Shpend Kallaba: Sofia Remains Substantial Reference for Kosovo
As Bulgaria has completed its one-year term as the Rotating Presidency of the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP), Novinite is interviewing Ambassadors of countries who are parties to the process.
Following is our interview with H.E. Shpend Kallaba, the Ambassador of the Republic of Kosovo to Bulgaria.
After a one-year stint as an English teacher in Kamenica which marks the beginning of his career, he moves to Pristina, where he takes different offices with the state administration. In 2004, he joins the Foreign Ministry structures of Kosovo that are being built up at the time. In 2010, he is appointed Foreign Affairs advisor to Kosovo's President, but leaves the position in 2012 to be his country's Ambassador to Bulgaria.
Your Excellency, in 2015, Kosovo seems to have imported into Bulgaria nearly double the worth of goods it did in 2014, with the total trade turnover improving by 6.5 percent. What are the prospects for boosting bilateral trade?
I am pleased to share and confirm your views on enhanced prospects of our trade relations during last two years, in particular. For coincidence, just last week we had a very successful economic forum organized by the Bulgarian Economic Chamber under the auspices of the SEECP Chairmanship-in the Office- of Bulgaria. Numerous prominent business representatives from Kosovo participated and established direct ties with their interlocutors in Sofia and even beyond the region. Simultaneously, during last week the President of the Republic of Kosovo was invited by his homologue, President Plevneliev, in the Summit of SEECP Leaders in Sofia. The high-level visits will continue during this week with the head of the Parliament of Kosovo, Mr. Kadri Veseli – also a new leader of the biggest political force, Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK). Definitively, Sofia remains a very important pillar and a substantial reference for the Western Balkans in general, and for Kosovo in particular.
Of course, the potential for economic cooperation is much higher, considering that both countries and societies perceive each-other in very friendly and positive terms therefore we remain strong regional partners in all important fields, including political; business and economic; touristic; cultural and people-to-people contacts. In this context, I believe that between Kosovo and Bulgaria there are great foundations built in order to expand our bilateral ties in the framework of regional cooperation and EU integrations. Although proximity and common cultural characteristics are great preconditions, we are working to improve the legal framework for protection of mutual investments; removing bureaucratic barriers and further exploring our unknown potentials to each-other.
During his visit to Kosovo in April, Bulgaria's President Rosen Plevneliev pointed to a then pending Agreement on the mutual protection of investment between Bulgaria and Kosovo as a possible instrument to boost economic relations. Has this happened over the past year?
The focus on economic and business cooperation has been again reiterated during last week between the two Presidents in Sofia. We are expecting to conclude this agreement hopefully during the second part of this year, so both official Prishtina and Sofia are willing to speed up the internal procedures in order to accelerate our economic cooperation. Since the Stabilization and Association Agreement between the EU and Kosovo was signed during this year, Kosovo is becoming even more competitive by creating new instruments for foreign direct investments such as the Law on Strategic Investments which has been already adopted by the Government of Kosovo and probably soon will be effectuated by the Assembly of Kosovo. This law will create a new space for Bulgarian investors too, but in both countries I believe what we need is more knowledge and mutual information trickled-down at business community, specifically.
President Plevneliev is a great supporter of Kosovo’s statebuilding and we highly appreciate his direct interest in Kosovo’s Euro-Atlantic progress. In this context, we believe that our excellent political relations will bring new added values in other important fields, as well.
The development of infrastructure connecting Bulgaria with much of the Western Balkans has been a challenging issue for decades. Are Bulgaria and Kosovo working together toward that end?
As you know, Kosovo is working seriously to conclude the second motorway in the last six years, this time with our immediate neighbor, the Republic of Macedonia. This project expected to be finish during next year, will be part of the country’s major southern trade route. It runs from Greece’s Aegean ports including Thessaloniki, through Macedonia including Skopje, north into Kosovo and then west through Albania to ports on the Adriatic Sea. This project will accelerate our trade relations with Bulgaria too. We are also keen to modernize our railways infrastructure and I am confident that Bulgarian companies and experts could bring their valuable expertise in our upcoming projects.
Last but not least, Kosovo is part of the Berlin Process since 2014, along with other five Western Balkan countries. This ambitious process is going to bring massive investments with the help of European Commission, EBRD and other international organizations on Transport Connectivity. Our countries have agreed the list of six transport infrastructure investment projects reflecting core priorities by 2020. I am very optimistic that the current situation will change for good.
National statistics show Bulgaria is unknown to Kosovo as a tourism destination - and vice-versa. Is there any bilateral effort to change this at the moment?
First, let me say that for Kosovo citizens the Bulgarian touristic potentials are not unknown, I preferred to be with my Family in Bulgarian seaside since 1978 (Sunny Beach/Слънчев бряг), we consider it as our second lovely native soil. As a matter of fact we have an increased number of visitors from Kosovo in winter tourism and since few years ago our travel agencies have Bulgaria in the map of summer touristic packets. This is easily tracked based on the number of applications for Bulgarian Visa in Prishtina. However, I believe that the number of tourists from Kosovo could be even higher if visas and transport barriers for Kosovo citizens wouldn’t exist. In my meetings with the senior officials in Sofia I continued to insist that there is a need to expand the cooperation with respective touristic authorities, along with removal of bureaucratic procedures.
The mountainous south of Kosovo has great potential for winter tourism. One of the most interesting is the well-known ski resort Brezovica in the Sharr Mountains. The resort, situated between 1,700 and 2,500 meters above sea level. It offers excellent weather and snow conditions, as well as long ski seasons from November to May. Apart from the above-mentioned tourism resorts, Kosovo is generally rich with mountains, artificial lakes and rivers and therefore also offers prime possibilities for hunting and fishing.
Kosovo citizens still require visas to enter Bulgaria, but this will change soon after the EU's decision earlier in May. Have you made an assessment of how the waiver will affect bilateral flows in trade, tourism, investment?
As explained above, the Visa Liberalization regime for Kosovo citizens is becoming not just a necessity but also a human rights issue. Isolation has proved to be a wrong policy, especially in the country with the youngest population in the region with an average age of 25 years. We are the only country in the Western Balkans without being provided with this well-deserved advantage, and our students, sport players, scientist, entrepreneurs, hospitalized people etc. are not being able to travel without a Schengen Visa. Since 2012, when Kosovo received the Roadmap by the European Commission we have fulfilled all criterias. As a result, Kosovo received the positive recommendation during last month but it is up to member states to endorse this important recommendation.
Definitively, I believe that Kosovo citizens will have new prospects for their future with Visa Liberalization, including new opportunities for cooperation in and with Bulgaria. The free movement of people is one of the main values and pillars of the European Union, therefore we expect to cherish and utilize this opportunity soon.
Are there any major bilateral projects underway or yet to be carried out during your term as Ambassador?
Of course, I am dedicated to advance our bilateral ties, starting with Academy of Sciences, University, Library, Archives, Ministries, Institutions and with unconventional diplomacy as well. For example, my focus since the beginning was to liaise universities and high-schools in both Kosovo and Bulgaria; another positive aspect was the cooperation on local municipalities, twinning programmes etc.
We are working to increase the level of cooperation between Parliaments, considering the parliamentary diplomacy is a strong channel in our relations. Kosovo has to learn a lot from your experiences in transition, therefore we are trying to maximize your know-how in the EU integration process as well.
Is Bulgaria helpful to Kosovo in any way on the road to EU integration and if yes, how?
I am proud to serve in a country such as Bulgaria, with an open-door policy for Kosovo in the Euro-Atlantic process, as the only destination and alternative for our region. Since 2008, Bulgaria was a key supporter and it has proved itself even during 1999 in the Kosovo War, at our darkest moments. Its substantial efforts to support Kosovo at regional and international dimensions made our statebuilding process more progressive and credible. We welcome and appreciate the Bulgarian SEECP Chairmanship-in the Office and we continue to expand our bilateral file in numerous fields of mutual interest.
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