Interview by Nataliya Apostolova, Head of EU Office in Kosovo/EU Special Representative, to Zeri newspaper
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Question: The Kosovo Assembly has voted in the new Government headed by Ramush Haradinaj almost three months after the general election in Kosovo. However, according to what was seen last Saturday, this Government is not at all stable, as it has only 61 votes. What is your assessment of the new Government? What are your expectations for the new Government, which will have a strong opposition in parliament?
NA: The Government as you said has just been voted in. So, we as internationals, as the EU, do not like to give an assessment before we have seen what this Government can and will do. Our biggest concern was that for more than three months there was a stalemate in the political life of Kosovo. There was no Government and there was no functional Assembly. As you know, Kosovo is in Europe and we all underline Kosovo's European perspective. But, at the same time we have to bear in mind that the European perspective and European agenda is a reform agenda, which means that EU membership requires many different reforms. These reforms can be very unpopular; they are harsh reforms, so our concern was the fact that for three months we had no institutions which has delayed progress in the implementation of these reforms. Therefore, to answer your question, I would not make an assessment now. I would rather give this Government time to demonstrate progress. They were democratically elected and now we have to see what they will produce. The Prime Minister just presented the Government programme and we are looking into it with great interest, because it is quite an extensive document, handwritten with 130 pages, so we will see what steps the Government will now take. But, allow me to say that we are not disengaging, quite the opposite. I already met the Prime Minister and key ministers and our EU family, the EU Ambassadors, met the Prime Minister together with a number of ministers. So, I would be tempted to say that I will make the assessment after one month, or let’s say after 100 days.
Question: Taking into consideration that the coalition has only 61 votes, and to pass the demarcation agreement 80 votes will be needed, and together with the fight against corruption as conditions for visa liberalisation, can there be any alternative solution because the coalition has only 61 votes?
NA: The European Union has been very clear and has communicated through the highest level of our European hierarchy. We have said, and we remain very firm, that the remaining conditions for visa liberalisation are twofold: first, the border demarcation issue must be resolved, and second, there must be progress in the fight against corruption and organized crime, which is a process and which must be maintained. Now, how the demarcation is going to be agreed upon is an arrangement between Kosovo and Montenegro. We are not the ones to propose a way out. We have insisted on border demarcation to be voted on as soon as possible, because we understand how important this is for the youth in Kosovo.
Nevertheless, how this Government is now going to pass the demarcation law with the support of the Assembly is their choice. So to reiterate, the important thing is the end result. The demarcation issue should be resolved. If Kosovo and Montenegro decide on a different arrangement, this is up to them. We are going to accept it but they have to be aware that without a final solution on demarcation and a real track record maintained in the fight against corruption and organised crime, the European Union is not going to make any decision on these two conditions.
Question: Officials from Montenegro said that they will not discuss the issue of demarcation with Kosovo again as according to them this is an internal problem of Kosovo. Do you think that they should discuss this agreement?
NA: I don’t think that we are the ones who should give advice. As I stated, this is an agreement between Kosovo and Montenegro. I heard in my meeting with the Prime Minister that he is looking into it very carefully. I heard this also when I met the Foreign Minister. The whole Government is exploring different options and I have been told that one of the first official visits will be to Montenegro, because this is where this issue is to be tackled.
Question: Haradinaj dismissed the former Commission on demarcation and appointed a new one. Do you think this was a fair step?
NA: I cannot make an assessment on that. Obviously, Mr. Haradinaj has a strong opinion on the matter, but he is now the Prime Minister of Kosovo and he has the responsibility to think about the Kosovo interest. He is also hearing lots of concerns from the youth. As we've witnessed over the last several weeks, another worrying signal was that young people have been taking buses and leaving Kosovo. Thankfully it did not turn out to be something significantly threatening but nevertheless Mr. Haradinaj now has to think as Prime Minister and address interests of different entities in the Assembly.
Question: If Kosovo and Montenegro agree to send the agreement for arbitration, can you remove it as a condition and give visa liberalisation to Kosovo?
NA: Our hierarchy was very clear about that. The European Commission set as a prerequisite and precondition the border demarcation agreement which needs to be voted on by both parliaments. So if the two sides decide to go for arbitration, then both sides have to agree with the decision of this arbitration and obviously it would take time, because as lawyers dealing with international law we know very well that this is a time consuming process. We saw the same issue coming out between two of our Member States. So, I think that these are examples which politicians have to bear in mind before they make a final decision.
Question: The SAA was the first agreement between Kosovo and the EU. How do you see the implementation of this agreement by Kosovo authorities here?
NA: Indeed this is the contractual relationship between Kosovo and the EU and it can be regarded as a significant success that, after a long time, we managed to have the SAA. Now comes the biggest challenge, the implementation of the SAA, as an extensive document of 600 hundred pages which includes many actions. In order to make it easier for Kosovo and its institutions we have come up with the European Reform Agenda (ERA), which is an instrument to speed up the implementation of the SAA and to concentrate on the actions which are most related to the economic development of Kosovo, rule of law and social welfare of citizens. ERA contains a smaller number of actions, 20-25, and we are working carefully with the Ministry of European Integration and the Office of the Prime Minister because, there will soon be an assessment of how Kosovo has performed this year. In light of this, it is good that the timing of the Country Report has been amended, and it will be published in April next year. These are changes in our rules, as we are linking the Country Report for enlargement countries with the Economic Reform Programme, and so we are following the same timeline. In this case, with the implementation of the SAA and ERA, the Kosovo government will have another chance before April to speed up the reform process and prove that there is a strong willingness for reforms to be implemented. If we look at their implementation at the moment, the results are quite worrying. This is why we are fully engaged. We are going to work with essential ministers and the Office of the Prime Minister to help expedite the process of implementing reforms. This is going to be reflected in the Country Report, which will be published in April 2018.
Question: How successful will this Government be in fighting corruption, taking into consideration that some ministers of this Government are under the investigation?
NA: I have stated on many occasions, and I think that you are all aware of it, that Rule of Law is the most important priority for the EU in Kosovo. And these are not just words. I want to say that for us the rule of law is essential, because it is the basis for any other development in Kosovo. Rule of law is needed for economic development. Investments will not come because there are some shadow schemes which are related to the rule of law. So, we have always said and will always say that rule of law is our first priority. It is therefore extremely important to have politicians and people in high offices who demonstrate respect for the rule of law. So, if we have such cases where the court has not come up with a final decision whether the person is guilty or not we have to refrain from communicating with people who are indicted. And we have done that so far. You may have noticed that our office and myself are not in communication with people who are indicted. I think that it is very important for politicians to show strength and responsibility, and to abide by these principles.
Question: Kosovo has a very strong opposition. Is this good or bad? Do you think that the Government will be able to push forward its work knowing that it has a strong opposition in parliament?
NA: I will speak from the point of view of a European citizen. To have a strong opposition is good, because the opposition gives strength and a competitive factor for the Government and for ruling parties. So, this competition and the challenges which come from opposition are very healthy. They give other opinions on very important processes. But here, I also want to say that the opposition has to be constructive. Because to be in opposition only because you oppose certain policies is not a responsible position and I would not advise the parties which are now in opposition to take this stance. I have already had meetings with opposition parties and I have asked exactly this, because for a number of reforms which the Assembly has to adopt through laws, or the Government has to push for, they need the opposition, they need the votes as we discussed. Reforms are not good or bad for this or that party, they are good for Kosovo. Kosovo citizens deserve a responsible opposition. So far, I have got reassurances from both parties in the opposition which have stated to us that they are going to be constructive. But, let’s see. We are witnessing the early moments of the work of this Assembly and this Government.
Question: There were media reports recently about a possible new wave of migration from Kosovo. Are you informed about whether the number of asylum requests from Kosovo citizens has increased?
NA: We have been following this trend very closely. For the EU, migration is a very important theme. I would like to say that Kosovo authorities, namely the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Border Police, have reacted well. Obviously they have been trained well and they took their responsibility seriously. The Ministry of European Integration, together with some of our Member States including Hungary, Germany, Austria and others made a statement that asylum seekers could not settle in Europe at the moment, because Kosovo is considered a safe place, and it is a safe place. So, the notion of asylum seekers is not accepted in these countries at the moment. Indeed there were such worrying trends, but it seems this is now under control. And again I want to state that we commend the Kosovo institutions for reacting very fast and in appropriate ways which means that when there is training, when there is good staffing and when there is a will, then reforms produce results.
Question: If there is an influx in migration does Kosovo definitely lose the hope for visa liberalization, even if the demarcation agreement is passed?
NA: I wouldn’t relate these two things. Of course it is important. I would say that migration is more connected to other important things for Kosovo, which are economic development, a good education system and the rule of law. As we have seen, migration involves mainly young people who would stay here if there would be an environment to live well, to have jobs, to be educated and to be competitive on the European market. I don’t necessarily link migration with visa liberalisation, because for visa liberalisation there are two remaining criteria: one being ratification of the demarcation agreement and the other fight against corruption and organized crime. But, migration is another worrying sign and it is the reforms which we are very much engaged in that are at the moment put on stand-by. So, I will encourage the Government to work closely with us and with international partners who are here to help to put this trend and economic reform on the right track. Kosovo youth deserve that and I can tell you that our commitment is very substantial. The EU is the biggest donor, the biggest trade partner and the biggest supporter of Kosovo. Every year we disburse 100 million euro. However it is also important to point out that there is a financial crisis in Europe. Some of our parents, brothers and sisters do not live well. So, this 100 million euro per year should be seen as a very generous assistance. It is free of charge and it is something very substantial. And that’s why in the coming years my office and myself will be extremely strict where are we disbursing these funds. Because if we provide this generous support there need to be transparent European procedures. And that’s why issues such as the rule of law, fighting corruption, nepotism, a transparent way in procurement and the financing of political parties are so important and dear to our hearts. That’s why we are so open and outspoken on this.
Question: On Friday, the campaign for municipal elections will start in Kosovo. Days ago QUINT states have requested from the Central Election Commission (CEC) not to certify the candidates who are under investigation. Some of the candidates were certified for the general election but not now for the municipal elections. Which is your comment?
NA: You may know that the EU has been observing elections in Kosovo for quite a long time. I think that we are the only ones who have been involved in it since 2014. The EU mobilizes an election observation mission each time, which comes with a report. And each time this report states that first there must be a profound change and amendment of the electoral system. And second, part of the amendment of the electoral system is the full implementation of the Election Law, which says clearly that people who are convicted for crimes committed over the past three years should not be certified. It is therefore not only the Quint countries which made this statement. We as the EU have repeated this and brought it to the attention of the CEC Chair Valdete Daka. We congratulated her when they managed to decertify 85 candidates. So, I understand your point, that on one hand for the parliamentary elections this was not the case, but it is a case now with municipal elections. I just want to commend the positive trend because, as you understand very well, we cannot intervene in the internal relations and legislation of Kosovo. We are here to raise our voice when there is something which we think should be improved, something which should be in line with good international standards and best practices.
Question: Will there be international observers of the local elections of 22 October?
NA: Yes, we have already deployed an election observation mission which is again headed by a prominent member of the European Parliament, Mr Alojz Peterle. He was also here for the observation mission for the general election. We have met with the observers who are already in place. There will be around 70- 80 observers who will cover as many locations as possible. We are also looking to participate with a Diplomatic Watch and from what I know from my colleagues from the OSCE, they are also going to be involved.
Question: The Country Report will be published in the coming months. In which fields do you consider that there was no progress, and in which there was progress?
NA: I just want to reiterate again that we have some changes in the rules of procedures of reporting on the enlargement countries. So, this time the Report will come in April 2018. In the case of Kosovo, this will give the possibility to the Government, the Assembly and the institutions to show that they are serious with reforms and that they could deliver something in the months to come. We are going to help. My office is in communication with some of the ministries where we really see a deadlock. We are very much pushing for IPA allocation, and IPA 2016 still has to pass through the Assembly, because this is the support Kosovo needs very much. Therefore, if the ministries and the institutions engage seriously, I think we will be able to report concrete progress.
Question: It was said that Kosovo risks losing 70 million euro from IPA due to the non-extension of the IMF agreement. Are the deadlines for receiving these funds missed as a consequence of the delay in the formation of the institutions?
NA: I can comment on allocation of funds which come from the EU, because the IMF is another organization and I don't want to talk on their behalf. As I already stated, IPA 2016 funding, which is the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance, has 70.5 million euros in the pipeline which are divided into two lots. One part is 45.5 million, where a financial decision was already taken by our side and the Government of Kosovo signed this agreement. The task which remains is to pass it in the form of a law in the Assembly. There are another 25 million for which the Government has not signed a financial decision and it is extremely important to do so as soon as possible, bearing in mind that all the procedures have to be finalized before December 2017. Knowing that institutions close around mid-December, this needs to be done over the coming weeks.
Question: Are your funds linked with the IMF agreement?
NA: When we are disbursing Budget Support we usually think of the financial stability of a country. So, if there is an IMF programme this is a strong sign of a financial stability. If there is no such agreement and programme running, then an evaluation has to be made.
Question: It looks like the new phase of the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia will include President Thaci and President Vucic. How do you see this change of the dialogue, does the President have the mandate to lead the Dialogue with Serbia?
NA: Two presidents met in the presence of our High Representative twice this summer. The first meeting was preparatory, where they took stock of where they were with some of their commitments, and the second was more concrete where a kind of internal dialogue on both sides was announced to discuss what the future of the dialogue would look like. We heard some strong words from both sides. I would not dare to make an assessment on who should be the figure to represent Kosovo. Quite recently the President had a meeting with civil society where he spoke for the first time about the dialogue and shared his views. It is a commitment from both sides, Serbia and Kosovo, and we are facilitators. Our High Representative secures the forum to have the meetings and exchange of views. The last meeting I would say was quite successful, because it already resulted in a concrete commitment for the implementation of the justice agreement. This is something extremely important, because it is going to benefit all sides in the north. You know that justice has always been stated as the missing link for many people and their everyday life. So, if we can have judges and prosecutors involved and integrated in the Kosovo system, this will effectively ease the lives of people on the Kosovo Albanian side, but on Kosovo Serb side as well. Therefore I think progress has been made, but this has to be further elaborated on, for example how exactly the President would form a team around himself, what he has in mind, the details. This is still in the making and we are looking forward to hearing the details very soon.
Question: Is the Dialogue going towards the end, and how should the Dialogue end?
NA: We as facilitators of the dialogue would be the happiest to see the dialogue come to a successful conclusion. But the agenda of the dialogue is set by the two sides and is agreed between Serbia and Kosovo. So, if Serbia or Kosovo want to include something on the agenda, of course this would be welcomed by the facilitator. Nevertheless, at the moment I see that the visions of both sides are still in the making. On the positive note, there are already talks which give some notion about the future.
But let's be clear, the dialogue is a commitment by both sides. The Kosovo side has the development of good neighbourly relations as part of the SAA which is therefore an international commitment. The same goes for Serbia because of the special chapter in accession, chapter 35, where progress in the dialogue is an important incentive. Both sides have an interest to progress on this issue.
Question: Will there be a future for Kosovo and Serbia without recognizing each other?
NA: The EU has one guiding principle which is good neighbourly relations.
Question: Many agreements reached between Kosovo and Serbia are not being implemented, such as the Agreement on Energy, Telecommunications, the Agreement on Diplomas, free movement etc. How will the parties be obliged to implement the agreements reached?
NA: As I said, this is part of the international commitment which each side has taken through the SAA, or through chapter 35. Of course, these agreements are important because they will change the lives of people. Agreements are going to secure free movement, the recognition of diplomas as you said, vehicle plates is another issue which we are looking into. There are technical teams which are looking at each of these agreements but the implementation that we would like to see is still lagging behind. It is up to both sides and an effort has to be made which should be politically supported.
Question: Another agreement which is not being implemented is the one on the Association of Serb Municipalities, which is being rejected by the opposition. How will this agreement be proceeded, knowing that Haradinaj has opposed it while he was in opposition?
NA: We should not forget that this commitment is one of the agreements of the Dialogue that was accepted by both sides. In order to be quite clear on the European position, we have encouraged the formation of the Association/Community of Serb Majority Municipalities according to Kosovo laws and fulfilling the Constitutional Court Decision. Our High Representative has stated here in the Parliament of Kosovo that we expect the Association not to be a parallel structure, but something which will incorporate Kosovo Serbs into the institutions, which is going to be beneficial for all sides. On the northern municipalities and the people living there, they are going to feel safer, their rights are going to be secured, their opportunities for finding jobs and for economic prosperity will be better. At the same time on the Kosovo side, all important functions such as the judiciary, customs and police are going to cover the whole territory, which is something very important. This presents is a win-win situation. How this Government is going to deal with it will be very interesting and very important for us, so we will be watching that closely in the days to come.
Lastly, I would like to end on a positive note because your questions are quite serious and challenging.I would like to remind that Kosovo is in Europe, the European perspective of Kosovo was reiterated on a very high level in recent weeks. First we had the statement of HR/VP Mogherini at the Security Forum in Bled, where she was absolutely clear that all Western Balkans have a clear European perspective. Secondly, a very important message came from President Juncker, who just several days ago released his State of the Union Report and also the letter of intent and strategy. For the first time it expressly stated that there is a European perspective and already a clear roadmap for all in Western Balkans. So, I think we have to look at that very carefully, and help the institutions make the best possible efforts to engage. Now it is in the hands of Kosovo politicians, Kosovo institutions to show that they are really committed to this European agenda.