Kosovo, the US, the EU, Serbia and Facebook

Pristina-based Zeri has kindly given me permission to publish in English this interview with Kosovo Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi:

Zeri: At the last Hearing of the US Helsinki Commission, Congressman Eliot Engel stated Kosovo to be the most pro-Western and pro-American. He also added that Kosovo was left unfairly isolated in the Balkans. How do you assess the continued support of US officials to Kosovo ?

Petrit Selimi:  The US has remained the main pillar of support for Kosovo’s Euro-Atlantic integration. The US vision for Kosovo for several decades has been stable and unchanging. Independent, civic , secular, enjoying friendly relations with neighbors – including Serbia – a member of EU and NATO, a country with a small but dynamic economy, based on full human rights for all.

Government officials, diplomats, thinktankers and US Congressmen who know the Balkans could not miss the fact that in this land you’ll find the most pro-American people on the planet. Already in 1989, the late Congressman Tom Lantos, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, gave a speech in the floor of the Congress saying that Kosovo is a one of the most pro-American and pro-democracy regions in the world. This was a quarter of a century ago. Mr. Eliot Engel is the present day beacon of this strategic friendship between a global giant and a tiny Balkan nation .

Congressman Engel has always been a friend of Kosovo but he is now also the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Congress, a position that gives him more staff and opportunities to help people of our region. If you look at Congressman Engel’s initiatives, such as the nomination of Prime Ministers Thaci and Dacic for a Nobel Peace Prize, the joint letter with 40 congressmen advocating acceleration of Kosovo’s NATO membership bid, and his appearance this week at the Helsinki Commission hearing of the Senate – these are the actions of a politician who has strong human ties with the people of Kosovo. We are there to help with positive arguments and with our positive actions on the ground such as the establishment of the Kosovo Armed Forces this week.

Zeri: In the Congress hearing this week, Mr. Engel asked for Kosovo to be granted membership in NATO and Partnership for Peace. Do you think that Kosovo meets the criteria for being a member of these international mechanisms ?

Petrit Selimi: Congressman Engel asked State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Hoyt Yee about Kosovo’s NATO perspective.  He is the most senior diplomat dealing with the Eastern Europe and Western Balkans. It is clear that both the Congress as well as the State Department will engage strongly, as indicated, to support Kosovo’s efforts to enter into the Partnership for Peace and eventual NATO membership.

Kosovo meets the conditions for PfP now that is starting the next phase of development of the security sector. We also have clear legal models that address the issue of those who have not recognized Kosovo.  Therefore I believe that very soon Kosovo will begin formal path toward Atlantic family.

Now, let me also add that Prime Minister Thaci took a big decision starting the process of creation of full-fledged armed forces. Some people wanted indefinite postponement of such decisions, but any postponement was out of the question. Now the Parliament must deliver. Naturally, our armed forces will be small and not offensive and within limitations of our financial means. Obviously, we will never have submarines or fighter jets. However, any army is only worth the friends it has. Without NATO membership, Kosovo’s democracy will always be prey of foreign or internal destabilizing efforts. We don’t have the luxury of sitting in two chairs and looking a bit East and a bit West in principles we adopt, the society we build and the values we share.

Zeri: In the meeting of the US Helsinki Commission, some officials of the European Union connected Kosovo’s isolation with rampant corruption. Some people call these EU charges unfair. What is your take?

Petrit Selimi: I wouldn’t use the word isolation but it is true that our road to Brussels is longer than the others. This was even said by European parliament members Fajon and Lunacek during last few days. However, it is also very important never to enter the mode of self-victimization and excessive frustration with how the EU behaves with Kosovo. The world is like that. Politics is like that. Life is like that.

Kosovo has a longer path than all the others in Balkans for many reasons. Some are practical, such as the fundamental fact that we are decades behind in development, compared to countries which exist for 100-odd years. Also, we still have the image of a post-war country because of the apocalyptic nature of the events in 1999, which traumatized the whole Western world. As noted by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama few months ago, one also can witness prejudice against Kosovo and Albanians in some political circles, especially the extreme right, that cater to the perceived cultural differences between the EU and us. Decades of Serbian propaganda also did its part. To say that Kosovo has the biggest problem with war crimes or corruption,  knowing all our neighbors, I believe that is an unfair judgment.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that we provide enough material to skeptics and opponents of Kosovo with our behavior. Irresponsible politicians, the newly introduced extremist discourse on the religious landscape, repression of the rights of women, ethnic and sexual minorities – all these arguments are not forgotten by friends as well as those who are keen to slow down EU enlargement.

Zeri: European parliament member Tanja Fajon cited talks in Brussels as one of the key conditions for the integration of Kosovo in Europe. Will the dialogue become a type of permanent obstacle in our integration efforts?

Petrit Selimi: Dialogue is not an obstacle. Dialogue is the only way of surpassing the real obstacles. We will have to talk all our political lives, especially with neighbors. The decade of Euro-Atlantic integration for Kosovo will also be a decade in which we have to close open chapters with Serbia and vice versa. The same applies to Macedonia or Albania or Serbia. Sooner you journalists, we politicians and people on the whole understand this, the less time we will waste attacking the essential pillar of the EU and NATO integration: eliminating any open territorial issues between prospective members.

Zeri: Many of these developments–like establishment of the armed forces, but also news from Congressional hearings–the public understands from Prime Minister’s Facebook account. It’s rumored that you are engaged in maintaining his account.  Should we not have greater involvement of the opposition and more debate instead of personal postings?

Petrit Selimi: The Prime Minister is the only person behind his own words. I am part of a team that is helping the message to reach the public. The Prime Minister and the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) are not famous for early adoption of technologies.  Many of the important decisions of the Prime Minister or the Government simply disappeared in the absence of sophisticated channels to send the message. Prime Minister Thaci now has accounts in social networks and most of them are a part of his public appearances . Television interviews take quite some time and they are given less frequently during the month.

On a daily basis, digital communication is the fastest way of informing and explaining Government decisions as well as  the Prime Minister’s thinking and policy behind these decisions. So the Prime Minister’s new approach has increased transparency.  He is now interacting directly with far bigger number of people about policies and decisions. Digital communication has not been invented by Prime Minister Thaci.  I guess it’s a good sign that his postings have become newsworthy in the local media and are shaping the public debate.

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