BY ALQI KOCIKO, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Albanian Daily News/
Mr. David L. Phillips/
Serbia should not achieve through negotiations today, what Slobodan Milosevic failed to achieve using violence, says Mr. David L. Phillips. With almost three decades of experience working on peace-building for the U.S. Department of State, the United Nations, academia, think-tanks, and as a foundation executive, Mr. Phillips is currently Director of the Program on Peace-Building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. His expertise on the Balkan and Middle East issues is world known. One of his recent pieces is titled “Kosovo partition is a dangerous solution”. I was privileged to have an exclusive interview with him in Tirana, the main topic being of course the recent Kosovo-Serbia negotiations, the Thaci-Vucic project of land swap as part of a final deal between Prishtina and Belgrade, described by the Kosovo president as “border correction”. Other topics were the situation within the European Union versus the Western Balkans integration process, and the United States’ current degree of involvement in the region. “It’s historically inevitable that Albanians will come together in order to be part of a normal Albania. The question is when and how. And what kind of support this movement has from the United States and international community,” Phillips states. If this phrase has drawn enough attention, read the interview below: – Mr. Phillips, taking into account the powerful reaction as well as the recent statements of respective leaders (Thaci and Vucic), can we say that the land swap project between Kosovo and Serbia has failed? -Well, it’s too soon to tell. The recent announcement of the opposition’s involvement is an important step forward. Whatever happens, the process must not remain behind closed doors. There is need for transparency. Ultimately, civil society needs to sign off. It must have an important voice. In itself, the idea of exchanging territories is basically the Milosevic project. -Your recent proposal regarding the Serbian areas in Kosovo involves a certain degree of decentralization. Could you elaborate a little bit more on that? -There are three options on the Serbia-Kosovo relations. Exchanging territories, devolving power, and keeping things as they are, that is a status-quo. The exchange of territories is complicated. If you look at the map, it appears simple but this is deceptive. There are a lot of difficult details, such as the population flows, how the properties and assets are divided, how to guarantee security. And the devil is in the details, as they say. That’s why the idea of exchanging territories is a shallow solution. Negotiating the details of an agreement is much more complicated. The second option – involves devolving power and competencies to Serbian majority municipalities. The Ahtisaari principles make clear the benefits to power sharing. Devolution is also embodied in Kosovo’s constitution. Specific power should be retained by the Kosovo government, that is, executive competencies which should be enumerated in an agreement. The Kosovo government should retain control of the police and judiciary, urban planning and environmental issues. Everything else can be handled locally. The ASM (Association of Serbian Municipalities) is redundant. You don’t need it. Devolution is already enshrined in the constitution. But since it’s been agreed to, it would be useful to define what ASM means, and to describe it as a tool for achieving social harmony. Serbian and orthodox icons and culture are important, so establishing safe spaces for Serbian culture in Kosovo should be part of a devolution plan. The third option is the status-quo. Things could stay as they are, but frankly this is not viable. Kosovo is recognized by some 112 countries. However, no additional country is likely to recognize Kosovo as long as this ambiguity in the negotiations continues to exist. -What is clear, is that both parties need this deal… Everybody needs this deal. It’s about peace and stability in the Balkans. The proposal to adjust borders, in my view is dangerous and destabilizing. It is a slogan, not a policy. -You stated earlier that basically, what Milosevic wanted to achieve by violence, they are trying to achieve with talks… -Yes, let me answer that. What the Milosevic project wanted to achieve, was a greater Serbia and to bring under Serbian control or influence all the territories where Serbs reside. And as a result of Milosevic’s aggressive, malign policies hundreds of thousands of people died, and millions were displaced. He chose to use violence. Now the same goal is being pursued, not with ethnic cleansing on the battlefield, but through negotiation in the boardroom. I believe the victims of Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing died for a reason, for the principle of pluralism, multiculturalism, ethnic and religious tolerance. We should not allow Serbia to achieve today through negotiations, what Milosevic failed to achieve using violence. -That leads me to the next question that is being asked a lot these days: Why and how President Thaci was possibly talked into this scenario? And who benefits the most from it?
-Well, one would have to ask President Thaci on this. Where did this idea come from? Did it come from the Serbian Academy of Social Sciences in the 1990s and Dobrica Cosic? Did it come more recently from Ivica Dacic? Did it originate from Moscow and was transplanted to Serbia? This concept is a foreign idea. I don’t know where it came from, and how it was popularized. I do know it is a fool’s errand to think that one could redraw borders and achieve peace. Redrawing borders will lead to more violence. -Right. I believe you are familiar with recent statements by the Albanian President on the issue, who has said that ethnic borders are an offence to the very foundations and concept of the European Union. -Yes, the EU is not just a political or economic space, it’s about European values. It was meant as an antidote to nationalism enshrining European values, that are focused on human rights. Thinking about your earlier question, who benefits from this proposal? Who makes money from it? Who politically benefits? Are they people in Belgrade, Moscow, Prishtina or Tirana? We need to understand the motivation of the parties, in order to understand the origin and the impact of the partition plan. -Mr. Phillips, the European Commission president, Mr. Juncker, said in Vienna that losing focus from the Balkans (by the EU, but the US too) could drag the region back to possible military clashes… Is this focus loose right now? -Well, the US for sure lost focus on the Balkans. During the eight years of Obama administration, Washington neglected the Western Balkan countries. Issues that have arisen today are a direct result of America’s inattention. The West needs to draw the Balkans closer, it should not push countries of the Western Balkans away. I have always maintained that the United States has no better friend than Albania, and Americans and Albanians have a special relationship. It’s time to strengthen that relationship, to invest in peace and progress and economic development, so that Albania and Kosovo and other countries, move forward. When the US steps back, the space is filled by nefarious actors. Let me be specific. Turkey’s export of Islamism to the Western Balkan countries is an evil action designed to undermine the United States, to degrade secularism and destroy democracy. Russia’s intelligence base in Nish and its sale of weapons to Serbia are a direct challenge to NATO. The US needs to be steely-eyed in recognizing the agendas of Turkey and Russia, and react accordingly. So this raises a broader question about the unification of Albanian territories. Every Albanian dreams of a big Albania, and this is entirely normal… -By the way, normal is the word… they call it the normal, or natural Albania… -Yes, it’s a normal Albania. Unfortunately, a normal Albania would also lead to a greater Serbia, and the elimination of some of the smaller countries in the Western Balkans, such as Macedonia and Montenegro, and Bosnia. The chain reaction remains unpredictable. It is, however, historically inevitable that Albanians will come together in order to be part of a normal Albania. The question is when and how. And what kind of support this movement has from the United States and international community. If you resist progress, there will be friction. But if you manage the transition, it can be a positive outcome for everyone. -Speaking on the inevitable, do you have an assessment on the actual state of affairs in the European Union? Apart from Brexit, euro-skeptic forces are on the rise. Is this a temporary crisis or a serious one that casts doubts on the EU’s survival in the near future? -It is a crisis, of course, caused by Brexit and expansion fatigue. The European project is in crisis, and countries on the margins no longer have a clear path for integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions. So the positive effect of Europe in countries like Albania is diminished. That’s why your country’s accession, as well as Macedonia’s, was delayed a year. Today’s crisis in Macedonia could have been prevented by more pro-active measures from the EU. With Germany and France driving the EU agenda, Albanian has fewer friends. The United States may influence the EU, but it’s not a member. It has no formal role. -With EU elections next year, centrifugal forces gaining momentum and the fresh debates such as that between Brussels and Italy, for example; is the EU’s future uncertain as a project? -Well, civilization will survive. We have to recognize that Russia is driven by a single goal: To undermine the EU and NATO, and to diminish the power and influence of the United States. Russia’s meddling in the US elections and other elections, is part of a broader plan to push Russia’s interests forward. Let’s wait and see. Let’s strengthen trans-Atlantic cooperation with the goal of enhancing the EU. Profile David L. Phillips is currently Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Phillips has worked as a senior adviser to the United Nations Secretariat and as a foreign affairs expert and senior adviser to the U.S. Department of State. He has held positions as a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Middle East Studies, executive director of Columbia University’s International Conflict Resolution Program, director of the Program on Conflict Prevention and Peace-building at the American University, Associate Professor at New York University’s Department of Politics, and as a professor at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. He has also been a senior fellow and deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council of the United States, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, director of the European Centre for Common Ground, project director at the International Peace Research Institute of Oslo, president of the Congressional Human Rights Foundation, and executive director of the Elie Wiesel Foundation. Mr. Phillips is author of From Bullets to Ballots: Violent Muslim Movements in Transition (Transaction Press, 2008), Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco (Perseus Books, 2005), Unsilencing the Past: Track Two Diplomacy and Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation (Berghahn Books, 2005). He has also authored many policy reports, as well as more than 100 articles in leading publications such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, and Foreign Affairs.