A Balkan breakthrough

They say a week is a long time in politics – “especially in the Balkans,” quips Kosovo’s new Ambassador Lirim Greiçevci with a wry grin, after a rollercoaster week, in which EU-brokered talks with Serbia broke down, restarted and ended with a satisfactory deal.

“The deal is short of what we wanted, which was formal recognition from Serbia, but it was also perhaps better than expected,” says the Ambassador.

For the past two years he has been a member of the delegation negotiating with Serbia and has been a political adviser to Kosovo’s resistance fighter-turned-statesman Prime Minister Hashim Thaci since 2003, when he was still in opposition.

Serbia also fell short of expressing regret for its actions in Kosovo, adds the Ambassador. Nevertheless, the agreement goes much further than previous attempts towards normalising ties, says Greiçevci. “Prime Minister Thaci who led our people to freedom and independence and Prime Minister Dacic and the new Serb government must be given credit for taking these courageous steps.”

The deal explicitly recognises Kosovo’s authority over the entire territory and ends the parallel Serb security and judicial structures in the North, he explains. “In exchange, we offered substantial self-government for the Serbian community in the North. This includes sensitive areas like police and the judiciary, but with a unified chain of command.”

The key will be in the implementation, cautions Greiçevci, who has been through seven similar rounds of talks that ultimately did not fully deliver.

But there are reasons for optimism this time, he adds: “The current Serb government is in a better position to deliver as they face very little opposition in Serbia. They also have more leverage over the local leaders in the North so they have been able to implement deals – such as on border management – that the previous government never could.”

Local elections can be held in the North, the first since 1999. “This means the majority of law-abiding Serbian communities in the north can elect their own legitimate leaders and can take charge of their own local services and will no longer be held hostage to criminal elements who treated the area as their turf.”

The improved security will benefit everybody in the region, he adds. “We were losing hundreds of millions of Euros to criminal gangs. Serbia was also losing money because of the trafficking and smuggling in the North.”

The agreement also unblocks the route to EU membership, and stipulates that neither country can block the entry of the other. Serbia is due to get a date to start formal membership negotiations while Stabilisation and Association Agreement talks can begin with Kosovo, after it met the initial targets set by the EU to improve its governance.

No longer “distracted” by internal divisions in the North, the Ambassador feels the government can accelerate its domestic reform programme.

Kosovo recently marked its fifth anniversary of independence. It’s been a challenging five years, reflects the Ambassador, who was Transition Coordinator for the transfer of powers from the international administration to the newly-established independent state.

“It was a messy handover because the independence of Kosovo was not approved by the UN Security Council,” admits Greiçevci. “We had to build a country and run a country at the same time.”

But Kosovo wasn’t alone, he adds. “We were fortunate to get international support from the US and our European allies, especially Britain. It was British soldiers who liberated Pristina in 1999, and Britain has been a strong supporter in the UN mission, in the OSCE, in NATO, in other international organisations, in the EU. Also bilaterally, DfID invested lots of money into Kosovo’s public administration, civil society, education.”

The FCO also offered support and the Ambassador himself is one of the many Chevening Scholars who studied in Britain and are now in senior positions applying their training in Kosovo’s young civil service.

An important part of his mission will be to promote more educational ties with Britain so many more young Kosovars can study in the UK.

Britain has also been very helpful in Kosovo’s ongoing campaign to secure recognition from countries (the number stands at 96). “This is particularly true of the Commonwealth countries,” he says.

On the bilateral front, there is plenty on the agenda. He is pleased that he will be getting a full-time trade attaché whose job it will be to drum up British interest in investing in Kosovo’s untapped potential, from mining, to food processing and tourism.

In particular he wants to use cultural diplomacy as part of a major rebranding campaign. “We still are remembered as a country at war in 1999 and images of refugees and NATO soldiers, bombing campaigns and inter-ethnic conflict. It’s time to go beyond that now,” says the Ambassador, who worked in an English language news agency during the Kosovo War. Back then he wanted the world to know about Kosovo’s plight, but the time is right to change the narrative, he says.

There will probably be a few more twists and turns in Kosovo’s political rollercoaster before it becomes what Vaclav Havel once jokingly called a “boring European country” and Ambassador Greiçevci will definitely be along for the ride.

Elizabeth Stewart, the editor of Embassy Magazine interviewed the Ambassador of Kosovo on 25 April 2013