An Interview with Prime Minister Albin Kurti of Kosovo

Land disputes with Serbia; reconciling Kosovo’s past while protecting its future; and reckoning with the Trump administration.

Albin Kurti speaking at a human rights conference in October of 2017. (photo: Arianit)

Journalist Allegra Nokaj recently sat down with the Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti, amid an ongoing internal political struggle to discuss Kosovo’s path forward in the new global economy.

In Part 1, we learned how important resolving the disputes between Serbia and Kosovo is to peace in the Balkans, and the world.

With the wounds of past regional conflicts still healing, and contentious disputes with neighboring Serbia about land rights and equality looming, what does the future hold for the people of Kosovo?

Allegra Nokaj: How do you plan to normalize dialogue with Serbia, given disagreements over who will control northern territories in Kosovo?

Prime Minister Albin Kurti: The issue of control over territory is a false one. Kosovo has control over its territory through police, military, NATO and EULEX.

The NATO and EULEX presence in the North is not due to lack of strength from our police and military or an inability of our government to act. It is due to the constant threat posed by Serbia.

In fact, the true problem is that Serbia is under an authoritarian regime who, when it looks in the mirror, doesn’t see its past crimes and genocide but the illusion of an imperialist future. We want Serbia to democratize and become an open society with free and fair elections, decent civil society and active citizenship.

For as long as Serbia remains an autocratic regime that cozies up to Russia and China, the presence of NATO in Kosovo remains indispensable.

AN: Are you in contact with the European capitals regarding the lack of dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia? What is their stance on the lack of dialogue and the territorial dispute between Kosovo and Serbia?

The EU and major European capitals have all welcomed my decision to lift tariffs and replace them with reciprocity as a positive step towards restarting the dialogue. On May 23, 2020, there was a a joint declaration by German and French ministers of Foreign Affairs welcoming my decision and urging Serbia to do its part.

I have had regular communication with both EU representatives and European capitals; they are all in favor of a dialogue which will resolve outstanding issues based on mutual respect and reciprocity.

Richard Grenell, Special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations, has voiced the United States’ disagreement with the tariffs on Serbian imports coming into Kosovo. In response, Kosovo’s government has lifted the 100% tariff, while replacing it with a principle of reciprocity.

AN: How has the principle of reciprocity affected trade with Serbia?

PM AK: We gradually lifted the 100% tariff starting in March and gradually applied reciprocity starting from the 31st of March.

On the 30th of May we introduced the third-wave of reciprocity measures which responded to a wider range of non-tariff barriers which Serbia has in place against Kosovo. We will continue to identify further barriers and apply further measures until full reciprocity is applied. The rationale behind gradual approach was to allow customs authorities on both sides of the border to adjust and prepare properly.

This is because we are not against trade in principle, but we are against unfair and unjust trade. Reciprocity is a basic principle in trade but also in international relations. To deny reciprocity measures for the Republic of Kosovo is to deny the exercise of its sovereign rights. We want reciprocity by mutually lifting the barriers, but we cannot remain spectators to Serbia’s new barriers.

The tariff was removed on March 31: From April 1 to April 30, imports stood at 15 million EUR while exports to Serbia over 1 million, which shows that Serbia has responded to the reciprocity measure.

We don’t want to put barriers on trade but when they exist, we will reciprocate.

AN: Why do you believe the principle of reciprocity is necessary in improving Kosova’s relations with Serbia?

PM AK: The principle of reciprocity is necessary to improve relations with any country, let alone with Serbia. We are a sovereign country and we enter into relations with other countries based on mutual respect and reciprocity.

Unless Serbia sees Kosova as an equal it will never treat us fairly and this is a problem. I don’t have to imagine what the final deal will be between Serbia and Kosova when I already know that Serbia doesn’t respect a basic principle such as reciprocal relations.

We need dialogue- all the time, not just now- but we will sit at a table only as equals, nothing less. Establishing a reciprocal relationship on trade, economics and politics is the first step towards such equal treatment.

Initially, U.S. Ambassador Grenell tried to organize a peace agreement in which Serbia would agree to stop their campaign against Kosovo’s recognition after Kosovo removed tariffs against Serbian imports. After the Ambassador’s visit to Belgrade, he no longer requested an end to Serbia’s campaign against Kosovo’s recognition.

AN: What do you think has motivated the Trump administration’s shift in policy?

PM AK: I cannot rationalize this. I think this is a question for Grenell, who is no longer an ambassador.

AN: How is your relationship with Ambassador Grenell?

PM AK: From October 6, 2019 until February 3, 2020, while I was Prime Minister designate, there were two deals negotiated between Serbia and Kosovo by Mr. Grenell: One was on new railway and highway and the other was on direct flights between Prishtina and Belgrade.

Once I assumed office there were no more attempts for new agreements.

The United States is our greatest ally in war and in peace, so I have respected Grenell’s mandate and his role as special envoy, and I still do; but he wasn’t interested in the dialogue. Instead, he was interested in a quick agreement. His interest for a snap-deal with a quick-fix is neither realistic nor feasible.

AN: Kosovo has lacked proper representation in Washington, and many are unaware of the situation in Kosovo. How do you plan to democratize and develop Kosova, thus improving its representation?

PM AK: We have more representation in Washington today than we’ve ever had at any other time in our history.

Paradoxically, until 2008 when Kosovo declared independence, Washington was more aware of what is happening in Kosovo, although we lacked official representation. The question perhaps is not whether we lack proper representation but rather what kind of representation we have.

Kosova suffers from a high-level of corruption and a culture of nepotism-which was merciless even when it came to the foreign service. As a result, our foreign service is filled with family members, party affiliates and business shareholders of politicians- many of whom lack the basic knowledge and skills of a diplomat. In some cases, they appointed even their personal drivers.

So, in a sense you are right that there is a direct connection between democratization and development and representation. If you have high-level corruption from within, then this is manifested out of the country as an image. We need to change the situation inside to change our image outside.

We are a small country, seeking more recognition; we need a decent foreign policy that is a reflection and extension of our society but also is active in promoting the country’s best interest. In recent years we have had a President who has followed his personal agendas and has used the foreign service as his personal administration.

The United States wants a strong Kosova with a functional democracy and a growing economy where its citizens thrive. Having had a decisive role in both liberation and development, the U.S. takes pride in such success but unfortunately that will never come through corrupt leaders.

AN: Kosovo is widely regarded as one of the most pro-American nations in the world. Why are strong Kosovo-U.S. relations essential, and how is your government prepared to form stronger relationships with Kosovo’s partners and allies, especially the United States?

PM AK: The bond between the citizens of Kosova and the U.S. goes beyond any leader and is rooted in recent history. America played an essential role in the liberation of Kosova from Serbia and in its development afterwards.

From the first visit of James A. Baker in Albania in 1991, after the fall of communism, Albanians everywhere have looked up to America as the beacon of hope.

“At last you are free to think your own thoughts. At last you are free to speak your own minds. At last, you are free to choose your own leaders,” were the words of secretary Baker which Albanians everywhere had been yearning for so long to hear.

Today the U.S. presence in Kosova is not only a strong support for the independence and U.S. commitment to Kosova but it also deters Russian influence in the region which poses a great threat for the American interests and its allies.

We share the same values of freedom, democracy, rule of law and free and fair trade and I want to build on these values and further strengthen the relations with the United States. The U.S. is a strong supporter of Kosova’s integration into the EU family and I will work to make this third decade of this century a decade of Trans-Atlantic partnership for Kosova by joining both the EU and NATO.

AN: Thank you, Prime Minister Kurti. We look forward to hearing more from you about the future of Kosovo in the final part of this series, Part 3.

(Contributing journalist, Allegra Nokaj) (Contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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