An Exclusive Interview with EUSR to Kosovo, Samuel Žbogar, on the main issues Kosovo faces on its road to independence.

It is 1989 and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević is beginning to remove Kosovo’s autonomous rights within the Yugoslav federation. Ethnic Albanian Kosovars, backed by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), are pushing for unilateral independence while the minority Serb population in the north fear political and social repression if a Kosovar state were to come to fruition. Fast-forward to 2012 and many of the issues that started a decade of violence between Serb nationalist forces and the KLA still remain as contentious and as sensitive today as they did several decades ago, albeit under a vastly different geo-political landscape.

Image courtesy of Richter Frank-Jurgen, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Following a decade that saw thousands killed, hundreds of thousands displaced, and foreign interventions by both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and then the United Nations (UN), Kosovo still remains a volatile issue in the Balkans. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia may no longer exist, but many of the social and political tensions within its former republics and autonomous regions still endure.

Since 1999, Kosovo has undergone and continues to undergo several political transformations on its path towards independence. UN Security Council Resolution 1244 first established the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) to oversee peace and political administration in Kosovo. This was followed by a series of failed negotiations between the Serb and Kosovar parties from 2006 to 2007, brokered by the UN to determine Kosovo’s final status. In 2008, the Kosovo Assembly declared independence and was subsequently supported by an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legality of its declaration. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and over 85 countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence while five European Union (EU) countries, the UN, and half of the world’s states have yet to do so. Serbia still claims sovereignty over all of Kosovo.

Not only do these factors pose clear diplomatic and political challenges for Kosovo, but they also prevent potential trade and investment that Kosovo so desperately needs in order to become a stable and prosperous state. So what are the major issues that pose the biggest problems for Kosovo’s independence and its road toward building a stable democracy? In an exclusive interview with EU Special Representative and Head of the EU Office in Kosovo, Samuel  Žbogar, this analyst asked him just that.

“The main issue for a stable Kosovo is the rule of law, or the lack thereof, in terms of corruption, organised crime, and the judiciary being influenced by politics,” said Žbogar.  “Of course, the North (where the minority Serbs Kosovars reside) and unemployment are also big issues.”

Firstly, in tackling the difficulties associated with Kosovo’s rule of law, corruption, and crime, Žbogar cited Kosovo’s aspirations to join the EU as a mechanism to spur further reform. “This is the whole beauty about these negotiations with the EU. With us (the EU) coming to you (Kosovo) with the requests, we change you.  This is the engine of reforms that we hope to see in Kosovo.”[i]

The EU and other international observers have stated that they have already seen positive changes and a strong commitment by the Kosovo Assembly to move forward, but they have continued to push Kosovo to make further reforms in order to garner greater political stability. As Žbogar noted, “We want to see more implementation of our [EU] legislation. We want to see the adoption of the law on the confiscation of assets. We want to see the law on money laundering. We want to see a new strategy on anti-corruption adopted. We want to see more results.”

Similarly, the issue of the 60,000 or so ethnic Serbs in Northern Kosovo has always been another main point of contention in talks between Kosovo and Serbia. The northern region has largely remained under Serbian sovereignty, operating under an authority of several self-governing bodies, smuggling proceeds from illicit groups, and transfers from Belgrade.

The dispute has consistently come to the forefront of Kosovo’s independence question as Kosovar forces have failed to take customs posts linking the northern region and its shared border with Serbia. Under NATO escorts, Kosovar forces have often clashed with Serbs in the north as Pristina tries to flex its muscle in a region where it has no control.

The EU and other international bodies are strongly encouraging both Serbia and Kosovo to enter into dialogue to discuss the normalization of relations between the states. Žbogar believes that Serbia needs to be brought into the discussion of Northern Kosovo as, “Serbia has parallel [security] structures in the North and is financing other structures like hospitals and education… and because they have their ethnic group there- they have Serbs in Kosovo. The rule of law doesn’t function there either. We need to engage Serbia as well in this discussion.”

Mr. Žbogar equally added that the northern issue “cannot be solved from one day to another. It has to be a spread of activity over a longer time.” He went on to note that “Kosovo needs to send to the North positive messages about how they are part of Kosovo, how they will stay where they are, how nothing will happen to the way they are living – messages of assurances, rather than threatening the criminal functions there.” Although the rule of law is not functioning in the region, he states that the majority of the people are just normal citizens and that many changes need to be made in the way Kosovo approaches the North.

Lastly, in regards to Kosovo’s growing but weak economy, Žbogar cited several causes for the nearly 50% unemployment rate in the country which has been seen as a major hindrance to political stability and economic progress. “Kosovo lacks production, and therefore has high unemployment,” noted Žbogar. “The EU is investing 70 million euros a year for different projects, and is also supporting SMEs (small and medium enterprises), giving rural grants to farmers to build factories and other facilities.”

Official unemployment figures state that 40,000 out two million Kosovars have no regular income and require government assistance.[ii]  Those figures however, mask the enormous progress Kosovo has undertaken in terms of privatising the national energy and telecommunications sectors, and the nearly two billion US dollars in foreign pledges made to Kosovo to continue its economic reforms. In 2011, both Serbia and Bosnia also resumed customs stamps and reduced tariff privileges with Kosovo under the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA).

Overall, Kosovo faces enormous obstacles in its transformation towards becoming an independent state. These include much-needed political reforms, ethnic stability in the North, Kosovo’s stubbornly high unemployment numbers, and ultimately, international recognition. That being said, Žbogar remains optimistic for Kosovo’s future, pointing to both Kosovo and Serbia’s willingness to join the EU. “I’m happy that Kosovo is joining the rest of the region on the way to the EU,” added Žbogar. “The enlargement process [of the EU] has this transformational power, helping countries going through reforms.” He hopes Kosovo will focus on short term priorities and benchmarks set by the European Commission so that Kosovo can start negotiating for the Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAA) on the road to EU member state candidacy. As Žbogar concluded on the potential for Kosovo to tackle the aforementioned issues, “Kosovo is ready, and the EU is ready.”

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