Venetia van Kuffeler talks to Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, about joining the EU, privatising companies and the new state’s other aims for the future.
1. Kosovo’s government has stated that EU integration is one of the country’s principle aims. How far do you think Kosovo is from achieving this? What still needs to be done? What can Kosovo offer the European community?
For the past two decades, since the situation in former Yugoslavia started to unravel, I have worked towards three aims: freedom, independence and European integration. These aims were shared by all Kosovars regardless of ethnicity or political background.
The fight for freedom was long. I will not dwell on history, but after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Kosovo was incorporated into Serbia, without due process or the desire of the population. The past couple of decades have been harsh on the people of Kosovo. I quit my studies in Switzerland in the 1990s to join the Kosovo Liberation Army, believing that the West had somehow forgotten us and that a resolution could only be found by resisting the dictatorship. As the rest of Europe united after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were left facing the growing and brutal threat of Slobodan Milosevic’s dictatorship. Kosovo eventually won freedom, but only after NATO acted against Serbian government units, bringing an end to the war. Independence was proclaimed after we approved the plan written by UN envoy Marti Ahtisaari, which was endorsed by all but one of Kosovo’s neighbours and the overwhelming majority of European countries. So this was two out of three.
Thankfully, with the final aim of European integration, there will be no enemies, hostilities or violence. The road to EU membership is a long one for us, but we are fully committed to following it. Kosovo is the only European country with two European Sakharov Prize winners, the highest recognition in the fight for human rights, granted by the European Parliament to political prisoner Adem Demaci and former President Ibrahim Rugova. So this has been a European fight and a fight for European values. But we will not truly have won unless people are free to travel, invest, secure an income for their families and most importantly to be part of a wider community and contribute to it. Joining the EU and adopting its standards and values is our only path forward.
Kosovo will offer a dynamic and entrepreneurial society, a green and fertile field for investment. We are a small country, (with our 1.8 million inhabitants we are between Estonia and Slovenia in size), but we can again embrace our medieval role as a bridge between Eastern and Western Europe.
2. Kosovo plans to implement an extensive privatisation programme. Is this the key route to economic growth for the country?
I am a firm believer that our fledgling state institutions cannot handle the complex role of dominating and managing entire industries. In the telecom, energy and mining sectors, Kosovo has inherited or established major assets that are not being used properly. We have to take the state out of business and now is the right moment. I have already led an unprecedented round of public investments in Kosovo, building around 100 schools and starting a major motorway that connects Kosovo and Serbia with the Adriatic coast and ports. But our energy production and mining are not using even five per cent of their potential. We are being polluted by old lignite-based power plants from Germany, and we are keen to close these down and build a new generation of plants that will exponentially decrease the pollution and make use of Kosovo’s lignite resources, proven to be the second biggest in Europe.
Our telecoms sector was established after the war, but if it wants to grow and make use of the incredible opportunities that come from a large diaspora, it needs innovative ideas and private capital. In terms of tourism, Kosovo is one of the few places in Europe which is still open for long winter seasons. Our government and banks are the least in debt in all the Balkan countries, and Kosovo has been commended for the strength of its financial system and I want to keep it this way – by inviting investors. In all these areas, we need substantive investments and we will provide substantive returns for those who want to give us a chance.
3. What are your other plans and priorities going forward for the next 12 months?
We have several priorities. Some of them have been outlined in our political programme and economic plan and we spoke about some concrete points earlier such as the EU, privatisation, energy and infrastructure. We are working very hard to launch a dialogue with the Schengen countries on visa liberalisation. Kosovo is the last country born out of former Yugoslavia, and the last to start this process. We are doing a lot of legislative work at the municipality level and we hope we will receive positive feedback in the autumn. The dialogue with Serbia is important because it closes all the remaining chapters between the two countries and frees our time and resources to engage in economic and EU integration. We are also reforming our electoral law as well as improving the Constitution according to the agreement with the opposition that enabled the election of Kosovo’s President in April. Mrs Atifete Jahjaga is the first female president in Balkan history
4. What is Kosovo’s greatest diplomatic challenge? How will you use your position as Prime Minister to further these causes?
Kosovo’s greatest challenge is to attain membership of the UN and the EU. It is also our strategic medium and long-term aim. My government is working to hasten the process. We have doubled the number of countries that have recognised us bilaterally in the past 12 months, and we are happy to report that at this moment over 80 UN members consider us to be a sovereign nation, including a majority of members of the EU, NATO, OSCE and other regional organisations. The dialogue with Serbia will also come to its inevitable conclusion as our two societies start to look at each other as both equals and partners. As a sports fan, I also hope that Kosovo’s athletes can be somehow included in the forthcoming London 2012 Olympics.
5. How do you respond to criticism that you should have informed international backers before trying to take control of border checkpoints during the week of 25 July 2011?
Kosovo is a nation that is firmly in partnership with the EU and the US. We had one aim: for the northern border points to implement the rule of law, Kosovo customs law and to enable the reciprocity measures in order to break the unfortunate Serbian boycott of Kosovo goods. This aim was fulfilled and all key European partners have confirmed that Kosovo is indeed a sovereign nation with the right to exercise control of their borders. Serbian smugglers and vandals burned the border posts, but I do not believe this type of behaviour will be tolerated in the EU. By integrating our border management system, we are also fulfilling critical criteria for the liberalisation of the Schengen visa regime
6. What do you think has been the most memorable day or event of your career to date?
I will always remember the fallen and the days when it all looked dark and hopeless under Milosevic’s apartheid system. But standing before a global audience of hundreds of millions, proclaiming in many languages that our country is free and independent – that the weak and the oppressed can triumph and that the EU and US’s involvement in Kosovo had not been in vain – well, that’s a moment that will stay with me for a long time.
Prime Minister Hashim Thaci inspecting the construction of the new highway together with the President of Kosovo Atifete Jahjaga, US Ambassador Chris Dell and Turkey’s Ambassador Songul Ozan. The €600 million investment will link Kosovo with south Serbia on one side and the Adriatic ports in Albania on the other side.
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