Albin Kurti speaking at a human rights conference in October of 2017. (photo: Arianit)
On May 28, 2020, Kosovo held a parliamentary session to vote on a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Albin Kurti.
Last month, President Hashim Thaçi nominated Avdullah Hoti from the Democratic League of Kosovo, or LDK, to replace Acting Prime Minister Albin Kurti. Kurti met this vote of no-confidence with an appeal to Kosovo’s constitutional court.
Kurti’s “Self-Determination Movement” political party won the most seats in Kosovo’s general election in October. The Prime Minister and his supporters believe that the nomination of Avdullah Hoti was unconstitutional.
In 2010 and 2017, elections in Kosovo were immediately called for after a successful motion of no confidence. Prime Minister Kurtis’s appeal to the constitutional court, however, has unfairly received a different result: The court declared President Thaçi’s decree to be legal.
A Conversation With Kosovo’s Prime Minister Kurti
Journalist Allegra Nokaj recently sat down with Albin Kurti, Prime Minister of Kosovo, to discuss his disagreements with President Thaci, and relations between Kosovo and Serbia.
Allegra Nokaj: President Thaçi of Kosovo has met with Serbia to consider border changes and reach a peace settlement. You have actively voiced your opposition to this deal, which you and many ministers in Kosovo have claimed involves a land-swap to solve relations with Serbia.
Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaçi and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic have denied these secret plans.
To the extent of your knowledge, what are the details of this peace agreement and territorial exchange?
Prime Minister Albin Kurti: Phrases such as ‘border corrections’, ‘land-swaps’, ‘painful compromise’, ‘uniting Preseva valley, Medvegja and Bujanoc with Kosovo’ all surfaced in 2018 when EU HR Frederica Mogherini first supported the idea of border correction.
The Brussels dialogue itself has not been transparent, let alone the meetings between the two presidents. We know that the two presidents, Thaçi and Vucic, have met publicly many times since 2018. We also know that Thaçi has held numerous conferences, interviews and debates promoting the idea of a final deal with Serbia- a deal ‘with painful compromise’ which will include taking Preseva valley, Medvegja and Bujanoc from Serbia.
And we know his declaration where he said “let’s not be hostage of the gifts from the infamous Rankovic” referring to some territorial part in the northern Kosovo. Vucic has not dismissed any of the above.
The narrative is revealing: On one hand, Tachi voiced his request to take some parts east of Kosovo inside Serbia and on the other he suggests giving away some “unwanted gifts”. This is a clear exchange to take and give away- which was rightly called a land-swap. Actually it is more giving than taking: what Thaci says he will take is a sugarcoating of what he is ready to give.
I have been in office since February 3rd and the President of Serbia has refused to start the dialogue with me. Yet, only hours after the Constitutional Court unconstitutionally gave the green light to Thaci’s choice for PM, Serbian President Vucic issued a declaration that he is ready to restart dialogue with Kosovo.
When you live in the Balkans and know the history in this part of Europe, I don’t think it takes too much intelligence to understand what they are talking about. There is coherence and coordination in declarations between the two presidents which cannot be reached without close meetings and in short time.
The two presidents have met often and for a long time. With regard to the details of the agreement there aren’t any documents published. But if we wait for official drafts to be published, it will be too late for ideas or negotiations; only acceptance or refusal.
My job is- to the best of my knowledge and abilities- to prevent any deal that damages the territorial integrity and sovereignty of our republic. It is also my job to protect the interests of the people of Kosovo who have put their faith in me.
The territory in question is home to Lake Gazivode, a precious body of water in Kosovo and a wealth of mining resources.
AN: What will the cost be to Kosovo and its allies if Serbia gains control of this region?
PM AK: Enormous, incalculable and defeating, which is why Kosovo will never accept it. Ujmani/Gazivode Lake is Kosovo’s largest water reservoir and for someone to even raise this question is a direct threat to our existence.
Serbia has approached the dialogue for normalization of relations with the question of “what are you willing to give” for me to recognize you. This is a wrong approach and it will not yield the results the Serbian government is seeking.
Kosovo has made a lot of compromises which I have vigorously opposed for the past 20-years. I have offered Serbia a way forward where we recognize each other as equals, solve our outstanding issues such as the fate of disappeared persons, war reparations and succession, pensions and debt, as well as missing justice for raped women and men.
These issues will never go away unless we address them.
As soon as we close these chapters we will start to normalize. No one should have the illusion that there is a fast track toward normalization without true reconciliation, just like no one should have the illusion that there will ever be reconciliation without true justice.
AN: Likewise, how will Kosovo and its allies benefit if Serbia and Kosovo can successfully reach a peace settlement without the exchange of land?
PM AK: Kosovo declared independence in 2008 with very painful compromises. You are asking who will benefit from peace? First and foremost, it will be Serbia and the Serbian people who are caught up in the government’s nationalist, chauvinist ideals from 14th century.
The Serbian people must free themselves from dogmas and unrealistic visions where their leaders project Serbia as a powerful nation in the Balkans that can dictate and patronize other countries.
Normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia is meant to benefit the whole of the Western Balkans and Europe. Achieving this is about closing open or frozen issues which have a potential to turn into violent military conflicts that would drag in other Balkan countries and beyond.
So, the direct beneficiaries from normalization would be the citizens of both countries, Kosovo and Serbia. Free movement of the people, recognition of documents, increased trade and greater cooperation between the people an authorities will make life easier for the ordinary citizens in both countries.
If you want a dialogue which starts with the premise of what will the citizens benefit from this agreement, then any agreement is easier because we all know what makes citizens lives better, but as I mentioned above, Serbia is posing wrong questions and it will never get the right answers.
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: In 2005, you and 14 other political activists founded the movement for self-determination. What achievements have highlighted your party’s success in the 15-years since its founding?
PM AK: Our party, “Lëvizja VETËVENDOSJE!” started out as a social and political movement. We organized activities (petitions, demonstrations, symbolic actions, roundtables, etc.) which aimed to protect the sovereignty of Kosovo and to give the people the right of self- determination.
VETËVENDOSJE! is committed to making social and political changes, based on the principles of equality, democracy, political freedom and social justice for every citizen. Through our party’s platform, the social groups that we prioritize are youth, women and the Albanian diaspora.
Our aim is to guarantee equal rights and opportunities for all citizens of Kosova, despite their differences. It is true that we were a movement of a dozen activists in 2005, and now our political party has over 50,000 members in 2020. Besides our activity in the Republic of Kosova, VETËVENDOSJE! also has branches in several European countries, in the United States and in Albania.
“We showed that politics is a struggle, that ideals matter most, that people are good, that organization is a fact. Generally, we grew all of the time, but likewise with ups and downs throughout. In ten days we will celebrate our 15th anniversary. We are proud with the emancipation we’ve built in the society, and we are humble regarding the responsibilities that we’ve got in the institutions.” — Prime Minister Albin Kurti
AN: Since becoming Prime Minister of Kosovo, your support in Parliament has been cut in half, but your support among Kosovaars has doubled. You were elected Prime Minister at a time where corruption has plagued Kosovo’s politics.
What actions are you taking to rid out corruption from Kosovo’s government?
PM AK: It is true that there has been huge support for this government and I’m not surprised because more than 50% of the people on the 6th of October voted for change. What happened in the Parliament on 25th of March was that the LDK party who was part of this change, withdrew from the government and helped topple it. People were always for change in our country, but political parties have repeatedly let them down.
Vetëvendosje will always choose the people. There was also huge public outcry due to the toppling of the government during the pandemic where the health of citizens was the only thing that mattered.
Citizens follow us, perhaps more closely than we think they do in this era of technology, and they are able to tell wrong from right and what happened in March 25 was wrong and they will never forget that.
Corruption in Kosova is concentrated at high-levels, meaning high-level positions and high-level paying jobs in the public sector. Such positions all belonged to government officials and public officials who abused their authority to benefit from public tenders, state licenses and everything they had authority over. In order to fight corruption, you need change at the top.
We formed a government with officials free from corruption and took decisions to free public enterprises from corruption as well by dismissing board members and executive directors who had plunged public companies in debts and mismanagement. We downsized the government, lowered wages for government and public officials and cut privileges to make the government work smarter and faster but also be more representative.
In less than 100 days we took close to 200 decisions which laid out the foundations for a good governance, free from corruption and crime. We showed that it is possible to have a decent government that represents the people.
AN: What measures have you taken to improve economic growth and lower the unemployment rate in Kosovo?
Unfortunately, with the COVID-19 pandemic there was a mandatory switch from the economic development program of the government, which was focused on decreasing unemployment and promoting local producers, to emergency economic measures for the survival of the economy during the pandemic, but also for economic recovery afterwards.
Nevertheless, we did help preserve the economy by stimulating small businesses to file for unemployment benefits through registering unregistered workers at the tax administration with one-year employment contracts. More than 10,000 people have been registered as employed to benefit from the government fiscal emergency package.
Our first fiscal emergency package in response to the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 was about 10% of our yearly budget or 190 million Euro. Now we have presented the economic recovery plan which is 1.26 billion Euro to be injected into our economy in the next 24 months and stretching for the next 5 years.
Our economic recovery plan will seek to increase employment through wage subsidies and through a structural change of our economy with a focus on local production, increase of exports and reduction of trade deficit.
AN: Throughout the coronavirus outbreak in Kosovo, you and President Thaçi have disagreed on the measures put in place to stop the spread of the diseases.
How have President Thaçi's actions during the outbreak of the virus been an abuse of power, in the interest of personal gain?
Throughout the nationwide pandemic, as your concerns have been on helping the people of Kosovo, President Thaçi has opposed your leadership and made a request to nominate a new candidate to form a government.
What other actions has President Thaçi taken to undermine your role as Prime Minister?
PM AK: President Thaçi has continuously abused his power to spread turmoil and confusion. He started by interfering in negotiations for a coalition government- which we had with LDK soon after election results.
He continued his destructive and partisan role by interfering in the government by asking to declare a “state of exception” on COVID-19, when there wasn’t any need for one because we only had 19 people infected and no deaths.
To prevent this, I dismissed a minister from LDK who publicly went against the government position and supported the President’s request. After President Thaçi’s project for “state of exception” failed, he set out to grab powers from me as Prime Minister.
On the 23rd of March he called for people not to respect the decisions taken by the government in response to COVID-19, thus creating confusion and calling for civil disobedience. In his attempt to show defiance to the government, he blatantly violated the terms set by the Ministry of Health by drinking coffee in a restaurant when the restaurants were closed.
This kind of behavior has just reiterated the fact that the President is not a unifying figure, but rather a destructive person occupying the President’s seat to pursue personal interests. I order for him to be more than a President, he wanted me to be less than a Prime Minister.
All this against our constitution and democracy.
He has also undermined the Prime Minister’s competences in foreign policy. Our constitution is clear that foreign policy is created by the government, this was clarified in June 2019 with the Constitutional Court decision K043/19.
The president should represent foreign policy in accordance with his ceremonial role. Yet, to this day Thaçi continues to undermine the government by pursuing a personal foreign policy completely in opposition to the government.