Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj never tires of making a clear distinction between his country and Catalonia.“We would never recognize an independent Catalonia. Kosovo and Catalonia have nothing in common and to draw any kind of comparison makes no sense,” he says.
“Kosovo emerged from the breakup of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after a bloody conflict, with everyone at war with everyone else. That’s not the case in Spain where civil and political rights are respected. You can’t compare the repression under Milosevic with the Spanish rule of law, and to do so is even offensive, in fact. It’s not even about highlighting the similarities, because they don’t exist.”
His sympathy towards Spain appears to be genuine, perhaps because of happy memories of a trip to Galicia in the 1980s, or of his honeymoon in Tenerife in 2003. But Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy’s veto of the EU28 draft declaration planned for release at the EU-Western Balkans summit on May 17 in Sofia, has prompted Haradinaj to speak out.
In an interview with EL PAÍS in the capital of Kosovo, Pristina, Haradinaj discussed everything from Russia’s influence in the Balkans to his own past as a guerrilla leader for the Kosovan Liberation Army (KLA). But it is Spain that monopolizes the conversation.
The prime minister is aware that there will be no photo opportunity with Rajoy, and that he may not even get to meet the Spanish delegation in Sofia for fear that such an encounter would be exploited by the Catalan pro-independence movement. But he remains positive.
“I’m open to any kind of contact,” he said. “It would be an honor to greet Mr Rajoy because there’s so much to speak about, such as economic and cultural cooperation.”
As the head of a country whose independence from Serbia was unilaterally declared in 2008, Haradinaj insists that his country’s principal objective is to join the EU, despite the fact that five member states – Romania, Slovakia, Greece, Cyprus and Spain –refuse to recognize it as a state in its own right.
“Rajoy’s veto is unfortunate because Kosovo holds Spain in great esteem as a country and as a consolidated democracy. Like the rest of the countries that emerged from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, from Kosovo to Macedonia, our aspiration is to be understood and we hope that some day Spain will accept us as a member of the [EU] family.”
To Haradinaj’s dismay, references to the “Kosovo model” made by Catalan separatists are proving far from helpful. “Establishing an analogy between Catalonia and Kosovo would show an ignorance of history or a poor interpretation of it,” he says.
“Spain is an advanced democracy. We are the result of the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s after tragic conflicts. There is a vast difference. We were fighting for democracy, but particularly for human rights. That is not the case in Catalonia.”
Haradinaj says there have been no official visits made to Kosovo by Catalans in recent years. “We wouldn’t recognize the independence of Catalonia under any circumstances,” he says. “Spain is an admirable country. We don’t just respect it for its history and contribution to global civilization, there’s also a natural affinity with the people of Spain. We hope Spain will accept us as a member of the European family. It’s destined to be so, for our own benefit and that of everyone else, because the greater the stability of the Western Balkans, the greater the stability in Europe and the less scope there is for enemies to maneuver to destabilize the region or use it to undermine Europe’s progress.”
The summit in Sofia is the first the EU is holding with the Balkans for more than 15 years, and Haradinaj trusts there will be some kind of gesture from his neighbors to counter Rajoy’s veto. “Prime Minister Borisov [of Bulgaria] reflects the reality in the region because he understands the need for integration. He is aware that Serbia can move forward if Kosovo can. A veto against Kosovo only delays access for Serbia and other countries in the area. And it allows the enemies of the region to gain influence and undermine efforts by Brussels in this part of the world.”
“I hope all the Balkan countries and also Madrid will help us become part of the [EU] family so we don’t become one of the region’s black holes, susceptible to exploitation by enemies. We need this, and we are appealing to them for help. Do not leave us in a state of vulnerability, do not allow others to use Kosovo to undermine progress in Europe.”
When Haradinaj talks about enemies, he is thinking of a regional power, Turkey, and of a global one, Russia. Moscow has already wielded its influence in Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia, recently telling authorities in Skopje that it dislikes their aspirations of joining NATO.
“We have picked sides,” says Haradinaj. “We are part of Europe and the Atlantic Alliance. Our democracy is young, but our goal is to become part of the Euro-Atlantic family and seek a good relationship with the US. We are not under Russian influence. Moscow is acting cautiously and is not openly trying to destabilize the region, but we are concerned about certain kinds of activities on its agenda here.”
In order to join the EU, a process that Haradinaj hopes his country will begin by the end of the year or the beginning of 2019, Pristina has to meet certain requirements. “All of these have practically been met but we need to reach a comprehensive final agreement with Serbia” he says.
The prime minister does not avoid the most awkward question of all: what about his personal role in war crimes between 1998 and 1999, and the chance he could be tried by the International Criminal Court in the Hague? “I am not at all scared,” he replies. “I’ve already been through the highest international courts, tried twice, judged again and acquitted. I’m not under investigation. However, I am a critic of two features of this court. One, the fact it lies outside the country and has foreign experts and attorneys when it should be right here; and two, it only focuses on the KLA perpetrators of crimes – the Albanian Kosovans. Victims and perpetrators should be investigated without regard for their ethnicity, but it’s late in the day to correct that.”
Haradinaj has enjoyed support from Washington since he launched himself into politics. “The US has a great global agenda and for them it would be great to pass the baton to Brussels, but their role here is still necessary because the Balkans haven’t sorted themselves out yet, so it’s better that they stay.”
With regard to the countries that refuse to recognize Kosovo, Haradinaj says, “We don’t understand the division within the EU concerning the Balkans. It’s surprising that some countries won’t take advantage of the chance to do business in the region and help to resolve things. For the EU, I believe it would be more useful to sort things once and for all here before taking up other challenges in the world”
“The fact that five member countries don’t recognize us shows there are still issues to resolve. By blocking Kosovo, all the countries in the region are blocked. I hope the differences today won’t prevent an inclusive policy in the future. It’s fine to open negotiations for Albania and Macedonia’s membership, but you have to do it for Kosovo and Bosnia too – everyone has to go in the same direction.”
English version by Heather Galloway.