In an interview with daily Zeri the Head of EU Office in Kosovo/ EUSR Samuel Žbogar, said that Kosovo has fulfilled all its duties regarding the Specialist Chambers, but the EU is concerned about threatening and intimidation of witnesses
Zeri: You have your last days of your mandate in Kosovo. Have you achieved all the objectives that you had as Head of the EU Office in Pristina?
Žbogar: I am happy for my time spent here. I remember to have said upon my arrival that I want a strong European Kosovo. I remember the situation 4 years ago; I think we have made progress, and that the European Union is stronger and more present in Kosovo. At the same time I believe that Kosovo has advanced significantly in its European road, thus it became more European. When I came to your country, the situation in the north was much different than it is today. Kosovo can be unsatisfied with the current situation, however it differs from the past. When I arrived in Kosovo there were road barricades in the north and parallel structures were everywhere, and such structures have been dissolved in meantime; we have now elected mayors, elected by you …So the dialogue has made changes in Kosovo. Regarding the rule of law, I think that there are changes, which are now proved with the reduced EULEX mission, handing over responsibilities more and more to the Kosovo judiciary. In relation to the economy, for example we organized the council: “European Investors Forum” for investment, which is a good partner of the government and for all future investments. We especially have an Economic Reform Programme for Kosovo, as for other countries in the region, so in general I think that we have made great progress. This has not happened because of me, but I think I am part of a great team and we have achieved positive results.
Zeri: Also during this period difficult talks between Kosovo and Serbia took place. Have the normal relations been blocked due to disagreements with the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities in Kosovo?
Žbogar: I believe that the dialogue is one of the greatest achievements in recent years. Even now I am afraid that that is not visible here in Kosovo, unfortunately, but that is an achievement. The Dialogue is the only way to deal with the problems and the key element to the integration of Serbs in Kosovo, starting with elections, we have dissolution of Serbian police, dissolution of Serbian civil defense, integration of the judiciary, the integration process, which maybe is not going fast enough for the people in Kosovo, however it is happening, therefore I see it as a fact already. As for the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities, I think that both Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo should consider two facts: First, there is fear in both sides. Kosovo Albanians clearly fear that the Association may return into Republika Srpska, which will not happen; While on the other hand, Kosovo Serbs fear that they are not sufficiently protected in Kosovo and they think that they need protection through the association, so that they can be integrated more easily. I think that both sides should recognize the other’s fear, and therefore sit together and discuss the issues, which is the only way to move forward.
Zeri: Do you think that Serbs in Kosovo do not have sufficient protection?
Žbogar: I think that the Serbs in Kosovo feel sort of insecure and that’s how they feel. But the Serbs must also recognize the fear of Albanians who do not want a non-functional country. I think that both sides must accept that the other party has such an issue, and only by accepting this reality, there can be discussed about how the association looks like. The second issue is that both sides must accept that the Association can not be imposed, the Association can not be imposed to Kosovo from Brussels or anyone else, and also serbs can not be imposed in the way that they do not want. So, once again, this leads to the position that you need to talk. I think that Kosovo’s parliament has it clear that the Association must be established because it is an international obligation of Kosovo, within the legal framework of Kosovo, taking into account the decision of the Constitutional Court. I think there is no other way to establish the Association, except that both sides sit down and discuss.
Zeri: Months ago the European Commission has given the green light for visa liberalization for Kosovo. When can Kosovars travel without visas to the EU, taking into account the objections coming from powerful countries such as Germany and France?
Žbogar: Firstly, there is a proposal from the European Commission, which I think is the most important step. Now it is up to the member states and European Parliament to make the final decision. The Commission noted that two issues still need to be implemented, i.e. the demarcation with Montenegro should be ratified and fight against corruption by presenting concrete facts. Now there are four proposals to member states about four states for obtaining visa liberalization and given the immigration situation in Europe, concerns about immigration have been raised across Europe, so that Member States are concerned. And before visa free travel is considered for each country separately, initially they want to adopt in advance special provisions on visas which can be returned with an expedited procedure in case the agreement is breached, migration from these countries is increased. They insist in this before considering visa liberalization for any country, in order that the EU adopts a mechanism on visa suspension. So a situation where visa-free travel can be suspended very soon; and this is not only about Kosovo.
Zeri: It is said that the demarcation with Montenegro is a condition for visa liberalization. How can this agreement be ratified when the opposition warned that the Assembly would be blocked with tear gas?
Žbogar: The recommendation of the European Commission report on visa liberalization says that before Kosovars can travel freely, these two things should be implemented. I can not tell you now that what will happen if this is not implemented due to political situation, because you’re saying that these two issues, the Association and the border demarcation with Montenegro, still pose a problem for the Assembly. I must first say that we welcome the return of Vetevendosje in the Parliament. I think that the normal work of the Parliament can not be done without the participation of the opposition. This is not good for democracy, it is not good for Kosovo that only one party adopts laws in the Parliament. I think that the Assembly is paralyzed; you need an opposition to stimulate somehow discussions. Now the two issues in question are still a problem; we can not resolve these issues if we do not talk about them, and unfortunately we see that the political polarization has been increased during the last few months in Kosovo; we all know what parties do not agree for, however we do not know that in which points they agree; we try to encourage the parties to talk about what they agree on, and concentrate on what they disagree on behalf of Kosovo. Unfortunately, politicians focus on what they do not agree and not on what they agree, as in the case of Association and demarcation with Montenegro. I think that moving away from polarization is to talk about it and maybe talk about areas where they can agree for the benefit of Kosovo. Seeing what a serious situation reigns, we really do not want to see a return of undesired events to the Assembly.
Zeri: Why the demarcation was not a condition for visa liberalization to other countries. Is this unfair towards Kosovo?
Žbogar: The fact is that this condition was adopted for Kosovo in 2012. What has not really been done for Montenegro, the commission noted later that the existing problems in other regions were because of unresolved border issues. The Commission believes that we have the opportunity to encourage countries to solve border problems, whereas the visa process with Kosovo seems as a process for resolving problems, to determine the border line between Montenegro and Kosovo.
Zeri: Declarations of assets show the reality that the majority of Kosovo politicians became millionaires very quickly. Did the local institutions fail, including EULEX, to fight corruption?
Žbogar: I think that EULEX has contributed in many punishments and prosecuted many cases. I think that part of the work of EULEX was to initiate criminal cases, to deal with cases and some are still ongoing, but it takes time to make a case, all depends on how much evidence you have, how many witnesses will be presented to provide their evidence, and how much evidence has been collected. EULEX, among other things, helps in strengthening the local judiciary. I think we see changes; EULEX is steadily being shrunk since 2014 and more responsibilities are being transferred to the Kosovo judiciary. With the new mandate, more responsibilities and more opportunities to local justice will be, so we are here to advise and finally to deliver justice responsibilities entirely in local hands.
Zeri: How can we fight corruption when important institutions are headed by officials whose assets are of suspicious origin?
Žbogar: What is important in fighting corruption is strengthened institutions, strengthened judiciary able to do its job; here it is also important the anti-corruption agency. Since you mentioned, I have seen that the declaration of assets was done, but with some different values from the previous year, so again I think that this requires political support and honesty in relation to the independence of the judiciary, the rule of law; the political elite should announce anti-corruption measures and declare that no official under investigation for corruption is tolerated in the boards or other positions; we need to see this; we need to see the change of mentality so that corruption is an unacceptable behavior.
Zeri: Is the compromise of witnesses the reason why the Special Court is composed of only international judges?
Žbogar: Now we also have Specialized Chambers, and one of the reasons why the court composed of international judges handling trials is the protection of witnesses, as one of the key issues. We have seen in the past and still see now witness intimidation in Kosovo and the allegations are serious. This constitutes a concern in Kosovo, tampering witnesses to change their statements. All this is related to the rule of law area and that is why we believe that the EULEX mission is still needed in Kosovo.
Zeri: When will the Special Court be operational?
Žbogar: Kosovo has completed its determined tasks. Also EU is ready to finance the Court. What we are expecting is that the Netherlands ratifies the agreement with Kosovo, given that its content is a very complicated procedure, but it has to be finalized by the end of the year. After the agreement is ratified and becomes effective the Court will be officially established, and then prosecutors can file charges. So I can not say exactly when it will happen, because it depends on the ratification of the agreement by the Dutch Parliament.
Zeri: Kosovo is mentioned as a country with an environment suitable for spread of extremism and religious radicalism. How do you personally assess the situation, given that a number of Kosovars participated in the wars of the Islamic State?
Žbogar: At first I see Kosovo as an independent society, which is celebrating Ramadan in this period and which is tolerant towards others. I think this is a positive thing and this is how Kosovo should be, the future of Kosovo. We have noticed a considerable number of men or fighters in the ISIS ranks; I am here for several years now and I have to say that I notice significant changes taking place, but it can be that perhaps people are becoming religious. Therefore taking into account the economic aspect in Kosovo, the difficult past of Kosovo as well as the situation present in Kosovo, I would say that there is a danger. This danger is present, however I do not see the situation as alarming. So, there can be a danger, but not at a high level. It depends on Kosovo how it will project its own future, depends on how its people see their perspective, whether people see that Kosovo is advancing, that it has a European future, that they see integration into the European community, then I do not see any danger because of a strong, modern and secular society. In this respect I do not see that the phenomenon in question can be dangerous to society.
Zeri: However, we had funding from the East, Saudi Arabia and many Eastern organizations?
Žbogar: I think we need to be aware where the funding comes from, from those countries in the form of humanitarian aid or through non-governmental organizations, unless their activity is clearly known. For this reason, for some time now we are giving advices on this, that the law on religion should be adopted, and everything becomes more accountable. I think it is more than necessary. Also Kosovo needs and is also heading towards undertaking harsher financing and monitoring controls over these non-governmental humanitarian organizations.
Zeri: How do you assess the fact that the President of Turkey is extending its influence in Kosovo through to construction of mosques? In 4 years Turkey has built 20 mosques in Kosovo.
Žbogar: I am not much aware about this issue but I think that economic investments are welcomed regardless where they come from, therefore Turkish investments or other countries’ are always welcomed for Kosovo, because they help in creation of new jobs. Regarding investments with other destination, investments to support communities that live here or assisting in building mosques are of course allowed, so this is not something bad. What is concerning in Kosovo is that it seems that you have a lot of imams who in several mosques give wrong messages to young people through their preaching. Then this, in combination with some other elements, affects in a high number of people going to Syria. But as I said, I think that the solution for this is that Kosovo develops economically, continues its European path and cooperation with the international community. I do not think that the current situation poses a danger to society, but the danger comes if people are desperate, completely alone and abandoned.
Zeri: Is the budget sustainability of Kosovo seriously being jeopardized by a total of 46,000 war veterans? Have you discussed this issue with the Government of Kosovo?
Žbogar: This is a concern for us, because a great number, a triple amount is needed for other benefits. This jeopardizes the stability of Kosovo. We know that this was the reason for reaching the agreement with the IMF which is of a great importance, therefore we hope that Kosovo political spectrum will find a way to solve this problem and not spend the money of the projects dedicated to the development of Kosovo. We hope that a way will be found for these benefits to be received by those who deserve them, but at the same time the Government of Kosovo should have sufficient means to work on projects from which benefits whole Kosovo. I understand that it is an unfavorable situation but the government must find a solution not to jeopardize the agreement with the IMF, and neither the development projects in Kosovo. It’s a difficult situation for the government but they must find a solution to this very high number of sudden veterans.
Zeri: Months ago the prosecution and the police started the release of usurped properties, after 17 years of illegal exploitation. Is only the removal of occupants sufficient or there should also be confiscated millions gained from the state property?
Žbogar: That is a good first and very welcomed step because it is a sign that the institutions are operational and the rule of law is functioning, that all are equal before the law. I also expect that the proceedings will continue even for the time that these properties had been occupied.