President Hashim Thaçi of Kosovo discusses his country's ten years of independence, its progress in joining international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union, and the country's foreign policy in the region.
NASH: Thank you very much for coming and joining me—and joining me, please, in welcoming President Thaçi. You have his bio. You know him, so that’s why you’re here.
I would just say to you that it’s very important to understand that there’s nobody in Kosovo who has devoted his life more than Hashim Thaçi has to the sovereignty and independence of Kosovo, and that demands respect. And it’s great to have you with us today. Sir, yours.
THAÇI: Thank you, General Nash. Dear friends, ladies and gentlemen, I will continue in the Albanian language. It will be a bit more—
(Note: President Thaçi’s further remarks are made through an interpreter unless otherwise noted.)
It’s really an honor and pleasure for me to be here amongst you today and to discuss the recent developments both in Kosovo, but in the Western Balkans in general. What I can say immediately is that, actually, there are good news in the Western Balkans today, but we still do face challenges. But never before has the region been more firm in its path towards EU membership and NATO membership, apart from Serbia.
It was really a pleasure a couple of weeks ago being in the meeting of the leaders of the Western Balkans in Davos, in Switzerland, and congratulate Prime Minister Zaev of Macedonia for implementing Prespa Agreement and opening the way for Macedonia to become a NATO member. Yes, the agreement will bring Macedonia into NATO, but it was a difficult agreement to achieve but a welcomed agreement for the whole region.
The next good news from the region is that both Kosovo and Serbia remain committed to reaching a comprehensive peace agreement within this year that will bring peace between Kosovo and Serbia, an agreement that will bring immediately both recognition of Kosovo by Serbia and membership of Kosovo in the United Nations. It will be a win-win process for all sides involved. It will be a comprehensive agreement that will cover all open and outstanding issues between the two countries, from the humanitarian issues to issues such as economic development. The end result, then, will be an agreement accepted by both sides reached under the leadership of the European Union. I do hope, and actually I’m confident—I trust—that this agreement will be reached this year. It is more difficult, more complicated, the agreement reached, compared to the one between Macedonia and Greece. But it’s a necessary agreement, and now is the right moment, actually, to reach this agreement that will end a century of conflict between the two countries.
The agreement will bring benefits for both states. It will close a century-old conflict between Kosovo and Serbia. It will contribute to peace and stability in the whole region of the Western Balkans. And very importantly, this agreement will help transform internally both our societies in their reforms and democratic development. Leaders both in Kosovo and Serbia will not be able to remain in power only by accusing each other, but they will have to deliver on reforms and development. The agreement will open the way for cooperation and avoiding recess into tragedies of the past.
Of course, this process has received criticism. There are opposing voices. But, of course, the easiest thing to do is actually just criticize and attack the people who are trying to achieve peace. And it’s important to remember that this agreement, though I know it will not be a popular one—it will be a difficult one both for Kosovo and Serbia—it is the only way forward for a better life for the generations to come.
This is why it will be a comprehensive agreement. It’s not an agreement only about the border between Kosovo and Serbia, but an agreement that will close all open issues between Kosovo and Serbia, from the humanitarian issues to economic cooperation.
Of course, the question would be: Why now, exactly? Though I would say that we should have reached this agreement even yesterday, that this was not possible, at least we should try now. And why now? First of all, nowadays much better communication between Kosovo and Serbia. Then there are leaders—it’s about personalities—there are leaders in both countries who want to reach an agreement or are ready to reach an agreement. Actually, I know that it’s even more difficult now. It’s even more dangerous to try to build peace now than it was to fight the war years ago for us as leaders. But if we move forward, the only alternative then is going back. And for us, going back means a new conflict, new tragedies.
The process will continue to be led by the EU. It has full support of and strong support of the United States. The letter that I received and also the same letter sent to the president of Serbia by President Trump was very encouraging for us. Only an agreement that will be accepted and fully supported by the United States can be implemented fully in the Western Balkans. We should maintain this renewed focus of the White House in the Kosovo issue and we should use this opportunity, this new momentum.
Also, what else is different here is that now we see Serbia ready, showing readiness to accept an agreement, to come to an agreement, which is different from talks in Rambouillet and then talks in Vienna. But also now we see some signs that Russia is also ready to accept an agreement that will be reached by mutual agreement of both countries. This means that Kosovo can get recognition from Serbia, but also not—and be able to get the seat at the United Nations with Russia not using the veto right.
(Continues in English.) Thank you very much. Thank you very much, everyone.
NASH: Thank you very much, Mr. President.
If I may, I’d like to follow up on a couple of things you said and discuss with you this comprehensive agreement with Serbia at least, the big issue on the table, obviously, that you’re speaking about. And the border between Serbia and Kosovo is, obviously, one of the major issues at hand. And I realize there are many others, but I want to talk about that. And it’s a very—and I understand the difficulty of it. What I am asking you to discuss with us is: What is your view of the framework or the parameters that you would be—put on the table to further that discussion and looking for compromise in achieving a delineated border between the two?
THAÇI: I will really try to avoid being naïve and believe that Serbia will recognize Kosovo simply out of goodwill and give this as a present to Kosovo. This is why it’s going to be a very difficult process. As I said earlier, we are trying to make this a process—a win-win process for all sides through a very difficult process, though, and negotiations and compromises, a compromise that will enable both governments to present this achievement—sell this to both for us in Kosovo to our public opinion in Kosovo and for Serbia’s leaders to their public opinion in Serbia.
We have to be realistic in Kosovo. We have to discuss what we can compromise in this process re: this final agreement with Serbia. And it’s true, yes, Kosovo definitely has to define where its border with Serbia lies. And yes, it’s true that in the northern part of Kosovo, in Mitrovica—you, General, were there; you saw it for yourself—there are problems that need solutions.
But let me reiterate again it will be a comprehensive agreement that will deal with issues such as the missing, both the missing of ethnic Albanians, ethnic Serbs; the issue of refugees, displaced people, and the right to return in their places of origins in Kosovo; issues of community rights, health care, education; the role and position of the Serb Orthodox Church; historical/cultural heritage; economic development. And, of course, both countries need assistance and support by EU in their economic development because economic development is also key to successful peacebuilding.
And very importantly, both countries will remain multiethnic countries. Anyway, 70 percent of the Kosovo Serbs actually live south of Mitrovica. And all of the Serbs remaining in Kosovo will enjoy all of the rights, including the right on double citizenship and participation in Serb elections, and will be able to organize within the territory of Kosovo. And this will apply also reciprocally for Albanians who will remain—who live in Serbia.
There are no redlines in these discussions, in these talks for reaching a final agreement. There will be no borders along ethnic lines. I’ve heard some speaking about opening Pandora’s box, but actually it is exactly this agreement that will help the beginning of closing of the Pandora’s box in the Balkans.
All those who mentioned precedents, the only precedent here is that both Balkan countries are reaching a peace agreement through peaceful means, not a conflict. All those who speak of domino effect, I’ve met and I’ve discussed with leaders of the region. I met leaders of Montenegro, of Albania, of Macedonia, and they all strongly support the peace agreement. They are not afraid of this peace agreement. On the contrary, they require this peace agreement too.
Well, there’s criticism actually coming from countries who have not recognized Kosovo as an independent sovereign state. My reply to these countries was: Why don’t you recognize Kosovo first, and then you would have more right to speak about Kosovo’s peace agreement with Serbia?
Go back to the border issue. The current borders were actually not established by the will of the people. They were enforced by Tito’s Yugoslavia. If we have to do a technical correction of the border I wouldn’t mind that at all, especially if this is the price for getting to a final peace agreement with Serbia, and by this avoid creation of any institution with executive power such as the association of Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo which would create a new Republika Srpska in Kosovo and would render the state of Kosovo dysfunctional.
NASH: Yeah, I want to follow up just a little bit on that last point to make sure I understand it, if not everybody else here. You’re open to territorial adjustments or territorial swaps, but you obviously want to—
THAÇI: (In English.) Correction.
THAÇI: (In English.) Correction border.
MS. : Border correction.
NASH: Correct. OK.
THAÇI: (In English.) Correction.
MR. : Territorial correction.
NASH: Oh, corrections at the border. OK. Got it. Swaps and adjustments and not correction to—OK. (Laughter.) That’s fair. (Laughter.)
What about—go back to you not wanting a Republika Srpska within that. How do you manage that, then, with particularly the northern municipalities?
THAÇI: It’s not that we’ve put the maps on the table.
THAÇI: By academic background I’m actually a historian, and I remember that the borders in the Western Balkans have always been established and changed through wars and through bloodshed—though not only in the Balkans; even beyond. Some states used to be bigger, and now they are smaller. Others were perhaps larger, but today they are small but doing better in economy and development.
You all know that I actually fought a war for the freedom of my country. And I know that the process ahead is going to be a very difficult process, but let me emphasize that Kosovo needs to move much faster towards NATO and EU membership. Don’t think that it’s easy or fun for me to sit with President Vučić, and I believe it’s the same—in the past, we were actually on opposing sides fighting each other in the war. But today we live at this frozen conflict in Kosovo or a status quo that actually for me is not only a status quo, it’s a dangerous status quo because it means Kosovo moving backwards.
Neither Kosovo nor Serbia will be able to move towards EU integration without normalizing relations, building normal relations. Therefore, now that there is local interest, there’s also a strategic long-term interest for both countries. For me, it’s really vital that Kosovo becomes a member of NATO and of the EU. If we lose this opportunity, this momentum, I am afraid that we will waste a lot of time, and the generations that will come will pay the price for this delay.
What will be other effects of this agreement? If Kosovo and Serbia reach an agreement, there would be less possibilities for Russia to exercise any control in the Balkans, in the Western Balkans, but also less possibilities for non-Western ideologies to penetrate and operate in the Western Balkans. The longer this current fragile status quo is maintained, the more it will be easier for Russia to penetrate and have influence in the region. So not everyone is actually keen and favors an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. There are also those who actually would prefer that this current status quo is maintained.
NASH: You raised NATO. In December, your parliament resolved to convert the Kosovo Protection Corps to a regular army, and that has brought angst to a number of people and concern. And I wonder if you might say a few words about the rationale for that move, how much it’s going to cost, and who’s going to pay for it. And I guess the other question I would ask you: In just a couple of minutes, include in your answer what’s the threat that you need an army for.
THAÇI: Transformation of the Kosovo Security Force is not because we feel threatened or because we want to attack, but simply because it’s our sovereign right and duty. There’s no safer country in Europe because NATO is there present, but NATO being in Kosovo is not a justification for us not to work towards Kosovo becoming a NATO member as well.
Of course, we will pay for our armed forces.
We will meet all the conditions criteria necessary for NATO membership. KSF remains a multiethnic force, professional force. More than 10 percent of its troops are actually from non-majority communities.
Were some people angry? Yes, there were those who were angry. But what’s important here is to think who are the ones who actually were happy with this decision. First of all, Kosovo citizens. It was fully supported by United States, by U.K., by other NATO member states. And we’re OK. We’re fine with this.
NASH: OK. Very good.
I think it’s time to turn it over to our members to ask questions. Again, I remind you that we’re on the record. If you’d like to ask a question or ask for a clarification, just flip your nametag into the vertical and I’ll call on you as fast as I see you.
And, Jim, before you speak—and you’re going to be first—remember, we’re on the record here, so watch it. (Laughter.) Jim’s an old friend.
Q: I never worried too much about that. Nor did you, Bill. (Laughter.)
Mr. President, great to see you. You know, let’s see, the term—“border corrections” are easy to talk about in general terms. I think it would be very much different when you get down to the specifics of how you correct borders. And I don’t know the territory, but let’s say, for example, you want to make some border corrections in the north of Kosovo and you want to have some border corrections in the south of Serbia. On what basis would you make—would you—would you try to negotiate that? Would that be on the basis of population equality, territorial equality, the economic impact of any correction that might take place on the—on the two countries? In other words, what would be the basis for you to make these decisions and come to some kind of conclusion with Serbia?
THAÇI: Thank you very much, Jim, and I’m very grateful to you for all you—for all of what you’ve done for Kosovo and for the region.
Let me say again the maps are not on the table. But let me just remind you that we’ve actually done border demarcation, which included border correction, both with Macedonia and with Montenegro, which were actually not very easy processes and were met with some criticism and opposition. I believe you know very well, but we had three years of political tensions in Kosovo until we finalized a border demarcation agreement with Montenegro. But we did it, actually.
But, of course, border demarcation with Serbia will be much more difficult and complicated. Of 410 kilometers of border, there are a number of maps that exist that show different lines of this border in different parts of Kosovo, some of these maps even used by NATO. I would say that I believe that we’ve paid enough, actually, until now for independence. And of course, in discussions for the final agreement, of course we will take into consideration territory, population, our economic development possibilities or opportunities. But, again, I reiterate, there will be no quotas based or built along ethnic lines. There will be no monoethnic states.
Resources of Kosovo in the north, such as the lake in Gazivode and Trepča Mines, Mitrovica city, will remain in Kosovo. They are in Kosovo and will remain in Kosovo. And it’s also true that, yes, we support any of slight or light border correctionals in the southern part of Serbia. But if this is done as part of a broader peace agreement, I don’t see anything wrong with this. And I am convinced that with this we will close once and for all the conflict—the war between Kosovo and Serbia and open the safe way for membership in NATO and EU.
Kosovo would be recognized globally. It would become a member of all international organizations. It would be consolidated internationally as a state, and then we can really focus on reforms and development. It’s not that I am entering this process, or that I would enter this process willingly with a lot of—but up until now nobody achieved convincing Serbia to recognize Kosovo. And honestly, in not a single capital city do I see readiness/willingness to convince Serbia to recognize Kosovo now. And the only possibility, the only way forward is actually a peaceful agreement in a process led by EU and strong support of the United States.
For me as a president, the easiest thing to do would to step back and just watch the—(inaudible)—and continue to criticize Serbia for what it has done. I know that I would be applauded by the population. This is why I say the agreement will not be an easy one. Yet, it might even—it might even be a dangerous one if it’s achieved for the leaders who will achieve this agreement. We saw there were reactions—negative reactions—to Prespa Agreement both in Skopje and Athens. But we should remind ourselves that if we fail to reach an agreement there will be even more populism, even more nationalism, even more radicalism, and then we will pay an even greater price. But there will never be a NATO bombing anymore.
NASH: Good. We got to go to some more hard questions. Irv.
Q: Irving Williamson, U.S. International Trade Commission.
You mentioned economic development several times. And I wonder if you could discuss more what initiatives are being taken, what challenges you’re facing, and particularly in terms of how to grow the economy, provide employment for the young. So clearly, it’s much easier to do a peace process if you have a growing economy. Thank you.
THACI: Well, I said that the peace agreement between Kosovo and Serbia will open the way for economic development as well. For ten years now, since independence, Kosovo has maintained annual growth of 4 percent—economic growth. Many of you have been in Kosovo in the past, or recently. You’ve seen that Kosovo has changed dramatically for better. But of course, a lot more remains to be done. We are a small country, but of great potentials. For example, we have the best airport in western Balkans. Highways, road infrastructure, built by our own means, the best in the region.
We have investors from the whole world coming into Kosovo, especially from the United States and EU members states, but also other countries. An American company, Contour Global, is investing one billion euros in energy sector. There are further possibilities for investment in, again, energy sector, but also in mining, in tourism—especially winter tourism. But of course, still big challenges remain. Kosovo legislation is fully in line—harmonized with EU legislation.
To make it easier for foreign investor, we’ve even passed a law on strategic investments that has resulted with more interest for investments in Kosovo, for the whole world. It’s only a market of two million people in a small territory, but if we have a peace agreement with Serbia Kosovo will be viewed in a much positive way by potential investors outside Kosovo. Because, as you know, it’s enough to have a spark to escalate things—to have things escalating. And then you have years and years talking about this incident that happened in northern part of Kosovo, or somewhere else. Potentials are great. And I remain optimistic that we can make a dramatic change in economic development if we reach this agreement.
NASH: Thank you. Guillermo.
Q: Mr. President, Guillermo Christensen. Lawyer, but more importantly a former veteran of the Rambouillet, three, four weeks in Paris. (Laughter.)
At Rambouillet, the Russians played a very sort of schizophrenic role, right? Since then, I think their hand’s been a little clearer. And I’d be curious to hear your perspective—the Kosovar perspective on what Russia is doing in the Balkans, but especially in the western Balkans. Thank you.
THACI: Thank you very much. Well, then you know very well yourself that even in Rambouillet it was not easy at all. And at the end, the Russian, again, were against the agreement between Kosovo and international community. Also, Milosevic refused, but he did pay a price for that. What is Russia doing today in the western Balkans? Everything against Western values, would be my reply. There is a liaison office—Russian liaison office in Kosovo. It is third-largest diplomatic mission, though Russia will never be able to exercise any control or influence in Kosovo since Kosovo is the most pro-American country, as you know. But what they did in Montenegro—their reactions to Montenegro’s NATO aspirations a year and a half ago, efforts to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO—and then efforts by Russia to prevent implementation of Prespa Agreement between Macedonia and Greece. And of course, influence of Russia in Serbia, which is fully in all sectors of life, and in Republika Srpska and Bosnia.
In Kosovo, it might have influence in one individual, who is similar but not in general public. But we cannot exclude the possibility that there would be a media in Kosovo as well that would glorify Putin and his role, or in Albania. As I said, I’m not really convinced that everybody, all the actors—international global actors want peace agreement in Kosovo. They would like to maintain this fragility of region. This makes them not only more active, but also more powerful. But it—just imagine once more what would happen if there is an agreement that will bring mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo will move very fast forward towards NATO, and certainly towards the EU. And then I’m convinced that the role of the countries who do not promote Euro-Atlantic values will be minimal in the region.
But, again, we should not be naïve, and think that the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia will not require support of Russia, especially in the Security Council. Let me tell you about a meeting that I had with President Putin of Russia in Paris—the first time that a Kosovo official has met a Russian official. And I asked him very straightforward, very directly: What would be your reaction—Russia’s reaction—if Kosovo and Serbia reach an agreement? And his reply was that we will support it. And then I asked him: What about the Security Council when this agreement reaches the Security Council? And his reply was: We cannot be greater Serbs than the Serbs. I cannot say that I was impressed, but I would really welcome if he keeps his word. And I know that the United States would appreciate that as well. So we are working in all sectors, at all levels, to conclude this permanent animosity with an agreement that will bring permanent peace.
NASH: OK, good. Pete, did you want to jump in on the Russians, or should we keep on sequence?
Q: No, I’m willing to keep my place in line.
NASH: OK. All right. (Laughter.)
Q: Dalton Conley, Princeton University.
Thank you, Mr. President, for your very encouraging and optimistic assessment of the negotiations. I would—but if the long-term goal is to—is accession to the EU, there is besides economic development and peace I assume there has to be a reform in governance issues. Could you speak to the progress that your administration is making with respect to dealing with organized crime, dealing with human rights and governance issues more generally that have been under criticism in the past? Thank you.
THACI: It’s exactly this transformative role the reason why I am so inclined, put in so much effort on reaching this agreement with Serbia. We’ve made documented progress on all sectors and in reforms. For example, on visa (authorization ?) issue, we met all the criteria—ninety-five of them compared to fifty-five, as much as other countries of the region were required to fulfill. Then I speak with full confidence that there is no more vibrant and free civil society in the region than in Kosovo. And the same, there’s no more freedom of media and speech than in Kosovo. In Kosovo, the issue is not freedom of speech, but how to manage the freedom of speech that we have, and not to develop into anarchy.
Reforms, yes, we do have challenges. We do face challenges. Challenges in reforms in economy, in rule of law, in institution building. But all these reforms are conducted closely—in close cooperation with both the EU and the United States. For example, going back to the media, I am the most criticized person in Kosovo, but I take it as a positive. It has helped me, actually, to become an even better president and leader. We should, of course, do even more fighting organized crime, corruption, trafficking. We’ve actually learned a great deal from international missions. Ten years with the U.N., general there knows this, and then ten more years with the EU-led rule of law mission. But it’s only now that we’ve taken full responsibilities in rule of law sector.
Now we cannot justify any failures on blaming international missions. For example, we just look at the statistics and see the number of cases—investigations cases open against senior government officials. We are actually number one in the region for such cases. Investigating even top levels, such as—and having due processes, indictments against even prime ministers, ministers, and other senior officials. And of course, in judiciary we always need to do more to conclude all these processes. Not only have indictments but see these processes through.
NASH: I wish you’d stop blaming me for everything, Richard. (Laughter.)
Steve. And we’re going to pick up the pace here a little bit.
Mr. President, you’re here in Washington, so I want to ask you what it is you want from the U.S. government. You said that no agreement an succeed unless it’s fully supported by the United States. But can you say a little more concretely what it is you want the United States to do for you? Is it pressure on neighboring governments? Is it pressure on other major powers in Europe? Other inducements to make an agreement come together? Appointment of a special envoy or a direct role in negotiations? And can you say what kind of confidence you have that the United States will attach real importance to this issue?
THACI: I was fortunate enough to work with a few—a number of administration—U.S. administrations. And I have full confidence in their role, in their engagement, even today. The letter that I received from President Trump, for me, is very encouraging. And I believe that we in Kosovo should respect this letter in full. After all, we are actually as one big family the most pro-American population in Europe. Kosovo would not—be neither free, nor independent, nor with an army without strong U.S. support. But we’ve come this far also by making compromises, both in Rambouillet and then in Vienna. But I am personally convinced, as are many of my colleagues back on Kosovo, that whenever we were on the same side aligned with the United States, every agreement despite how difficult that compromise seemed brought successful end result.
For us, it’s very important that United States maintains this level of interest and focus for Kosovo and the Western Balkans because our interests are linked—closely linked with the strategic interests of the United States. Without strong commitment from the United States, I personally would not make any single step forward in agreement. Only an agreement that will be acceptable for United States will be acceptable. But also, as Kosovo, we have to be more proactive and do our own homework, not to undertake any steps that would make the dialogue more difficult. But also there should be more pressure on Serbia from the EU and from the United States not to condition the dialogue. And then, of course, there’s the implementation phase, where, again, we should be together.
NASH: Thank you. I’m going to try to squeeze a few in in four minutes. Richard.
Q: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. President. Richard Kramer, Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Speaking about the acceptability of the agreement, there’s a lot of opposition right now in your parliament to the prospect of border changes. In a recent poll taken by a Pristina think tank, KDI, in November of last year showed that nearly three-quarters of those survived are also opposed to the idea of border changes. I’d like to hear, if you will, sir, what your plan is to address these arguments and why it is you think these arguments are as strong as they are, or this opposition is as strong as it is? Thank you.
THACI: I’ve been in politics a very long time. And I’ve done a lot of surveys—seen a lot of surveys. And in surveys it’s very important the way—how you make the question, because then that will determine what answer you will get. Of course, efforts to reach a final peace agreement with Serbia is not a populist or a popular issue in Kosovo, just like many other issues were not popular in the past. But when we signed Rambouillet I was threatened—my life was threatened. When we worked on the Ahtisaari package, there were massive demonstrations against it in Kosovo, in Pristina. But we overcame all that.
As I said, when Kosovo and United States work together, we can push forward processes. We also did our own surveys, public opinion polls. And I’m actually rather content with the public opinion in Kosovo. Of course, I did not conduct any campaign on this. But when people of Kosovo will see that this peace agreement between Kosovo and Serbia as the first point has recognition of Kosovo and Serbia, and the second point membership of the United Nations, I’m sure that it will be massively supported. Of course, there will be opposition, which is normal actually. But as a democratic country and society, it’s very important that we have these discussions in Kosovo.
I actually participated and encouraged this discussion by civil society, media participating as well. It is being discussed in the parliament. Eventually the agreement will have to be adopted both by the parliament of Kosovo. I see this criticism in Serbia, in Belgrade, as well, against Vucic is being called a traitor. I’m being called—being called a traitor back in Kosovo. But this should not be reasons for us to give up and stop from trying to finish the agreement. It was the same phenomena in Macedonia: demonstrations against Zaev, demonstrations against Tsipras in Athens. But my question to all the skeptics and those who criticize is what is the alternative to this agreement? What else?
If somebody can convince me that Serbia will recognize Kosovo now, I will be very happy with it. Or a solution that will bring—that will remove Russia’s veto rank in the Security Council. Again, I would be very happy with that. The easiest thing to do is actually talk about the war, as some do. But the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia will close the chapter of war once and for all and will bring peace between two countries. Be assured that people want peace more than war.
NASH: I’ll finish as we began. Mr. President, you’ve come a long way from being a student activist at the University of Pristina in the ’80s. So thank you so much for joining us today. Please, a round of applause. (Applause.)