Spech of the President at the Atlantic Council
BY AHTIFETE JAHJAGA/*
Seventeen years ago to this day, in this capital and those of NATO European allies a courageous decision was made to intervene on humanitarian grounds to stop the war crimes and the ethnic cleansing committed on Albanians in Kosovo by Serbia’s state apparatus.
The decision to conduct a bombing campaign against military targets, to stop Serbia’s repression and force its withdrawal from Kosovo made much history.
For the first time in the history of the North Atlantic alliance, it fought a war on the grounds of regional security. Not for territory, not for resources, but for principles: against a state whose sovereignty lost legitimacy when it began to persecute and repress its citizens on grounds of their ethnicity.
The brutality unleashed in Kosovo at the dawn of the 21st century was not unknown to leaders in Europe and the United States. It followed the carnage in Rwanda and much closer to Kosovo, in Bosnia.
They weighted heavily in the minds of decision-makers. It challenged all of us to think to what use were the alliances, unions of nations, conventions, laws and charters if we were repeatedly failing to protect the unprotected from systematic state-sponsored violence?
In Kosovo, they lived up to their names and aims. The intervention stopped the war and brought Kosovars the much sought peace and freedom.
The international community – the UN, NATO and a plethora of international organizations – heavily engaged in peacekeeping duties and in institution-building as they helped steer Kosovo to democracy and free market economy. About one million refugees returned home in the first days after the conflict ended.
After almost 10 years of active international involvement in what has been a remarkable journey of state-building, Kosovo declared independence in 2008, and as we approach our first decade as an independent state I can confidently say that we have managed to recover, to overcome, to move forward.
By and large, our ability to progress from the state of war to rule of law in a short span of time was a direct outcome of the security established on the ground and the determination of the American and European allies to stay committed to peace and stability in the Balkans.
This security was provided by fifty thousand NATO troops deployed initially in Kosovo, a country of 2 million in a territory the size of Connecticut that would be a guarantor of peace, and thousands of UN police officers who set up the parameters of law and order.
Security and the exit strategy were tightly linked to the foundation of the new security institutions that we were to create, guided so generously by the international community. It relied on creation of trust, certainty and predictability.
We have assumed responsibility for the safety of all in Kosovo through the Kosovo Police, a trusted institution that reflects the ethnic balance in Kosovo.
We are in the process of transforming our rapid response force into the Kosovo Armed Forces, a defense force that reflects the ambitions and the interests of the country and is being created in a gradual and phased approach, in line with a detailed review of our security sector that embraces NATO standards.
In this next phase of completing the trappings of the sovereign state responsible for its own security, our intention is to build a flexible and modern defense force that will be an asset to the regional security and would help to maintain Europe’s peace.
Due to this gradual handover, only 3000 NATO troops are now on the ground and they no longer conduct patrols or man checkpoints. But their presence remains an important cornerstone of security in the Balkans, because even after 15 years of active engagement, there is unfinished business in the region.
We recognize that most of the challenges that stand on the way of Balkan countries’ road to accession in NATO and EU are internal – such as the existence of the endemic corruption, the economic monopoly of powerful elites and other consequences of bad governance and incomplete rule of law and they are potent threats.
But what we must also recognize is the huge leap that the region has made in the past two decades, the kind of progress that would have been impossible without a European and North Atlantic integration perspective on the table.
That has been our overarching incentive to reform, to engage with one another, to even make progress where one would have been unimaginable several years ago.
The attention required today in the Balkans is no longer one of emergency. It is one of adopting to the Balkans the model Europe already tested and tried successfully half a century ago.Our strategic goal is membership in NATO and the European Union, a goal shared by the majority of the political spectrum in Kosovo.
We see no alternative to it and while I know that our efforts are complicated by the non-recognition of four NATO members and the sometimes-stalled reforms at home, I would like for us to think ahead and really see this momentum as an opportunity to change the course of history for the Western Balkan countries.
With one exception in the region, our shared vision is to become part of the larger umbrella of security because we are convinced that that is the only way that will guarantee a lasting peace and stability.
NATO’s recent decision to offer formal membership to Montenegro is the much-needed positive step, as is EU’s decision to grant membership status to Albania and Serbia and to sign the Stabilization and Association Agreement with Kosovo as the first step toward the European integration.
We can never consider security separated from the political situation, which we also have made serious efforts to address in large part because of our aspirations to join the EU and in Kosovo’s case NATO.
Despite the animosities that still hold and the difficulty to engage in dialogue with one’s former enemy, the governments of Kosovo and Serbia are trying to normalize the relations in the EU-brokered process.
This effort has been far from perfect. The lack of tangible implementation and the ambiguity that has surrounded it have not been helpful, but the two countries have been bound by EU conditionality to resolve their disputes before either state can be considered for membership.
To Kosovo that means full recognition of its independence by Serbia before Serbia can join the EU. Anything short of recognition would reverse decades of investment and efforts to pacify the Balkans and to set it on the road to prosperity.There is no time for enlargement fatigue. The Western Balkans countries have come halfway and we are in need of another push that would set us off on a path to the kind of progress that cannot be reversed.
EU and NATO integration are not a cure for all, I agree, but without this option clearly and firmly on the table our future becomes uncertain.
The vacuum, the limbo in which we find ourselves currently has opened up an opportunity to powers and agendas that have traditionally sought to undermine any chance of success in the Balkans and beyond.
Today we find ourselves squeezed between Russia’s anti-West policy and various Islamist agendas, which seek to exploit the pent up frustration, the isolation, the lack of economic prosperity, the general stagnation.
Too much has been invested in the stability of Kosovo, Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. We are all finally getting our act together but we need help to stay the course. We do not seek shortcuts and our path to EU and NATO should continue to be conditioned with our ability to fulfill the important criteria, but we must not lose sight of what is of strategic importance.
We are an integral part of Europe and we must be treated as such. Today, the citizens of Kosovo are the only people in Europe who cannot travel visa-free to the rest of Europe. The only other country where they can travel without a visa is Turkey.
We are eager to be seen as an added value, to be part of Europe’s solutions and not a generator of problems.
And we vow to do our part.
Let me make a security-related example. In the past four years, Kosovo’s institutions have effectively confronted the challenge posed by the foreign fighters, citizens of Kosovo who have joined ISIL.
In 2013 and 2014, about 200 Kosovo citizens travelled to Syria and Iraq, which makes us one of the top countries with the number of foreign fighters per capita.
We have been uncompromising in our approach as soon as we became aware that we, too, had been affected by this phenomenon. Our first reaction has been to learn everything – from recruiters down to their finances and routes, learning about their ties and their intentions.
We have acted swiftly and decisively against the ones that have returned, putting them through our legal system.
On recruiters, we have been on the mark. Arrests have led us to several dozens of imams with connections to Macedonia and Albania. We have shut down illegal mosques and NGOs that have acted as fronts for their activities, especially in money laundering and indoctrination.
This challenge to our security has had another immediate effect. We have renewed some old partnerships and have started some new ones, particularly in our immediate neighborhood that have led to major arrests.
We have updated our laws and approved new ones to ensure that our sovereignty and legal independence does not become a catalyst for those seeking to pursue this path.
Cooperation has been key as has been the realization that we must do our own homework. Despite the presence of NATO troops and the largest EU rule of law mission, it was our law enforcement agencies that took the responsibility to make Kosovo the European frontline of fighting the terrorist network.
Before I conclude, let me offer a few thoughts on our most recent challenge.
We examined several questions today on the anniversary of the Kosovo intervention against the backdrop of another crisis at the gates of Europe.
As I speak, there are Syrian refugees, as well as migrants from strife-stricken countries from the Middle East and beyond, that have amassed in Europe’s most fragile territory, in no man’s land between Greece and neighboring Macedonia, and now most recently Albania.
There are assumptions that Albania and Kosovo are next as refugees and migrants scramble to find new routes to take them north to Western Europe, which is their main destination.
I join the Prime Minister of Albania to say that we will not open our borders – not for the lack of will, but because of our inability to offer the needed care – but we will also not erect walls.
The suffering of the Syrian refugees feels very close to our skin. During Kosovo’s war, one million Kosovo Albanians – half of Kosovo’s population – were expelled from their homes. We were forced in neighboring countries, where despite the fears that refugees from Kosovo may somehow take over their countries – we were welcomed with open arms. Some 600,000 refugees were taken in by Albania, which had very limited resources being one of the poorest countries in Europe. In Macedonia, too.
But three months later, when US-led intervention stopped the Serbian aggression, one million refugees rushed back to their homes. I remember aid agencies in panic about landmines and the destruction left behind by the war.
But to the refugees who never wanted to leave their homes, this moment of return to their homes could not have come fast enough.
They all went back to their homes in less than 2 weeks after the war ended.
In this debate, we must be reminded that refugees are a consequence of the war. To stop their flow we must address the cause that pushed them to leave in the first place.
We need to remember that they are people forced to leave their homes and nobody wants to ever leave home. No one wants to be somebody else’s burden.
And while we’re all learning that there is no one single way to address migration and that every European country will deal with it in its own way, we must ensure that our resources and our action are joint.
Thank you very much for your attention!
*Spech of the President at the Atlantic Council