Trials and tribulations

This interview with Petrit Selimi, deputy foreign minister of Kosovo, appeared in Tribuna in Albanian and is republished here in English with Tribuna’s permission:

Tribuna: These days, US foreign service published the annual report on the religious freedoms and there it’s stated that the level of non-tolerance has increased. Did you as a Foreign Ministry have any communication with State Department regarding this report? What are the main concerns?

Petrit Selimi: We had permanent contacts with US Embassy and truth be told, report’s positive findings on the promotion of tolerance and interfaith dialogue in Kosovo are related to the efforts of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Republic of Kosovo. State Department took note and mentioned a series of our projects within the public diplomacy, especially the international interfaith conference held in Peja, the multilingual web site as well as the organization of the week of Tolerance and Dialogue last year that included the unveiling of a memorial stone to the Kosovo Jewish Holocaust victims who perished in the WW2.
One does not win much votes with such engagement but it’s important we have continuation of the promotion of real Kosovo, where the faith communities historically have shown more tolerance and patience than hate.

Tribuna: Despite good words for the tolerance projects, this year the report also numbers cases of public show of intolerance. What was your reaction to these specific remarks?

Selimi:  One of the crucial challenges that we face is the attempt to slowly eradicate the boundaries of what is religion and the state or the public. Traditional Islam in Kosovo has always been a part of personal and family domain and now we have a situation where few imams, inspired by preaching in some other parts of the world, aim to mix politics and faith.
In this way, being active from the position of the interpreters of the absolute truth, these imams speak of political issues in absolutist terms, as infallible statements. One imam has called our Albanian mothers, sisters, wives “whores” because they chose to love people before marriage or because they choose to wear clothes of their compatriot Rita Ora. Another imam spits hate in preachings and calls for Jews to be “finished.”  A third imam justifies physical violence against magazines that write on the theme of sexuality.
These are still a minority but they often preach with an utter conviction and charisma that may create with some young people especially, a deep sense of self-victimization and frustration, especially when you take into account the social and economic conditions as well as the level of education. All of these create a reaction of anger which sometimes leads to the real physical violence. It now seems almost comic that some of these imams [upon seeing their names in the State Department report] now say that “we may have made mistakes in our preachings, we are only human”. Yes, I agree we are all humans. If we are also good believers on top of it, then we know that God certainly has far more mercy and will also be merciful to those that show little mercy in their sermons.

Tribuna:  This being said, it’s not just an issue of few imams, as we also have MP’s from your party’s coalition that have called for boycott of Israeli products and provide support for these imams mentioned in State Department report?

Selimi:  Well, one of the problems of our society is certain Manichean world propagated by several actors in public landscape, a certain simplistic moral dualism. It’s not an issue whether one calls for boycott of one or the other product from some country. There are lot of European communists who for decades have boycotted US or Israeli products. I know a very nice Norwegian lady that hasn’t had Coca Cola for 40 years. Someone may decide to boycott oil companies for environmental reasons. Many people call for boycott of goods from Serbia due to their history of violence against Kosovo. Civil society or groups of interest have full rights to use boycott as their legitimate civic actions. However, when these acts slide into hate or become a part of campaign instigating hate, there we have an issue and realistically it may constitute crime. It’s legitimate to support Palestinians from some activists but this doesn’t mean we should ignore the hate-speech or deeply incorrect political language. Anti-Semitism that has exploded in recent weeks is very worrisome as it’s a new and rather non-Albanian phenomenon that has no place in our tradition.

Tribuna:  Isn’t there a bit of exaggeration and too much focus of politics on these issues? Aren’t other issues in foreign policy being ignored?

Selimi:  Yes, there are certainly people who say that we are becoming “more Catholic than the Pope” pointing out that there is extremism elsewhere in the world. It’s also true that you probably see more women with hijab or burka in some neighborhoods of Stockholm or Paris than Prishtina. Most certainly, there are more fighters from many EU nations other than Kosovars in ISIS. However, political reality and our own position in the European security architecture is rather more complex.
We will be looked upon with a different lens and this we may dislike and it can frustrate us but the unshakable and unbreakable truth is that we must be even more tolerant, even more open-minded than your average Balkan standards. There is a far more sophisticated and historic level of anti-Semitism in the circles of Serbian far right or with some other countries in the region, as well as in some circles in EU countries from Eastern Europe, where clero-fascism and organized crime go hand in hand. In Serbia, statues are publicly raised to honor former bishops of Serbian Orthodox Church which had a very distinct history of anti-Semitism. Some of the religious extremists in Serbia also had a genocidal experience in Bosnia and Croatia and this made them even more dangerous. A group of such fanatics and criminals were also responsible for murdering of the Prime Minister of Serbia Zoran Djindjic.
But Europe sees with one eyes radicalism, let me call it conditionally, of native Balkan origin and with a different eye the extremism coming from Middle East. European media, some political parties in EU countries will simply close the door to anyone that vaguely smells of imposing discriminatory religious practice in the public and political sphere.
I want you to bear with me a bit longer on the issue that seems marginal, of the anti-Semitism and Holocaust. This form of discrimination is an almost radioactive for us as we are the last ones, absolutely the last ones to ever forget, negate or denigrate the Holocaust. This is a tragedy above tragedies in the modernity, trauma of which is found on the roots of the EU. Anti-Semitism is banned in the most EU countries. But above all, it’s a act of betrayal to those that helped us most in the greatest times of need, who were often Jews especially from US. State of Israel itself accepted Kosovar refugees in 1999 when some countries with Muslim majority gave vocal support to Milosevic. Also, comparing contemporary crisis in the globe with Holocaust, as done by some political parties and civil society activists in Kosovo is not acceptable in the progressive political discourse in Europe. These are simply wrong interpretations.

Tribuna:  What is than the reaction of the state in the cases of Kosovo fighters in Syria and Iraq that are committing acts of terrorism. It doesn’t seem the state is able to prevent them?

Selimi:  State is a very wide concept. The law banning the participation in the foreign wars has been approved by the government 3 months ago. Unfortunately, MP’s of the previous legislature had either no will or no time to fully approve the bill in both readings.
Lack of this specific law should not stop the judiciary from acting though. I have big respect for the independence of judiciary but I don’t quite comprehend reluctance of prosecutors to pro-actively deal legally with those that attack liberties of others either by using physical or verbal violence. Even some of us that are part of, conditionally saying “state”, we feel bit lonely sometimes from the silence of the rest of the society and other levels of government when it comes to these sensitive issues.

Tribuna:  You want to say that Government can’t cope with this phenomenon?

Selimi:  What I am saying is that Government itself nowhere in the world is able to tackle this phenomenon alone. Truth be told, the executive bodies that deal with the security in our country have a full oversight over this phenomenon. We have data on those that are directly or indirectly involved with extremists. Some of these dangerous elements have been arrested or are waiting trial. So, the government and its mechanisms of security are working, but this in itself is not enough. Security issue is one segment, but prevention is another matter and there we must also find cooperation in the faith communities and the wider society. Isn’t it a little strange that so many NGO’s gathered in quick manner, organized conferences and protests, appeals and activities to protest on the design of the municipal logo of Prizren or a Monastery field in Decan, or against a Law on Amnesty that stemmed from dialogue in Brussels and voted by an overwhelming majority of MP’s – the same NGO’s are so silent when it comes to misogyny or more serious cases of religious extremism? How is it possible that a tiny minority of Kosovo Albanian Protestants can’t get a permit from the city of Prishtina for a graveyard for few decades? How is it possible that teachers get smuggled in the school system preaching against evolution and Darwinism in secular school system? These are not separate questions. We lack dialogue beyond political parties and a real debate of where do Kosovars want to go? We are also severely lacking in truly independent intellectual contributions, not influenced by the partisanship of late days.

Tribuna:  Let’s return to the other story that marked the week as it’s now known that Special Prosecutor Clint Williamson has stated that indictments have been prepared for several senior leaders in KLA for crimes against humanity and the suspicion of organ trafficking still remains. Does this damage the reputation of Kosovo?

Selimi:  Every headline, text or media report that puts Kosovo in the same sentence as organs is damaging for us. The government has supported and helped the work of SITF and has full belief that the process in the forthcoming period will help separate what is the real tragedy of alleged postwar crimes from the false accusations that were fabricated to blemish Kosovo. As it is situation now, we don’t have possibility to comment on the work of justice because these are separate branches. Just like the work in a legal process is split in separate phases. First the prosecutor presents his case and argument, then defense presents its case and arguments and the judges decide in the end with a verdict. This verdict is the moment when the truth is defined, at least the legal one.
Allow me to remind you that on the very day when Kosovo approved End of Supervised Independence in September 2012, Serbian public channel broadcasted a testimony of anonymous self-declared KLA soldier who stated that he used a Kalashnikov bayonet to do a heart transplantation, without a single day of experience in medical fields. We cannot do the same thing and speculate but we must remain focused on the factual situations that require legal answers. One of the factual situations is also that KLA did not exist after 21 of June 1999 due to demilitarization of the guerrilla army, which was verified by NATO and IOM and was valued as one of the most successful demilitarization in recent times of a post-conflict situation.

Tribuna:  But organs are just a part of report, other accusations are very serious as well?

Selimi:  The tendency may be to minimize the lack of evidence on organs and even Dick Marty now says that this part of his report is not important. But the very title of his report contains “organ harvesting”, the report itself mentions organs more than a dozen times and this grotesque claim has been in the forefront of the media attention. This specific accusation reverberated with the media interest but also touched our conscience.
No Kosovar is shocked over accusation that there were individual crimes of war and after the war against minorities and people that didn’t conform to other people. 300-400 Serbs are missing in some cases and this is terrible just like it’s terrible the fact that we are still digging graveyards and finding bodies of Albanian victims in the middle of Serbia, hidden there by the Serbian state in 1999. After the war some horrible things have happened that must be addressed in order to move forward with a healthy basis of trust between communities.

Tribuna:  This is only happening to Kosovo? How come no such Special Courts have been created for other countries?

Selimi:  Let me tell you that in France after Second World War, almost 10,000 French got killed after being accused justifiably and sometimes unjustifiably, of collaborating with Nazi regime and they were executed by all sorts of village committees, brigades of La Resistance, paramilitaries or even neighbors or jealous lovers and it took bit of time before rule of law got enforced in the post-war France. After rule of law was established, the new courts of the French republic issued another 6,000 orders for execution of collaborationists. There have been post-war situations across the world that have created a continuity of conflict between different strata of society or political sides, from Greece to Spain. Enver Hoxha eradicated thousands of opponents. Tito has disappeared hundreds of thousands of people after the WW2.
It so happened that our country must face these same dilemmas and same feelings many decades later. The liberation of Kosovo in the sense of finally liberating the path of Kosovo to European values did not happen in Kosovo in 1945 like in rest of Europe but almost 60 years later. Now we need a transparent, independent and internationally backed court that will provide us with a verdict. This process is in a way related to the earlier topic of the religious extremism, and these two are the principle pillars of the anti-Albanian propaganda and our own answer to these two challenges will project also our seriousness of our dedication to both the idea of Europe of laws and individual freedoms.

Tribuna:  The delay in creation of institutions is endangering the creation of the Special Court. Do you believe that the insistence of PDK to lead the government is creating undue delays in processing the indictments that were announced by Williamson?

Selimi:  Right now we don’t have any undue delays but a regular constitutional debate. Even in the very precise, concise and hard-working Germany in took several months before Chancelor Merkel appointed a new cabinet after elections of September 2013. Kosovo doesn’t posses tens of legal precedents and hisorical references that may anchor without a doubt the legal interpretations hence we have this phase almost every year in which other than the Constitution itself, we are also drafting and establishing derivative rules of the electoral processes.
PDK insists that as a winner of elections it has a right to create a government as well as naming of the Speaker of the Parliament. Opposition parties insist that both positions belong to them. They tried to vote the Speaker of the Assembly and PDK complained to the court for the occupation of the institutions. The fact of how many MP’s have voted Mustafa for the Speaker is irrelevant – to use an earlier analogy, we had the vast majority of assembly members that changed the logo of Prizren and even NGO’s and even Vetevendosja of that time supported adding the date of Albanian League of Prizren on the city logo. One single member of minority community complained to the Constitutional Court and the court changed the logo, despite the overwhelming decision of the vast majority of local MP’s. So, the principles that we are fighting for are not to delay anything but rather to establish clear rules of the game once and for all. Other than the Special Court, Kosovo needs to implement a series of other obligations and dire needs and these must bebased on healthy and undisputed legal ground. Hence, Kosovo doesn’t have a political vacuum as we speak and all issues in this sensitive case are being dealt with in partnership with EU and US.

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