Union membership perspective for the Western Balkan countries, saying that Serbia may already join the EU in 2025. However, with Kosovo, the situation is more complicated because five member states – Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Cyprus, and Romania are unlikely to recognise Kosovo’s independence in the foreseeable future. How is Kosovo going to convince these member states to change their stance?

Nikaj: The member states have different opinions on the Kosovo’s situation. In spite of our efforts to explain that the independence of Kosovo contributed to peace and stability in the region, and the legal basis for our independence was confirmed by the International Court of Justice, these member states have not changed their positions. I hope that the European Commission and these countries will find a way to overcome these challenges because a European stance on the Western Balkans, without Kosovo, is unimaginable. What are you going to have? A black hole in the middle of Europe? I understand that these member states may have their own domestic issues – in Spain, for instance. However, there can be no parallels drawn between the internal issues in these member states and the case of Kosovo because our independence was partly a result of Yugoslavia’s dissolution. To this day, there are still more than 1,500 missing people in Kosovo and we are having issues with identifying the victims of sexual violence as the result of war in Kosovo…its not comparable with the domestic issues of member states.

We got engaged in the normalisation of ties with Serbia and hope it will give us an additional argument to the countries that do not recognize us. But our independence is irreversible and it is wasting time to ague with it.

NE: The EU put the normalisation of ties between Kosovo and Serbia as the main condition to opening the prospect of European membership for your country. What are the main challenges and achievements that have been made so far?

Nikaj: In 2013, Kosovo and Serbia under the auspices of the European Union signed an agreement on the normalisation of ties between the two countries and set the base for technical issues to be resolved, such as issuing Kosovo its own telephone code, the introduction of the freedom of movement principle, mutual recognition of documents and diplomas, establishment of an electricity market. Some aspects of this agreement have been implemented as a partial integration of the northern part of Kosovo, predominantly populated by the Serbian minority, into the system. Since October, for instance, judges, prosecutors and the police of four Serb municipalities in the north (North Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic) were subjected to Kosovo law. However, some aspects of this agreement have not been implemented properly. Moreover, Serbia continues to provoke instability in the north by providing funds to security structures and health system. They continue to interfere in local politics. If you look at the EU monitors reports of elections in 2017, it was noted that there was tremendous pressure put on the population in northern Kosovo to vote for specific political parties. Every two weeks Serbia’s Defence Minister says the Serbian army is monitoring closely what is happening in the north. There are always uncertainties and the process of the dialogue has to clarify this.

The challenge now for Serbian society is whether they want to remain a hostage of the past and deal with nationalism, or do they want to turn the page and move to the future and the EU. If we look at current discussions in Brussels in terms of enlargement, the Commissioner talks about Serbia as a frontrunner and potential member of the EU by 2025. The real challenge is to have this project on the ground. If Belgrade, as a frontrunner of the enlargement process, continues to interfere in northern Kosovo then we have to be concerned since the leader of the process should behave differently.

NE: Let’s talk about relations Kosovo has with its other neighbors. Last month the Head of the European Union Office in Kosovo, Nataliya Apostolova urged Kosovo’s politicians to stop holding the youth hostage and ratify border demarcation agreement with Montenegro. Why is she raising this issue now?

 Nikaj: Kosovo has very good relations with all its neighbours except Serbia. The challenge of the border with Montenegro is an internal Kosovar dispute and has nothing to do with the relations between Kosovo and Montenegro. Our countries had a joint commission, which worked on the delineation of the border between Kosovo and Montenegro and at the end came with a final proposal signed in Vienna in 2015. The proposal then went to the respective parliaments for the ratification. Montenegro ratified it, but Kosovo did not because it could not gather 81 votes in the parliament for the ratification. Immediately after taking office in 2017, Prime Minister Haradinaj decided to disband the Commission in charge of the border delineation and composed a new demarcation commission. Since that time the discussion has been held within Kosovo’s political establishment class on how to proceed with this problem as there are politicians who think that because of the 2015 agreement, Kosovo could lose territory. But leave it to the parliament to decide what will happen with this agreement. Kosovo also has good relations with Macedonia (FYROM). Last month, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev visited Kosovo and was warmly welcomed by our President Hashim Thaçi, Prime Minister Haradinaj and all leadership of Kosovo.

NE: The Head of the European Union Office in Kosovo, Nataliya Apostolova, in her recent interview, commented on the initiative of 43 Kosovar MPs to abrogate the Law on Specialist Chambers. Apostolova said that if this initiative goes through, there would be consequences for Kosovo’s European path. Why did the Kosovo Assembly raise this issue? What is wrong with the Law on Specialist Chambers?

Nikaj: First, I have to stress that the EU is an integral part of a state-building process in Kosovo since 2008, when the EU Joint Action of February 2008 was adopted. Second, all laws adopted in the Kosovo Assembly are first checked by the government against EU Acquis Communautaire . However, this was not the case related to the Law on the Specialist Chamber, abrogation of which came from the MPs and not from the government. I have to stress, that independently of this initiative, the law is still in force and the Chambers are operating in accordance with the legal and constitutional framework of Kosovo. This initiative can be vilified but let’s focus on the positive examples of our cooperation. For instance, the fight against terrorism. The government took swift measures to address the problem. We adopted the legislation and examined the funding of organizations, who promote terrorist activities and prosecuted them. We did even more than some member states.

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