VJOSA OSMANI-SADRIU, President of Republic Kosovo, in conversation with WOLFGANG ISCHINGER, former Chair of the Munich Security Conference, Germany, on the European Security Strategy and the role of Eastern European countries.
The Balkans, like the Baltic States, are considered an important stabilising factor for Europe. However, the countries of the Balkans harbour a great potential for conflict that can also endanger stability in Europe in the long term.
While the former Soviet countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been clearly critical of Russia for many years and have been members of the EU since 2004, the attitude towards Russia in the Western Balkans is rather indifferent.
Moreover, some of the Balkan countries, which were offered the prospect of EU membership as early as 2003, have been waiting for years to join the EU because they simply do not meet the Copenhagen criteria for admission – key words being the rule of law, freedom of the media and corruption.
In our Special Talk “Left alone? The European Security Strategy and the Role of Eastern European Countries”, which took place on 15 September as part of the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium, Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, former Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, discussed with Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu, President of the Republic Kosovo, what contribution the Western Balkans can make to a stable European Community in the face of a new world order.
Wolfgang Ischinger started by noting that in the Western Balkans, first in the conflict around Bosnia Herzegovina, but then also in the conflict in 1998 and 1999 between Kosovo and Serbia, the number of victims exceeds the dimension of the bloodshed that what we have seen so far in Ukraine – not to diminish the war in Ukraine, but to remember how brutal and dreadlock the Kosovo War was and how many victims it claimed. A trauma that has not been overcome to this day.
40-years-old President Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu, in office since April 2021, represents the youngest nation in Europe, “the country of youth”. Not just in terms of the years for which Kosovo is existing, but also in terms of the age of the population. More than 50% of the people of Kosovo are under 25 and more than two thirds under 35 years old, which could be a huge potential for Europe.
“Kosovo today is an established democracy, a thriving country, and a beacon of hope for the region and beyond”, Osmani-Sadri said. “It is the greatest embodiment of what the democratic world can achieve when it stands together to defend the values of freedom, democracy, and human rights. That is Kosovo today, more than 14 years after declaring independence.” However, Kosovo today faces the same economic problems as other countries in Europe: it has to deal with high inflation and energy problems. But the people of Kosovo are very resilient, as they have proven throughout their history.
During the Kosovo war from February 1998 to June 1999, more than 13,000 civilians were killed, some 20,000 women were raped, 128,000 houses were burned down and countless works of art and historical buildings were destroyed, destroying much of Kosovo’s cultural heritage, she said: “Kosovo was literally burned to ashes.”
They were only saved by strong alliances. “We would not have survived in 1999 if we had not had these alliances, if we had not had democratic countries like Germany, the United States and other countries around the world supporting us. We could not have achieved the successes we are proud of today if we had not had our friends. The democratic world stood by us not only until 1999, but every step of the way as we built our statehood and gained our recognition as a member of international organisations. And I think the same values are at stake in Ukraine today. This shows how important these partnerships and alliances are. And it shows that our real power as democratic countries lies precisely in our partnerships.
Now Kosovo takes the chance to give back, Osmani-Sadriu stressed: “Kosovo was the first country which agreed to the request by the United States to support Afghan refugees. And Kosovo was the very first country in the Western Balkans to fully align sanctions against Russia with the European Union. “We are at a 100% alignment with the EU, although we still don’t have a candidate status because no matter how hard the path towards Euro-Atlantic integration may be, there is absolutely nothing that can take us away from that path. It is our vision, it is our fate. The people of Kosovo will continue their resilience until the moment where we are, where we belong, and we belong in the European Union and NATO.”
Wolfgang Ischinger asked how big the disappointment is after all those years of trying to reach the requirements for EU membership, all the unfulfilled promises and to see now how Ukraine gets recognized as a country with a direct EU perspective?
Osmani-Sadriu replied that the disappointment is not with the fact that the European Union gave the candidate status to Ukraine: “The people of Ukraine are putting their lives at stake for the values that stand in the foundations of the European Union. Kosovo is absolutely supportive of the decision of the European Union to give Ukraine a candidate status.” But they will keep fighting to get this candidate status as well.
The EU’s credibility is at stake when it comes to the decision on visa liberalisation for Kosovo, President Osmani-Sadriu emphasized. “Kosovo had already almost fully met the criteria four and a half years ago, the European Commission had long recommended visa liberalisation for Kosovo and the European Parliament had overwhelmingly supported the decision more than twice. Now it is up to the individual EU member states to keep their promise.” Failure to do so would not only damage the EU’s credibility with the people of Kosovo. “We are talking about young people who are not able to attend a conference like this, or journalists who would like to come to you today to talk about these important issues because they cannot get an appointment for a visa,” Osmani-Sadriu said. This also applies to “tourists who want to visit beautiful Potsdam. At the end of the day, it’s about the feeling of freedom. And freedom is the foundation of the European Union. We know that this is going to be a long process, but we hopefully believe that after everything that happened since 24th February of this year, finally the EU understands that having the Western Balkans join the European Union, it’s of a geostrategic importance and interest for the EU. Without peace and stability in this region, which can only be achieved through our membership in the EU, there will be no peace and stability in the entire continent.”
Ischinger stated, that Germans, that Europeans should understand, that the “Zeitenwende” cannot be managed without South-East Europe. Completing and accelerating the European accession process for countries who are now still in the waiting room of the EU, including Kosovo, should be on top of EU’s to do list which has become very important against the background of the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine. A particular problem is the neighboring country Serbia, which apparently cannot accept that Kosovo exists as an independent nation. Only recently there was a conflict between Kosovo and Serbia over visa issues. What is the state of play and how can the EU be helpful?
Osmani-Sadriu compares Serbia’s behaviour to that of Russia, which does not recognise independent, sovereign neighbouring states as independent and considers them only temporary. „Serbia believes that they should decide on our fate after committing genocide against our people, which is absolutely unacceptable. Serbia has never apologized, never showed any repent, did not put the perpetrators before justice. And there are still countless massive graves around Serbia with missing persons from Kosovo, from Bosnia Herzegovina, from Croatia.” What happens in north Kosovo must be seen in a geopolitical context of Russia’s influence over Serbia which has turned into a Russian proxy to destabilise the Western Balkans and fight the values-based systems of the European Union and NATO. “By fighting us, they are fighting all of you.” Serbia would exercise “every melody that Putin is playing, and Vucic is dancing to Putin’s tune.” These kinds of tensions would hold back the entire region.
President Osmani-Sadriu pointed out that Serbia’s President Vucic offered a safe haven in Belgrade to Russian oligarchs who are on the sanctions list in Germany and other EU countries. More than 300 companies have opened offices in Belgrade. There would be a so-called Russian humanitarian centre on the border with Kosovo, which according to the US Department of Defence is a Russian spy centre. There are plans to open a Russian defence office in Belgrade. Kosovo is 100% linked to the EU, he said. However, Serbia’s President Vucis is trying to walk in Moscow’s paths as well as those of the EU. This would not work. “History shows and teaches us that appeasement only encourages and strengthens autocrats. I think it would be the wrong way to continue on this path.” She said the EU must be more direct and unyielding in its actions and policies towards Serbia ” to help Serbia itself get away from Putin.” Anything else would further destabilise the continent.
She does not want to discuss the status of Kosovo with Serbia, she said. This issue has been “settled once and for all, that is an irreversible reality”. She is concerned with discussing the status of bilateral relations between two independent countries, issues such as identity cards, the recognition of documents and so on. So far, Serbia has not implemented most of the agreements. Instead, they put tanks on the border. Recently, a documentary was shown on Russian state television encouraging Serbia to reconquer Kosovo through war. The international community should help Kosovo defend not only their own country, their territorial integrity, “but also what we have built together, because they are after that.”
In view of the upcoming elections in Italy and Viktor Orban’s continued resistance to certain decisions proposed in Brussels, there is a certain risk that the EU could break up over the issue of Russian sanctions, Wolfgang Ischinger summed up. He said it was important to remind ourselves that this would not only be a huge problem for our handling of the Russian war in Ukraine, but would also mean that we would be giving free rein to Russia’s politics and, by proxy, Serbia’s politics. And that would also affect Western Europe, because all these issues, conflicts and wars are interconnected. Therefore, the so-called “Zeitenwende” would have to take a comprehensive approach to these issues and unresolved conflicts.
When asked by General Ben Hodges, former Commander of US Army Europe, whether the President was satisfied with the deployment of KFOR troops, she replied: “We are satisfied with KFOR, but we would like NATO to do something else: to let us in. Because being in NATO means being safe. Kosovo has contributed to peace and stability in the region since its liberation in 1999, and our army has been built absolutely to NATO standards with the help of NATO-trained NATO countries who have already participated in peacekeeping missions alongside the US Army. Now is the time to speed up the accession process for both Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as this would be a great contribution to further strengthening stability in our region. Finally, the accession of Albania, Northern Macedonia and Montenegro to NATO has also led to more stability in our region.”
She pointed out that before joining NATO, membership in Partnership for Peace (a programme for military cooperation between NATO and 20 non-NATO European and Asian countries) was required and had to be agreed unanimously. However, there is the strange situation that four countries participating in this Partnership for Peace programme do not recognise Kosovo as an independent state and never wanted to join NATO, including Serbia and Russia, but that they nevertheless have a say in Kosovo’s NATO membership.
The President concluded by saying that she very much hoped that there would be peace for all people in the region in the near future. And that the day will come when Kosovo will sit alongside Armenia and Azerbaijan and other countries in this region in international organisations such as the UN and in human rights organisations working to improve the protection of human rights.
Conclusion: The governments of the Balkan states are in part deeply disappointed in the EU, and at the same time there has been too little progress on unresolved disputes. On the other hand, Kosovo, the Balkans and the whole of South-Eastern Europe are immensely important for the stability, resilience and sovereignty of the EU. But the slow process of EU accession has led to disgruntlement and partial disengagement from the EU towards Russia. The region must finally become a foreign policy priority for the entire EU in order to minimise new risks of instability and centrifugal forces and further weaken Europe.
Copyright der Videoaufzeichnung: @Presidency of Kosovo