Ilya Roubanis @IRoubanis

EU Ambassador Apostolova: Kosovo “is a society tolerant to diversity”

Ambassador Nataliya Apostolova: "The EU is determined to strengthen its regional engagement at all levels, enabling the EU future of the Western Balkans to which there is no alternative."

Ambassador Nataliya Apostolova is a Bulgarian career-diplomat, serving as the EU’s Ambassador to Kosovo for the last two years.

After leading Bulgaria’s accession negotiations, the European Commission leveraged her experience in the Directorate General for Enlargement, with a particular focus on the Western Balkans. She is now representing the EU in Pristina, the “hot chair” of the Western Balkans. She seems to be at home.

Following the Sofia Declaration last week, European Interest addressed the Ambassador with a few questions on the future of Kosovo. She asserts that Kosovo “is a society tolerant to diversity” and believes that the EU can work with that independent variable to maintain Pristina on a reform track. She expresses nothing but confidence for the future of Kosovo, which in her words, “is Europe.”

Ambassador Apostolova seems to be a follower of the old diplomatic dictum ‘if you cannot say something positive, say nothing.’ Having served in difficult diplomatic posts, such as Libya, Ambassador Apostolova is not naively optimistic. In her view, there is really is no alternative to a European future for Kosovo, that is, a reality clear in Pristina, in Belgrade and in Brussels. In this scheme, everyone will sooner or later accommodate to this inescapable reality.

EI: What is the significance of the Sofia Declaration for Kosovo?

Ambassador: The EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia last week reaffirmed the EU’s regional commitment. The EU is determined to strengthen its regional engagement at all levels, enabling the EU future of the Western Balkans to which there is no alternative.

The Sofia Declaration focuses on the significance of sustained commitment of the region to the rule of law, the fight against corruption and organised crime, good governance, as well as respect for human rights and the rights of minorities. The effective implementation of reforms in these areas is key to the region’s further progress along the European path.

The Summit also came up with measures to improve regional energy and transport infrastructure, as well as digital connectivity; to bolster the regions interconnectivity, participants also agreed to work to lower roaming charges and create more favourable conditions for private investments by providing better bank guarantees.

In addition, there was an emphasis on working more closely in tackling geopolitical challenges, security and migration management. Last but not least, participants also agreed to double the resources dedicated to youth mobility facilitated by Erasmus+, to allow more youth to study in the EU.

Kosovo will benefit from each of these initiatives.

Are we closer of further from the recognition of Kosovo as a unitary state, given the diplomatic stance of the EU 5 (Romania, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia)?  

The issue of recognitions is a bilateral issue between Kosovo and EU Member States.

The work of the EU in Kosovo is guided by the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) framework in force since 2016.

The SAA is the first contractual relationship and the first formal political dialogue tool between Kosovo and the European Union, aiming to catalyse economic growth, bolster legal certainty, strengthen rule of law and encourage democratic accountability.

The SAA prioritises support for reforms, framed by best European practices, whilst providing monitoring instruments for their implementation. The implementation of this comprehensive agreement will facilitate the gradual alignment of Kosovo’s legislation with the whole body of EU Law and standards, creating an environment more conducive to investment. This will enable Kosovo to move closer to the EU.

On the one hand we have a border agreement with Montenegro; on the other, there is talk of a single President between Albania and Kosovo. Is Kosovo being Europeanized or is political discourse balkanized? 

The ratification of the border agreement with Montenegro is a very important development for the visa liberalisation process between Kosovo and the EU, and a clear proof of Kosovo’s European orientation. Polling suggests that almost 90% of people in Kosovo favour EU membership and developing amicable relations with neighbours is part of this process.

I have spoken about the SAA. Its implementation inevitably brings Kosovo closer to the EU. Kosovo is Europe. In my two years in Kosovo, I have not heard any serious voice claiming otherwise. Kosovo people are supportive of European values and we continue to build our relations on this foundation each day.

The Western Balkans Strategy is an unambiguous commitment of the EU to the Western Balkans and the Western Balkans to the EU. It provides a European perspective with a tangible roadmap. In recent years Kosovo has made tangible progress although we clearly have a lot of work ahead. Our partnership with Kosovo is strong: we can only move forwards.

Do you see referendums as an appropriate instrument in the diplomatic process to secure peace between Belgrade and Pristina?

We are very much focused on the EU facilitated dialogue for the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, which aims to promote cooperation between the two sides for the benefit of the people. Now more than ever the commitment to Dialogue must be strengthened.

The EU welcomes the progress in the facilitated Dialogue; both parties need to maintain a constructive engagement in the normalisation process and implement the agreements reached. As stated in the Western Balkans Strategy and the recent European Commission report, a comprehensive legally binding normalisation agreement is urgent and crucial so that Serbia and Kosovo can advance in their respective European paths.

Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe. Can the economy keep pace with the need for job creation?  

With the biggest young population in Europe, Kosovo has great potential to improve its economic performance and competitiveness at the European level, not least by offering quality education and improving access to the labour market.

One of the first objectives should be the improvement of vocational education and training, equipping students with necessary skills to meet the demands of the labour market.

The EU is determined to help upskill and empower Kosovo’s youth for a demanding labour market, working to catalyse investment and job creation. The EU’s objective is job creation and the empowerment of Kosovo’s youth, so that they are competitive in a European level. To this end, the SAA offers a variety of tools, which Kosovo must deploy ever more efficiently.

Is Kosovo still a security threat for the EU, given the high density of criminal networks and the number of IS fighters returning?

I consider Kosovo a society tolerant to diversity. We are now in the month of Ramadan, and the respect and tolerance towards those who fast, as well as towards those who do not fast, is something that Kosovo can be proud of.

The challenge of radicalization has attracted considerable attention in the European press over the last few years. Unfortunately, Kosovo has been often mentioned in this context. Given the difficult socioeconomic situation, high unemployment, poverty and individual frustrations, there is indeed a relatively high ratio of foreign fighters per capita.

However, although the danger is real the situation is not alarming. The number of Kosovo fighter in the Syria/Iraq conflict has been constantly decreasing. Since September 2015, there was no new reported case from Kosovo. Clearly, authorities should be credited with tangible and systematic work in the fight against extremism and terrorism, especially the police and intelligence services and the development of a toolbox against violent extremism.

There are still challenges, accentuated by the absence of de-radicalization and reintegration programmes for returnees, which would engage their family members. Overall, there is a lot of scope for improved cooperation among police and intelligence services in Western Balkans to counter the threat against extremism and radicalization.

What would you like to achieve before leaving Pristina?

To summarise: I would like to see progress in strengthening the rule of law and more commitment to fight organized crime and corruption. Then I would like to see implementation of necessary reforms in education and public administration. I would like to see that the agreements reached during the EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina are fully implemented. And, I would like to see a much more robust implementation of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between Kosovo and the EU.

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