“Bail us out, get us in” - Albin Kurti’s vision for Kosovo and his political comeback

Interview

Albin Kurti is the leader of the opposition party Vetevendosje, (Self-Determination). He was Prime Minister of Kosovo from February to June 2020 until his government was toppled. Viola von Cramon-Taubadel is a member of the European Parliament, a member of the Green Party and the European Parliament's rapporteur for Kosovo. Walter Kaufmann, Heinrich Böll Foundation, spoke with both of them on September, 7. about the domestic political situation in Kosovo, the importance of rule of law and EU integration.

Walter Kaufmann, Albin Kurti und Viola von Cramon-Taubadel stehen vor der Treppe

The interview was recorded, you can hear it here.

Walter Kaufmann: Mr Kurti, your government was ousted after a very brief period. When you took over, expectations were running high that a new political generation would take over with a very strong commitment towards reform and European integration. Why didn't you succeed so far? What happened since October?

Albin Kurti: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure and honour to be here with you and with Ms von Cramon. We won the election on 6 October 2019 on a ticket of “two J’s”: Jobs and Justice. So economic development with labour-intensive investments and the rule of law to fight high-level corruption and organised crime with zero tolerance.

Once in office we started with a reformist agenda, but then the parties from the ‘Ancien Régime’ joined forces against the government, even with one of our partners, in order to stop our good work, namely dismissing corrupt boards of directors from 11 publicly owned enterprises and electing new management in order to render them profitable.

We envisaged a development bank for entrepreneurs in Kosovo which would lower interest rates and increase grace periods. We also started a vetting process for the prosecution and judiciary with a team of experts, and during our four months in power we held 39 government meetings and took 213 decisions.

We stopped what we called ‘financial bleeding’, namely very expensive asphalt on agricultural land, and in addition we replaced the 100% tariff towards Serbia with a reciprocity principle.

However, all the old parties, which had been frightening the people, were then afraid themselves of elections. The people want us to fight corruption. That's why even though I lost half my support in parliament, falling from 66 MPs to only 33, the support among the people doubled since then, and whereas in the past we knew the day of the elections but not who would win them, this time we don’t know when the elections will take place but we certainly know the winner.

Walter Kaufmann: International actors played quite a crucial role in ousting your government, there were big differences in the approaches of the US and the European Union. How can this be explained and what were the international factors underlying these decisions?

Albin Kurti: I must say that there was only one distinct political figure pressuring our government into a different agenda and that was a former ambassador of the United States to Germany, Mr Richard Grenell, and now, after also losing his position as acting director for national intelligence in the US, i.e. being at the helm of 17 different intelligence agencies, he remains the special envoy of President Trump for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. I engaged with him constructively, however after removing the 100% tariff, he insisted that we should also remove the reciprocity with Serbia even though I quoted President Trump to him, who said that reciprocal is his favourite word.

Albin Kurti, Walter Kaufmann and Viola von Cramon-Taubadel
Albin Kurti, Walter Kaufmann and Viola von Cramon-Taubadel.

Ambassador Grenell, not able to change my stance and direction as prime minister, started to pressure my coalition partner until he managed to break them, and finally the motion of no-confidence against me took place after only 50 days in power. I worked constructively with former ambassador Grenell, but I cannot say the same for him because he was desperate for a quick deal between Kosovo and Serbia, without taking into consideration the history of the problem nor the content of the agreement.

He was only interested in having the signatures of the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia for the White House and I believe all this has to be seen against the backdrop of the recent months in the current US administration and the run-up to the elections there on 3 November this year.

Walter Kaufmann: Viola von Cramon, as we are having this conversation, the Prime Minister of Kosovo and the President of Serbia are meeting in Brussels to discuss the next political steps in the so-called ‘normalisation process’. What is the role of the European Union in this normalization process, but also in supporting democratic reforms in Kosovo?

Viola von Cramon: Thank you Walter, thanks a lot Albin Kurti, for your introductory remarks. Yes, I think the EU is very interested in the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo for any kind of normalisation between the two states, but you're absolutely right, it cannot be at the cost of democratic values.

And I think that's the significant difference between the very brief government of Mr Kurti and the preceding administrations. I think at some point we need commitment to the dialogue, but the European Union also has a huge interest in improving living standards of the people in Kosovo.

This is, and should be, guaranteed by, e.g., the visa liberalisation process but on also by strong economic foundations.

Albin Kurti has mentioned some of the important points and I would add that the fight against corruption, the fight for an independent judiciary, for independent decisions by the supreme court and the constitutional court, is essential.

On one hand we have to look for compromises from the decision-makers in Pristina for the dialogue, but on the other hand we shouldn't neglect the need for clarity on all the other issues. At the same time, I see that it is not easy within the current context to find players striving with the same energy, the same intensity, especially concerning fighting corruption, creating jobs, and giving the young a prosperous future in Kosovo.

And this should be like a complete package, wherein we, in the European Union, reinforce and endorse the government in Kosovo to do so, and don’t just focus on the dialogue.

Walter Kaufmann: Albin Kurti, as we are in Berlin, we must mention the Berlin process, initiated by Berlin some years ago to intensify the EU integration process of the so-called “West Balkan 6”, countries that are not yet part of the European Union. You said recently that you would like to see an upgrade of the Berlin process. What would that mean? What could be upgraded? What would be the political vision you would propose for the further integration of the West Balkans in the European Union?

Albin Kurti: In recent years the Western Balkan 6 (WB6) had the Berlin process as a mechanism to help all six countries of our region to join the EU as soon as possible, as we meet the requirements, especially when it comes to rule of law, democratisation and infrastructure for economic development. However, I believe that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which changed our lives in an unprecedented way, and due to the rise of authoritarian leaders in and around the Balkans, the Berlin process as we know it is not enough. We should upgrade it, and try to progress faster, because authoritarian leaders of different global superpowers are interfering in the elections in the Western Balkans, and even the parties with very good results are surprised by their success because actually it's not only their success: it’s the success of certain outside factors. The Western Balkans are in the European continent and should become part of EU.

The population of the WB6 is 18 million, these six countries have an enormous diaspora in Western Europe and that should be used as a bridge for foreign investment. The GDP of the WB6 is less than 40 percent of the GDP of the Czech Republic or not even 15 percent of the GDP of North-Rhine Westphalia. My message and plea is “Bail us out, bring us in”. I think the WB6 should be brought into the EU at the latest in a decade or so, as part of a strong and upgraded Berlin process.

Young people there want that, and the Balkans and the EU are much more important to each other than people are currently aware. There’s also our common history in the 20th century.

Walter Kaufmann: Viola, Albin has just mentioned the economic challenges of the Western Balkans. Should the EU spend more money here, and if so on what? What role does the European Green Deal play?

Viola von Cramon:  Yes, the European Green Deal plays a great role. The problem is that we are still waiting for the so-called investment package, the investment and social economic plan, to be presented and published by the Commission within the next few weeks, hopefully for the Western Balkans. It was delayed because of the COVID crisis and we are still not really aware of where the money will be spent. Everyone is aware it will be more than forecast, but there are no concrete indications about which programs and which sectors will benefit.

I would say that since the air quality, especially in winter, in most of the Western Balkan states is really awful and a big threat to the population, it’s also in our interests that the European Green deal plays an enormous role within this investment package.

We raised this topic, for renewable and decentralised energy, for citizens’ energy, but also to change the mind-set of decision-makers and ensure communication but I'm aware that's not easy: many decision-makers still rely on coal instead of gas because it might be Russian gas, which is not very popular in Kosovo and other countries.

We have to go through all the sectors. In the Western Balkans industry is very energy-intensive and this is not sustainable. I would recommend to all decision-makers and politicians there that they start transforming their industry now, think about different concepts than you had in the past, because since you are neighbours and you want to integrate as quickly as possible, it would it be even easier if you presented your own concepts for a renewable and sustainable energy supply. Therefore, I hope that we will see support for these initiatives and requirements, especially with the investment plan.

Walter Kaufmann: Albin you would like to add something about the Green Deal?

Albin Kurti: I agree with the concept and vision of the Green New Deal and I must say that I also like the expression.

Unfortunately, in Kosovo 95 percent of our energy is produced by thermal power plants using lignite. We want to decrease it as fast as possible because of the air pollution, especially in the capital Pristina.

We must also engage in waste management, in getting rid of open landfills across the country, and in fixing river banks and riverbeds harmed by the illegal exploitation of sand during the 20 years. And last but not least, there is certain deforestation that we should reverse.

In this sense I believe that our reformist agenda, once we are back in government, should also work out exactly what the “green new deal for Kosovo” means.

When it comes to help from the EU, I believe some sort of a mini Marshall plan for the West Balkans Six would be welcomed, similar to what the US did for Western Europe after the Second World War.

And lastly, in all the WB6 countries there is only one thing more important than the economy and education, and that is the link between the two. We have to connect education and the economy. There is an enormous skills gap between education and the labour market. To bridge this gap, we need a model similar to the dual education system used in Germany, Switzerland and Austria in which students put into practice what they learn at college or university within enterprises. This way education and jobs go hand-in-hand instead of taking place at different times.

Walter Kaufmann: You want to comment on this point?

Viola von Cramon: Yes, I think it's important to stress the following: we are very happy with a kind of Marshall plan, no question about that, and as I said, the investment plan will be huge. But, and this is the point, it must be conditional, and this is the problem now with, for example, the governmental framework in most of the Western Balkan states. That's why I’m very reluctant to just give money without having very strict conditionality and without having oversight by the Commission. If the Commission is willing to show us this scrutiny and oversight, I'm absolutely happy with all sorts of financial support, but if not I would be very cautious about giving even more money to the region.

Walter Kaufmann: What should we expect in the coming months in Kosovo - you are challenging the current government which you say has been formed illegally. What is your strategy now for returning to government?

Albin Kurti: The current government is illegitimate and also a minority government, which has, at best, 60 MPs out of 120, so they cannot pass any laws in our parliament. It is certain that either this autumn or at the latest next spring there will be new elections because a situation where two-thirds of those representing the will of the citizens are in opposition is unsustainable. I look forward, once the elections take place, to working very close with the EU and with Germany and I agree that donations and investments in the Western Balkan Six should come with certain conditions because without the rule of law and democratisation we risk the money ending up in the pockets of authoritarian leaders and business tycoons.

Thank you very much for the conversation.