We could see the independence of Sapmi

interview: "We hope that Serbia also sees the reality"

"Wiener Zeitung": Kosovo is celebrating ten years of independence from Serbia this week. But its citizens still need a visa to travel to the EU, almost every third person is unemployed, and young people hardly see any prospects in their country. Even some EU countries still do not recognize Kosovo's independence. Have many hopes been dashed in these ten years?

Sami Ukelli: We can still be proud of what we have achieved in that time. We have to see it in context: where were we in 1999, where in 2008, and where are we today? We have achieved a lot - and we want to achieve even more. But Kosovo is a project of the international community and we need that support. However, the lack of a unanimous position to recognize independence complicates matters. In addition, our neighbor Serbia tries to constantly disturb us on our way. And if a state always has to prove that it is independent, it costs time and energy.

Sami Ukelli
has been the Ambassador of the Republic of Kosovo in Austria since 2015. Before that he worked in Hungary and Japan.

But there are also homemade problems: a condition for visa liberalization is the ratification of a border agreement with Montenegro. So far this has failed due to internal political disputes in Pristina. When will there be an agreement?

That should be done quickly, in the coming months. Because the window that opens up this possibility is getting smaller and smaller. There will be EU elections next year, after which there will be a new EU Commission. I hope that the politicians in Pristina will come together and come to an agreement. Now it is up to the Kosovar MPs. A two-thirds majority is required for ratification, and in recent years no governing coalition has managed to win this majority in parliament.

It must be frustrating for people.

Almost a third of the population lives in the diaspora. And if someone wants to visit their relatives, they first have to overcome a number of hurdles. Of course, people are disappointed that there is still no agreement that leads to a visa waiver. But a solution is still possible this year.

Can you imagine that, conversely, some Western European EU states are happy that Kosovars are not allowed to travel to the Union without a visa?

Nobody has to fear Kosovo. It has 1.9 million inhabitants and not all of them want to leave. Some just want to visit their family, some study abroad. Progress such as visa liberalization in particular would take some pressure off people and institutions by opening up new opportunities. Not everyone then has to use them.

Speaking of opportunities, what are some ways to improve relations with Serbia?

The timetable of the new EU enlargement strategy envisages that Serbia and Kosovo reach a legally binding agreement by 2019 at the latest. It is not yet clear whether Serbia will recognize Kosovo. It's about normalizing our relationships. The EU is then asked to speak with one voice.

A "normalization dialog" has been going on for years. Most recently, the Serbian delegation broke off talks in Brussels after a politician, a Kosovar Serb, was murdered in northern Kosovo. Will the negotiation process be delayed even more than before?

The investigation into the murder is ongoing, and that shouldn't interfere with the dialogue. This is to be continued soon at the level of the state presidents. Ultimately, it is a matter of political leadership to implement the agreements. We need an agreement that can also secure peace in the region in the long term.

Aren't statements by Austrian government politicians like Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, who described Kosovo as part of Serbia, counterproductive?

It was a bit unfortunate. That shouldn't have happened. I can only say that we are otherwise happy about the Austrian support for Kosovo. For us, Austria is an important, strategic partner in the EU.

Vienna also sees itself as an advocate for the Western Balkans in the community. How badly do such statements damage this image?

We'll see. It will not harm our good relations with Austria.

Do you see the will for enlargement in the EU?

It is encouraging that the EU presidency is now held by three countries that are familiar with the Balkans or Balkan states: Bulgaria will be followed by Austria in the next six months, followed by Romania. Bulgaria already has the EU integration of the Western Balkans high on its list. A summit on the subject is scheduled for May. In addition, there are clear guidelines in the EU enlargement strategy as to what needs to be done in the region so that the first Western Balkan states can join the Union in 2025. At least that's the timetable.

However, disputes between neighbors should be resolved before joining.

That is a requirement. The region should also be better networked with one another, and the infrastructure should be improved. The transport routes should be shortened and thus the volume of trade between the countries should be increased. We must also stimulate our economy in this way. The six states form a small economy that is not even the size of Romania. It is all the more difficult to attract investment in the area when everyone is fighting for themselves.

How much cooperation do you expect from Serbia?

We hope that Serbia will also see the reality of tomorrow. There is movement in the talks with Belgrade, but we are also noticing a certain aggressiveness on the part of the Serbian diplomacy, so that no more countries recognize Kosovo. We still hope to find an agreement. The EU plays a decisive role here: it has something to offer Serbia, which wants to join the Union.