Kosovo Foreign Minister: Europe is not Complete without the Balkans
Kosovo's Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj was on an official visit to Bulgaria, where he met with the President, Prime Minister, and Foreign Minister.
During the talks with his Bulgarian counterpart Kristian Vigenin, the two countries signed a Memorandum of Cooperation in the field of European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
Enver Hoxhaj gave a special interview for Novinite.com, in which he spoke about the progress of Kosovo, its relations with Serbia, and the future of the Balkans and the EU.
Nearly 6 years after declaring independence, how would you assess Kosovo's progress in building its independent institutions and the rule of law?
In the last 6 years, we had two main focuses. The first focus was to build and consolidate Kosovo from scratch, within its independent territory. In that sense we are very proud that we were able to build strong and active democratic institutions in terms of local and central government, with a very dynamic Parliament.
When it comes to a justice system, I think Kosovo, compared to many other countries in the region, was very much able to be active in promoting and strengthening the rule of law. We were very much supported by the European Rule of Law mission (EULEX) in Kosovo.
The second focus was how to strengthen our international position through getting international recognition and getting membership in different organizations, so we can exercise on a daily basis our sovereignty.
Kosovo and Serbia signed a historic agreement in April. Do you view it as a genuine commitment from both sides or a bargaining tool for EU-accession talks?
From our perspective, it was necessary to sit with our colleagues from Belgrade, and through dialogue and compromise to find a way how Kosovo and Serbia could avoid confrontation and cooperate with each other, instead of blocking each other's paths to Europe.
Kosovo and Serbia had a dark chapter in their history, but we cannot change the history. We also cannot change the geography, because we are neighbors. After 6 years of independence, we understood that it is much better through dialogue to solve our differences than to live in Cold War relations. We are very proud of what we achieved, in terms of the breakthrough which we had in April this year.
I think, the EU has a lot of leverage in the Balkans, not only in the case of Kosovo and Serbia. All countries in the region are trying to become member states of the EU and in that sense they can use the leverage and shape their politics, economy, and society through reform.
How did the deal go down with the people of Kosovo? How did they react to it?
The first phase, when we started the dialogue, there were different opinions about whether Kosovo needs to be part of the dialogue. Shall we sit at the table with representative of Serbia, who represented a government, which committed crimes and genocide in Kosovo. Of course, it was not easy. With time, people understood, that in the long term, this is the most important strategic issue.
Serbia is our neighbor, and we simply have to sit and find solutions that are important to us. In that sense, the public opinion supports the dialogue, but of course, like in all democratic countries, there are people who are opposing.
The recent municipal elections in Kosovo were seen as a test to the normalization of relations with Serbia. However, on the first round, violence at several polling stations seriously disturbed the vote, especially in the north. Do you see that as a failed test?
The violence, which occurred in the north Mitrovica, was an isolated event, but it was carefully prepared. Some people had the fear, that the Albanian mayor could win the election, and as the majority of people living in the north Mitrovica are ethnic Serbs, they wanted simply to change the situation by going to election centers and intimidating local and international observers.
In that sense, all statements made, that it was an act of hooliganism, in my view do not represent the truth. But the second round of elections showed that the vote was fair and freely organized throughout the country, even in north Mitrovica. In that sense, it is a closed chapter.
Moving on to your visit in Bulgaria, what were some of your main topics of discussion with Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin?
We talked about three items. First, we have excellent political and diplomatic relations with Bulgaria. We are very grateful to your country for recognizing us and supporting us to build a country from scratch, and for getting membership in different international organizations. However, we are very much interested to go beyond diplomatic relations, so we talked about how to have more exchange in economy.
As a young country, we need to have investments, we need to have growth, employment, and in 2014, economic cooperation will be among our top priorities.
In that sense, the visit tries to open a new chapter of economic relations between Kosovo and Bulgaria. I discussed the same topic with your President, Prime Minister, and the Foreign Minister, in terms of getting their focus on that issue.
Second, we talked about how to get the support of Bulgaria on concluding a Stabilization and Association Agreement for Kosovo, which we are hoping to do in the spring of next year, as well as visa free travel for the people of Kosovo.
Third, we were talking about the region. I briefed the three of them about the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, about situation in Bosnia, and about the name issue between Macedonia and Greece. We also discussed the European Enlargement of the Balkans and the expectation of the people in the Balkans.
Do you agree that the cooperation among Balkan countries is still short of its potential level? It seems we are always focused to the West, the EU, and often forget how close we are to each other and the potential that is within the Balkans.
I fully agree. We need to have close cooperation between all countries in the Balkans. This is important in terms of the freedom of movement of people, goods, and ideas. In that sense, still borders are a problem, infrastructure is a problem. A wrong mental orientation is a problem.
The distance of the borders between Bulgaria and Kosovo is 70 kilometers. This is not much. We need to have more exchange and cooperation. It should be on bilateral level, but also on multilateral level. At the same time, this should happen in a wider framework.
In my view, Europe is not complete without the full integration of the Balkans. Our membership in the EU is a return to Europe, a return to modernity.
As somebody with an academic background, who has researched nationalism and ethnic conflict, are you worried by the recent resurfacing of the far-right in Europe? Anti-immigrant sentiments are on the rise, even in long established western democracies. Meanwhile, in Bulgaria, refugees are increasingly becoming targets and scapegoats for what is going wrong in the country.
I feel that the job of politicians, as much as they can, is to lead the public opinion, not to flow with it. These very isolated nationalistic trends can happen because of different reasons; social, economic, and psychological. The job of leadership across Europe, is to explain to the public why this is dangerous, why this is against European tradition and history, and to reflect that when these phenomena occurred, Europe was living in its darkest age.
Secondly, I think Europe needs to project power outside the continent. The thinking and way of doing things in Europe is very much inwards. In my view, they should be more open. You cannot fight those kinds of sentiments by isolating the society, by spreading xenophobia, and by fighting immigrants. You need to address this issue in a very democratic and open way, by respecting human dignity.
It seems to me that it might be a kind of short-term development. I don't think that in the long term this might be the trend. Very far right nationalistic parties cannot stay in power.
Can you comment on the latest events in Ukraine, prompted by the government's refusal to sign an Association Agreement with the EU? What is Kosovo's stance on this?
We were shocked and surprised, because we would like to see Ukraine as a part of the Euro-Atlantic institutions, where it belongs in terms of history, geography, and culture. At the same time, it shows that the way how Russia sometimes is trying to influence neighbors is not for the benefit of peace and development, or the people.
I hope the people of Ukraine will be able to overcome the situation which they are in for the time being and look towards Brussels as the reference to their life and vision for the future.
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