Interview by Panagiotis Michos

We are not begging for the recognition from Greece, points out Donika Gervalla – Schwarz in her exclusive interview with To Vima.

Kosovo’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister-Diaspora, who was in Athens in the past few days, explains that her country is seeking closer relations with Greece, which she describes as an “important and wise actor” in the Balkans. At the same time, she insists on the need for the Belgrade – Pristina dialogue to be meaningful, arguing that Serbia must accept “that Kosovo is and will remain an independent country”. In this context, she asks Athens to play a mediating role in the issue, while clearly emphasising the Western orientation of her country.

What are your expectations for the future of bilateral relations and in which areas do you see room for improvement? Could economic ties bring Greece and Kosovo closer?

We are pretty optimistic about our relationship with Greece. Greece is a significant and wise actor in this part of Europe, which is our shared neighborhood. We all are interested in stability and in intensifying economic, cultural, and political cooperation. I’m glad to meet influential members of the Greek business community again, which I had the privilege to address during the pandemic online and in Thessaloniki already before. At the same time, I’m glad to meet others, like experts on European foreign affairs, for an exchange here for the first time. Trade and economic cooperation and dialogue about our common European future are always suitable for paving the way for getting our countries and our people closer together. But I also believe in the tremendous impact of cultural exchange and the exchange of young people. So I have invited great Greek personalities to interact with especially our young people, for example, at our universities, and we could think about joint exhibitions about our common European tradition, history, and culture as well. It seems to me that many citizens in both of our countries do not know enough about our shared heritage and that our two most ancient cultures in Europe do have very much more in common as it is perceived by many. All in all, it seems to me that both of our countries and their people do see the potential of getting closer and closer in all these areas. So I’m very optimistic that we will continue moving in the right direction”.

Kosovo wants Greece to recognise its independence. Do you consider that is possible in the near future, especially after the improvement of last July?

With our neighbor Greece, we share a long history and common European values. Getting closer to the country in our neighborhood which is the cradle of democracy, means a lot to us. Of course, our position as a new, very much pro-European government is clear. We are sure and convinced that Greece’s decision as a critical player in the region would be a bold, historical contribution for lasting stability and peace in the area and beyond.

We are not begging since we have been already recognised by most EU and NATO members, including leading members. Not for Kosovo alone but for the wider region, it would be a rational move if the remaining five EU members would recognize the actual situation in the Balkans. That would prompt actors in the area and those who are still trying to destabilise that part of Europe from the outside to recalculate and to come to terms with these new realities as well.

As long as they see a potential to drive a wedge into NATO and the EU by instrumentalisation, the recognition of Kosovo will continue to threaten stability and peace and to weaken NATO and the EU. Therefore, it is not only a bilateral question which, of course, it is. It should also be seen in the broader context of the geopolitical competition between autocracies and free liberal democracies like Greece and Kosovo. We should not wait until the forces of destabilisation and division might have become too strong in the region and might successfully split NATO and EU over this question. But we are not pressing since we respect the sovereignty of our friends and partners. We offer to secure stability for Southeast Europe, for the EU, and NATO, and we assure everybody that Kosovo will be a reliable, trustworthy European partner.

How are the talks going between Belgrade – Pristina in the EU context? Are there prospects of a resolution?

We are committed to the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo as you are in intensive exchanges with your neighbors in the region. It might be difficult for nationalists in Serbia to accept that Kosovo is and will remain an independent country. But there is no alternative reality here.

Kosovo is recognised by the vast majority of EU and NATO members and by a majority of the members of the United Nations. As our president said, the independent Kosovo isn’t going anywhere. There is a historical dimension. The Republic of Kosovo has emerged free and democratic from suppression and genocide, of which Serbia has been the perpetrator. So no one is expecting that these talks will be easy, but we are persisting and actively participating with our proposals for normalisation in these talks.

We do not want these talks to be not empty, just for the sake of having a meeting, but we want these talks to bring real progress for your people and improvement for their daily lives. So we are not only talking about improving bilateral relations but also improving the lives of the Albanian minority in Serbia. Recent investigations have shown that the Vučić government is taking away fundamental rights from Albanian citizens of Serbia.

We are trying to win over our partners in the EU and NATO to focus on the quality, for the content of the talks, not only on the media coverage around it. In doing so, we count on strategic partners like Greece to try to help work out lasting solutions which will bring both independent countries, Kosovo and Serbia, to a European path.

Kosovo is seeking to become a member of NATO, which Serbia rejects to do. Europe needs to face the fact that Serbia is much more linked with the nationalist, aggressive Russia of Mr. Putin than with NATO as an alliance not only of military but also political cooperation. Serbia has made this choice, and we in Europe must not ignore what is said about security and stability in the Balkans. Kosovo’s European path means European values with the rule of law, democracy, and good neighbourly relations. Europe means peace and prosperity.

Threatening a neighbor with war like the Russian President does with Ukraine, and as the Serbian President did just a few weeks ago against neighboring Kosovo, is the opposite of European and civilised behavior. Among civilised nations in Europe, such an attitude has not been known for decades, and we do hope that the threat of war will not bring back war to Southeast Europe.

Also, here we count on Greece as an experienced partner to convince Serbia to refrain from extreme actions. We trust the Greek government to play an essential role as an advocate for stability and cooperation in the region. As a member of the EU and NATO, Greece is in an excellent position to help our partners and allies in these two important organisations to better and more quickly understand what is at stake and what needs to be done to mitigate the risk of conflict by supporting and strengthening the truly European actors in the region.

I am asking if there are prospects for a solution both because of the tensions in the past and because of the ban on Kosovo Serbs voting in the referendum on constitutional changes in Serbia.

No country in Europe does allow any other foreign country to carry out voting on its soil beyond the traditional option to vote and diplomatic missions. For Greece, for France, for Germany, for Serbia, and as well for Kosovo, that would constitute a breach of sovereignty. For Kosovo, it would be a violation of the constitution and the respective laws. So, no country does it, not even at the request of close friends. So we offered the traditional way other countries like Greece, France, and the United States would have also provided, namely assistance to users of the diplomatic mission of the Republic of Serbia in Prishtina. Serbia rejected this. The Serbian government did not even want its citizens in the Republic of Kosovo to vote by mail. So, there was no ban of anything but just another attempt to stage a conflict for just nationalist reasons. The Serb President even threatened that “hell” would break loose if Kosovo would not allow that breach of its sovereignty and its constitution. Fortunately, the Serb citizens of Kosovo are much more civilised than the few extremists in our country and Serbia. The day of the referendum went without incidents, and citizens of Serbia could easily cross the new border and vote in public stations in nearby cities. Kosovo had successfully managed to ensure that the Serb referendum did not create a security crisis in the region. Not only for Kosovo but the whole area, that was another important step towards normalization.

What could be the relations between Tirana and Pristina in the future, both politically and economically?

The relations between Kosovo and Albania are close. Albania is a direct neighbor of Kosovo as it is to Greece. We share a common language, common culture, and a shared history and tradition. So, it is not surprising that we do cooperate closely. At a recent summit, Kosovo and Albania signed 11 important agreements to deepen bilateral cooperation further. Kosovo had signed 16 bilateral agreements with North Macedonia and there was an earlier settlement between our two governments.

We would very much like to have such summits with the Greek government in the future, too. Like Greece, we support the EU accession of our two neighbors. We urge the remaining EU members who are still hesitant to overcome the remaining obstacles quickly. The way Greece and North Macedonia could finally resolve longstanding disputes responsibly has become an example of the possibilities if countries are ready to make bold moves for our common European future. Our new government is very much focused on intensifying regional cooperation. So, we are seeking to undertake practical and bold steps together with our neighbors Albania, Greece, and others to foster our common European future. European integration and our path into the European Union are important developments not only for citizens and for businesses but also for peace and stability in the region and Europe.

In the Balkan region, there are multiple third-country influences, while there are unstable countries such as Bosnia. Is there worry about possible unrest in the wider Balkans?

We live in a new era and are currently in a difficult period. Europe is facing tensions between Russia, Ukraine, and the West, as well as uncertainties in our wider region. Foreign interference and destabilisation efforts by mainly Russia and Serbia pose a threat to stability in our region. While Kosovo is exceptionally stable thanks to our strategic alliance with the United States and NATO allies, our new government is taking a firm, European stand on issues in the region.

We carefully watch the developments in our neighborhood, namely in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and we do it with great concern. The answer of the EU to the escalation by nationalist forces in the Balkans is unfortunately not unanimous, and the answer is much too weak to prevent further escalation. Were it not for the United States and NATO, the region might have already slid into a more dangerous and even precarious security situation.

Our friends in Europe and the region need to call out the bully and those who do pose a threat to stability and peace in the area. Our friends and the friends of Serbia need to tell the Serbian President to stop playing with fire and bringing the Balkans into the limelight once again. Everybody knows that Mr. Vučić is facing a difficult re-election [campaign] in April. Many observers say he might be tempted to create a security crisis in the region to rally nationalistic groups inside Serbia behind him.

The EU and NATO need to urge them to refrain from putting stability and even peace in the Balkans at risk just for personal political gains. Also, on this crucial question, we do count on Greece as an EU and NATO member to help with its long-term and traditional relationship with Serbia to continue to calm down the situation and to persuade the current Serbian leadership that fueling conflict and crisis should no longer be an option.

Greece as a critical player in the region should try to win over everybody for a peaceful, cooperative, and European way of dealing with differences. This has proven to be always the better choice to resolve disputes and ease tensions for the countries and the people.