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‘In the Balkans, if You Neglect History, It Will Backfire’
The acting prime minister of Kosovo says the United States helped bring down his government.
The government of Kosovo became the first to collapse in the face of the coronavirus pandemic on March 25, following a dispute over how to respond to the outbreak. Prime Minister Albin Kurti imposed restrictions on people’s movements to help curb the spread of the virus, while his coalition partners pushed for a declaration of a state of emergency that would have given greater power to the country’s president, Hashim Thaci.
But behind the scenes, Democratic lawmakers in the United States, longtime observers of the Balkans, and Kurti himself say U.S. support for the vote of no confidence played an integral role in toppling the government, which had been in power for less than two months. Kurti was reportedly seen as an obstacle to efforts by the United States’ Serbia-Kosovo envoy, Richard Grenell, to score a foreign-policy victory for the Trump administration by brokering a deal between Serbia and Kosovo, which fought a war in the late 1990s.
Last week, top Democratic lawmakers on the House and Senate foreign relations committees wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, accusing the administration of being “heavy-handed” in its approach to Kosovo and of overlooking Serbia’s derecognition campaign against the country, which declared independence in 2008.
Foreign Policy spoke over Skype with Kurti, who is continuing to serve as acting prime minister of Kosovo. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: On Sunday, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci tweeted to say he was looking to form a new government sometime this week. But you’ve also called for fresh elections. Where do things stand now with forming a new government for Kosovo?
Albin Kurti: The Republic of Kosovo is a democratic parliamentary republic. The president is more of a ceremonial figure. He cannot create nor direct political will. What he’s doing is already a breach of the constitution. He is trying to form a new government in order to avoid new elections, precisely because we all know who’s going to win. Our party, the Movement for Self-Determination, has over 50 percent in all the polls these days.
FP: If you were to hold new elections, when would you look to do that? Would you do that during the pandemic?
AK: No, I’m asking for new elections immediately after the pandemic crisis. So we’re doing well in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic—there is no complaint in this respect. On March 16, initially, our president was asking for a state of emergency to be declared when we had zero deaths and only 19 infected.
FP: Why were you opposed to calling for a state of emergency being declared?
AK: According to our constitution, Article 131, once a state of emergency is declared, the president of the country becomes supreme commander of our armed forces, sort of a general mobilization, and he can put the armed forces in the streets of Kosovo. And also he takes chairmanship of the security council of our republic, meaning that he would have executive powers as well. It was so obvious to everyone that he was trying to use the virus to get power and not really to combat the pandemic.
FP: At a press conference earlier this week, you said U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoy, Richard Grenell, played an integral role in bringing down your government. Can you expand on what role you think Grenell played in this?
AK: I met first Ambassador Grenell immediately after elections where we won in October last year. Back then, he said Kosovo had to lift the 100 percent tariff on Serbian goods and in return Serbia has to quit with its derecognition campaign, where Serbia is lobbying everywhere so that certain states will withdraw their recognition of Kosovo and putting up different kinds of obstacles to prevent us joining international organizations.
Later on he went to Kosovo again in January and reiterated the same thing. But after coming back from Belgrade, he started to abandon, bit by bit, the second part—for Serbia to quit the derecognition campaign. It was just, “You [Kosovo] have to drop the tariffs.” He changed his stance for the stance of Serbia. This is something unique when it comes to the relationship between Kosovo and the United States. We always had our stance. Serbia has its own stance. The United States was meeting us halfway and usually with the potential to move forward.
I’m not saying that the United States is now equal to Serbia, far from it. This specific official has this specific stance, which is identical to that of Belgrade. And this is a first. Never, in our 30-year relationship since 1989, has an American envoy to the Balkans had an identical stance with Belgrade.
FP: Why do you think that his stance is so similar to that of Serbia?
AK: We have a very weak president who is trying to be tough internally while counting his days in office. I think Ambassador Grenell is using the situation, utilizing the shortcut between Thaci and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic toward a certain agreement, to facilitate it and to crown it with a fiesta as a success in the international arena for himself and perhaps this administration. So he saw this potential for a quick deal, for a quick fix between the two presidents, and he doesn’t care very much about the contents [of the agreement].
He cares about time, and he needs it fast. He is focused on the signatures at the bottom of the agreement, not on the text of the agreement. And if you want to do it fast, you pressure the weaker side. And Serbia is stronger, bigger. He doesn’t care about history. And in the Balkans, if you neglect history, it will backfire. It always comes back. I think that these kinds of quick fixes are the problem itself.
FP: How does this tie into the vote of no confidence against your government and Grenell’s role?
AK: When Ambassador Grenell couldn’t break me, he started to pressure my coalition partner. Apparently not just threatening them but by maybe making some attractive future offer where they would lead the government, which actually is what they want. Telling them, “You are under Mr. Kurti’s shadow. You can’t take over. Just do this motion of no confidence. Drop reciprocity,” and so on and so forth.
FP: Do you think that your coalition partners would have called for a vote of no confidence if it wasn’t for Grenell’s encouragement?
AK: I don’t think so. I think that the motor, the international motor behind the motion of no confidence, was definitely Ambassador Grenell.
FP: How do you think that has affected the way the people of Kosovo view the United States? Historically you’ve been one of the most pro-American countries in the world.
AK: We still are, but I think that people are a bit worried. In the background, there is this agreement between Thaci and Vucic because there were secret talks for sure. I think that there is a secret agreement, perhaps not written to the last detail, and people are very worried because of that.
The fear of what might happen in the future, or near-future, is not just the behavior of Ambassador Grenell. It is this project of land swaps, which is still alive as an idea and might be embodied by Ambassador Grenell as somebody who is going to become a guarantee for it. For over two years now, this land swap has been like a specter. It’s in the air. People are afraid that this specter has found Ambassador Grenell and he is going to go behind the two presidents to do the land swap, which could be interesting for the summer but for sure will create new conflicts and new bloodshed because no village wants to end up on the wrong side of the new border.
FP: Grenell has denied talking about land swaps. On Monday after your press conference, he tweeted, “There has been absolutely no talk of land swaps from me—and it’s never been discussed by anyone else in my presence.” How do you respond to that?
AK: He has helped to broker several agreements between Kosovo and Serbia regarding railways and highways and [the resumption of] direct flights between Pristina and Belgrade. And I can imagine that he is interested in the signatures below [the agreements], not on the text above. Basically his hurry makes him side with Belgrade because if you want a quick fix, then you pressure the weaker side. I think that he might not have participated in this Thaci-Vucic deal, but I’m certain that he must be aware of these secret talks and know of their contents. So he needs an agreement. He needs a deal where he can show that international crises can be resolved peacefully, even if that implies a land swap.
I think a territorial exchange is going to lead to more refugees and more conflict and not really new borders as they might think. You can draw them on a piece of paper, but to turn them into a reality on the ground, it’s not doable without conflict.
FP: So just to clarify: Grenell has never discussed land swaps in the presence of you or your team?
AK: No. I met him twice. He’s a man of time, not of space. He doesn’t speak about territories in the Balkans. He just needs an agreement.
Correction, May 1, 2020: This article was updated to correct a transcription error.