Interview with Ilir Dugolli. The place for Kosovo is in Europe

Ilir Dugolli is ambassador of the Republic of Kosovo for Belgium and Luxembourg, and deals too with the relations of the country with the European Union (qui l’intervista in Italiano).

Ambassador, in February 2013 Kosovo celebrated five years since the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo. Do you think that independence has today been achieved?

Of course, Kosovo is independent. Independence is ultimately a matter of fact. If anyone has any doubt, he should go back to the opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the declaration of independence. Notwithstanding other countries may have different views, independence is ultimately a sovereign decision.

Half of the 100 international recognitions of Kosovo came directly in 2008, the other half in the following five years. Is there a slowing down trend in recognitions? Or will the remaining half of UN member states also recognize Kosovo in the next 5 years?

I would not predict when and what country would recognize, but it’s very logical that those countries which had nothing against recognition and that supported Kosovo’s struggle for freedom and independence, and that invested a lot for peace and security in the Balkans, were very fast to recognize us. It takes more time for countries more remote, or that had some reservations, or that simply had no interest involved. So for me there is a natural flow of things that indicates that with each further recognition, there is even more  work to do to convince also those countries for which the independence of Kosovo is not a priority.

Surely there is a political strategy by the government of Kosovo to step up recognition, but ultimately we have to recognize that these decisions are part of the sovereign right of each country.

Even if the government of Kosovo’s final desire would be to have everyone to recognize it as a sovereign state, there are other states in the world, such as Israel or Taiwan, which enjoy only limited international international recognition and which nevertheless seem to work quite fine. Do Kosovo have any particular relation with this kind of states, to see how they dealt with their partial recognition status?

We don’t have particular relation with one or the other, we try to achieve recognition from sovereign countries and to have them establish diplomatic relations with us. But we understand that circumstances are peculiar and there are other instances in which the existence of a country does not make everybody happy. Or where decades pass, and still someone questions whether Israel exists or not. It just indicates that with your own existence as a country you can’t make everybody happy, but we have no reasons to shy away from exercising a fundamental right. We do exist, we are a country, we are very happy to have so many friendly nations that support our existence, and we try to expand the list of countries recognizing us.

One of the reasons why Kosovo lags behind in the relations with the European Union it’s because of its recognition by only 22 of the 27 EU member states. There was recently a declaration by a member of the Cyprus government, saying that even if Serbia recognizes Kosovo, they would not recognize it.

Lack of recognition does cause difficulties, and we cannot deny that, but at the same time our difficult situation is due to the fact that non-recognition by those EU member states has almost nothing to do with Kosovo. That does not give us much leverage to influence such positions of non-recognizers.

Recently there were prospects for the negotiations of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU, which were made conditional upon improvements in some specific fields. Do you feel that there been achievement that which may allow opening negotiations for a SAA in 2013?

I believe that a lot has been done, and I really believe that soon we’ll come to a point, a moment of truth, where this contractual engagement between Kosovo and the EU will be in place.

Let’s be practical and say clearly that what we need is to see the EU united and agreeing on the legal basis under which an SAA may be signed between EU and Kosovo. We believe that this is doable and should be doable, and the opposite goes to the detriment to EU’s commitment to bring Kosovo closer to itself, other than to the detriment of Kosovo’s citizens. What the EU has committed to and reiterated is that Kosovo has a European perspective and should be brought closer to the EU. There is no argument not to formalize that in the European integration process. Without it, we’re not anchored in a formal and irreversible way in the EU integration process. That’s all we ask.

Kosovo also lags behind in visa liberalization towards EU countries. Are there any improvements on this issue?

This is really one of the most salient issues for our citizens. We remain the only country in the Western Balkans to have to travel with visa. A roadmap towards liberalization was delivered to us by the Commission last June, with very high thresholds, and we’ve done a lot. Just on February 12 there was the second senior official meeting regarding visa dialogue in Pristina, after the first in Bruxelles, to check the improvements still needed. We try to meet all the suggestions as soon as possible, but I would never predict when exactly.

Kosovo has recently introduced visa requirements for citizens of several countries, was this also part of the roadmap?

Certainly, that’s one of the understandable requirements, as of July 1st, for the countries enlisted, a visa regimes will start to be applied.

Concerning the relations between Kosovo and Serbia, have you seen a change since the new administration stepped in, in Belgrade?

The general impression is that the Serbian government has started to implement some of the agreements that were reached by the previous government, so this may be considered as a change, but this is my personal opinion. On the ground I do not see much difference. We still have Serbian security structures operating in the North Kosovo, we still have blockades, walking out of events when Kosovo is present… the attitude is still the same, there’s no genuine, profound change. Our representatives meet, life goes on, business goes on as usual. Not much of improvement but also not much of deterioration.

Concerning the North Kosovo situation, in December-January the President of Serbia presented a platform for diplomatic dialogue that was then voted by the Parliament. One principle could be seen as further decentralization of Kosovo. The reactions from Pristina were quite negative on this. Why is further decentralization a no-go principle for Kosovo?

I don’t think that anyone can take seriously the document that they designed. Usually their documents are in mismatch with time. If they had produced it 15-20 years ago, someone would have maybe taken it for serious. From a very practical point of view, we’re dealing with a territory of 10.000 squared kilometers, and a very generous decentralization policy has already been applied. In these few years new municipalities with Serbian or Turk majorities have been established. They’ve managed to take self-government into their own hands, and to deliver services to citizens living in those areas, whether they’re Kosovan Serbs, Albanians, or of other ethnicities. Beyond this, there is absolutely no reason for which we should try some academic exercise which endangers paralyzing the whole of Kosovo. We don’t want a paralyzed country, we want a country which functions and delivers services to its citizens. We have a Constitution in place, and people should simply read what this provides and use its mechanisms.

One concept that was inserted in this platform, and probably overlooked, concerns the possibility for Serbia to delegate sovereignty and competence in some particular areas to the authorities of Pristina, in a way compliant with the Constitution of Serbia. Could this be a trigger for the normalization of relations?

Belgrade has introduced a Constitution envisaging that Kosovo is part of Serbia. How they’re going to change, amend, delete it, it’s their problem. We’re not interested in an exercise to show how generous they are that they want to devolve competence to Kosovo. We’re here not because of them, but despite their policies to exterminate us. There had been so many occasions for Serbia to save face. The new democratic government had the opportunity to save face by indicated that the responsibility for Kosovo was with Milosevic and the machinery of his regime. They didn’t do that cut, they choose continuity. They could have saved face when they asked for an ICJ advisory opinion. But as soon as it came out, they said they didn’t like it, and weren’t going to respect it. If there’s no leadership to seize those opportunities, then tough luck! You still need some politicians to act courageously and tell the truth to their citizens.

In 2012 there was a change in the international presence in Kosovo: the ICO was the closed, and the EU presence was streamlined with a single figure which is now both EUSR and head of the EU delegation. Do you see any effect of these changes?

A good effect is to have a representative of the EU, rather than only an acting one as before. I don’t think that was a good signal, for a country in the EU’s backyard, to take so long for the EU to agree on the mandate of the EUSR. It doesn’t speak well for the credibility of the EU in a country in which it has already invested a lot. The fact that the EU now has a single representative is a good sign.

It is also positive that that international supervision has concluded, and now it is in the hands of Kosovans to decide about the fate of Kosovo. We don’t have any more that sort of mentorship, and that indicates that you take responsibility for your own acts. It leads to stronger democratic pressure and no excuses for the government to blame the international presence. It’s an ingredient for a healthier democratic life in Kosovo.

Kosovo today has more than two thirds of Council of Europe’s member states recognizing it. Do you think that Kosovo will become soon a member of it, and a signatory of the European Convention of Human Rights?

We’re working towards this, and we hope to join soon. I just feel it very sad not to be involved in multilateral institutions from which Kosovo’s citizens could benefit. Really we’re deprived from so many structures, from sport to culture, which make no sense, and you can only explain it in political terms. We understand that it takes efforts, and we’re ready to make those efforts, to reach the goal.

The slogan chosen by the government is “Kosovo the young Europeans”. You are 38 years old, minister Citaku is around 30, foreign minister Hoxhaj is 44, prime minister Thaci is 45. The bureaucratic staff of the Republic of Kosovo seems to comply with the slogan. Is there any backlash to such a young age of the civil service?

I may be biased, but to be fair I do not see difficulties. Young or old, it just depends on the mindset. You can have very old people with young mindsets, and the opposite too. Of course we take pride in this young, enthusiastic, very vibrant population, but also being in the late 30s or early 40s is not too young either. You can always have more experience, and we try to learn continuously. I think that our life, our struggle has made us much more mature than our age shows. Sometimes I feel even too old, compared to the people around me.

 Photo: Embassy of Kosovo in Bruxelles

Chi è Davide Denti

Dottore di ricerca in Studi Internazionali presso l’Università di Trento, si occupa di integrazione europea dei Balcani occidentali, specialmente Bosnia-Erzegovina.

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