EWB Interview: Samuel Zbogar, European Union Special Representative to Kosovo

Samuel Žbogar

European Western Balkans continues with series of interviews with key people from Western Balkans countries which are involved in European integration process of their countries. H.E. Samuel Žbogar is the European Union Special Representative to Kosovo. Mr. Žbogar graduated in international relations from the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Ljubljana. In his career Žbogar has been included in all major political projects of Slovenian foreign policy. In 1993, he opened the Slovenian Embassy in Beijing, China, where he worked to 1995. Between 1997 and 2001, he was Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations and the Deputy of Slovenia’s Permanent Representative to the UN Security Council during Slovenia’s elected membership in 1998 and 1999. At the time, Slovenia’s representative was Danilo Türk, who later served as President of Slovenia. Between 2001 and 2004, he was State Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the cabinets of Janez Drnovšek and Anton Rop. During this period, he supported the strengthening of the humanitarian aspect of foreign policy and led the project group for the preparation of Slovenia’s Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe presidency. In 2004, he was appointed Ambassador to the United States. He was also a member of the EU membership negotiation group and the main negotiator for NATO membership. After returning from Washington, D.C. in October 2008, he became the Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Ljubljana. In November 2008, he was named Minister of Foreign Affairs in the centre-left government of Borut Pahor. In December 2011,Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, appointed Žbogar the head of the EU’s office in Kosovo and as the special representative of the EU. This is the first Slovenian high-ranking official in the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Removing the barricades on the road to EU

European Western Balkans:The role of the EU Office in Kosovo is not the same as other Delegation in, for example, Macedonia or Montenegro. Can you explain how EU Office in Kosovo works?

 H.E. Samuel Žbogar: There are two major differences. On one side, five EU member states do not recognize Kosovo – so our status neutral position is our first specificity. But this fact does not mean that EU here is less engaged or committed. As an integral part of the European External Action Service, we ensure that a permanent political and technical dialogue is maintained with the Brussels institutions. We play a pivotal role in Kosovo’s European path. This accession process demands from us lot of daily monitoring and reporting, but also dealing with over 300 projects, financed with IPA funds, from agriculture to business development and from rule of law to cultural sector.

On the other side, together with heading the EU Office I serve also as EU Special Representative in Kosovo. The EUSR offers advice and support to the Government of Kosovo in the political process, provides overall coordination for the EU presence in Kosovo and contributes to the development and consolidation of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Kosovo. If I would have to mention one thing only, then it would for sure be the Dialogue on normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

EWB: What is your personal opinion about the importance of EU integration of Kosovo and the whole region of Western Balkans in the EU?

SŽ: My understanding of the EU is closely linked with the trust in basic principles of democratic governance and the idea, presented in our motto “united in diversity”. It is only by adhering to the fundamental principles of democracy and rule of law and at the same time preserving individual identities that such an ambitious union can really function. In this light, it is important that Kosovo shares European path of the region of Western Balkans. When going around Kosovo municipalities and meeting people, I always like to tell them: “You will not have to move anywhere to become Europe. It is through respecting common principles and developing common practices that Europe is coming closer and closer to you.” This is the great transformative power of European integration.

EWB: Can European integrations help reconciliation between the Balkan nations?

SŽ: The initial idea of the EU was born out of the need to avoid future hostilities after the disastrous war. Nobel Prize for peace, awarded to the EU in 2013, is clear sign of the success of this ambition. But in the case of our region, we were not 100 % successful in preventing the wars and maintaining the peace. It is again based on these tragic experiences that European integration should – and does! – have stronger ambition. Sharing the resources, cooperating in many fields despite the difficult history people of the region share – all this will, I sincerely believe, lead us all towards the improvement of people’s life and help the process of reconciliation.

EWB: What are your connections with EULEX?

SŽ: EULEX, European Union Rule of Law mission in Kosovo, is the biggest EU Common Security and Defense Policy mission in the world. We consider each other as two members of the same European family in Kosovo, with divided tasks and responsibilities of course. I provide local political guidance to EULEX and as you can imagine, there is a lot of cooperation and coordination between two family-members, both on strategic issues and in daily work. The central aim of EULEX is to assist and support the Kosovo authorities in the rule of law area, specifically in the police, judiciary and customs.

EWB: And how do you work with institutions of Kosovo – President, Government and the Assembly?

SŽ: As the EU Special Representative I have meeting with representatives of Kosovo institutions on regular basis on the issues related to the political and technical dialogue. Since EU is facilitating the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, there is another field of our work with Kosovo institutions. From my arrival to Kosovo two and half years ago I insist on visiting all Kosovo municipalities throughout the year. Not only to meet the mayors and to get to know the problems and the issues they face every day, but also to meet citizens, to see where we can help and what their priorities are. We use these visits to meet different communities in each municipality, from business to religious leaders, from kids in school to elderly people.  We never avoid tough meetings either, with difficult topics such as the destinies of missing persons or future of the returnees. The more open you confront with the real problems, the more realistic and sustainable solutions will be.

KSV_SRB

EWB: How does cooperation with Serbian officer in Pristina look like? Do you have direct line with your colleagues in EU Delegation in Belgrade? 

SŽ: One of the tangible results of the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia was also the appointment of two liaison officers, Serbia’s one in Pristina and Kosovo’s one in Belgrade. It is not only symbolically important: this also gives the opportunity for an open communication between two sides. Mr. Pavičević is based in our EU Office building in Pristina, so this provides also to us better ways to communicate in person. But much more important is what they are both doing with their respective partners.

And to answer the second part of your question: yes, of course, the communication between EU Delegations and HQ in Brussels is an essential tool of our daily work – and this fact is even intensified because of the active EU role as the facilitator in Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.

EWB: Kosovo is about to finish negotiations over SAA. Can you tell us whether there is any progress, especially in Rule of law, Public administration, Protection of minorities, and Trade? Where are biggest problems?

SŽ: Kosovo has recently closed the negotiations on Stabilization and Association Agreement, which in itself presents a very bright and clear perspective. Once signed, SAA will be the first contractual relation between Kosovo and the EU. So, when it is about European path of Kosovo, Europe is completely unified on this topic, despite understandable differences on the status of Kosovo.

There is a lot to be done, of course. One of the most important things for Kosovo is to learn to live together and accept differences, be it national, linguistic, religious or any other. For Kosovo it means to respect the communities. This is the core value of EU, part of which Kosovo aspires to be. Kosovo has adopted a constitution and legislation which respects the rights of all communities – and has achieved political participation of the Serb community. This increased trust and cooperation among Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo is essential for the future.

EWB: How is the adoption of European standards, regardless of the integration of Kosovo into the EU, important for the citizens of Kosovo? Do institutions of the Kosovo together with EU Delegation work on laws and implementation of EU standards?

SŽ: Adoption of European standards is crucial. That is why EU is providing assistance through twinning projects, best practices and experts. Recently, for example, we have assisted Kosovo institutions with expertise on digitalization for the Independent Media Commission or for the law on General Auditor in order to align Kosovo legislation with EU legal framework.

EWB: Is European integration process going to be a long journey for Kosovo?

SŽ: Recently, at an independent survey, 79 % of Kosovo citizens said that they would vote “yes” at the referendum to join EU. So, the vision and the will are here. But at the same time, their expectations became more realistic: they know more and more that this is a merit-based process, and that there is still lot of work to be done. We cannot give exact dates, but we can, together with Kosovo side, work on precise roadmaps and milestones that will lead integration into right direction, removing one after another barricades on this road to the EU. It is the road that matters more than the goal itself. Because travelling that road Kosovo will change to the benefit of its people.

EWB: What do you consider to be especially important for further integration of the Kosovo in the EU?

SŽ: Every year European Commission is publishing a Progress Report which is a kind of detailed scan of the situation on many fields – and the progress needed. In recent year we have seen an important addition to the Rule of law and human rights (which stay important priorities): the economic governance. I personally think that it is on that particular field that the game for the future of Kosovo will be played: how to open as many new quality jobs as possible, how to develop potentials in agriculture, SMEs and tourism, how to open market for strategic partners and investors … These are the most important questions for Kosovo to be able to become truly European: equal, developed, modern.

EWB: Thank you Y.E. for your time. European Western Balkans wishes you very best in very best in your future activities in Kosovo.

Authors: Nemanja Todorović Štiplija and Nikola Ristić