The new prime minister is confident Kosovo will become an independent country—and not a moment too soon.
By Ginanne Brownell
Updated: 5:23 p.m. ET June 1, 2005
June 1 - Even in the topsy-turvy world of Balkan politics, Bajram Kosumi’s rise to power as Kosovo’s prime minister is surely one of the most dramatic. In March his Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) party leader Ramush Haradinaj had to resign as prime minister when the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) indicted him for war crimes. Haradinaj was a popular leader among the 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority and there were serious concerns that Kosovo would see a return to the violence that swept across the region in March 2004 when 19 people were killed in riots.
But Kosumi’s transition went smoothly—it helped that hundreds of NATO troops were deployed across Kosovo—and he has hit the ground running. This spring has been an integral time for the region. On May 27 the United Nations Security Council was briefed on the progress that Kosovo has been making on things like good governance and human rights, and this week Kofi Annan is expected to name a special envoy to the region to oversee the continued implementation of these standards. Kosovar Albanians are hoping that will lead to final independence from Serbia, who NATO went to war with in 1999 to stop ethnic cleansing.
Kosumi, the 45-year-old former professor and environment minister, is hopeful that things will continue to go in the direction of independence. But he also acknowledges that Kosovo still has a long way to go. With unemployment at 60 percent and the World Bank and the IMF unwilling to grant loans because Kosovo’s status is undecided, many citizens are feeling disillusioned about the country’s prospects. Earlier this week from his office in Pristina, Kosumi tackled some of these topics with NEWSWEEK’s Ginanne Brownell. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Ramush Haradinaj was seen as a popular prime minister who did more in his 100 days in office than had been done in the previous three years by the last government. How detrimental was his resignation to the political process?
Bajram Kosumi: The indictment was painful because Mr. Haradinaj’s big plans for Kosovo were cut short. He managed to show that the government could be successful in solving large problems in cooperation with United Nations and international organizations. When I became prime minister some people questioned if I could continue with the same kind of dynamism and energy that he had shown. My answer was that Ramush was not the only one with ideas. Together we established the AAK, and we together led the party. We laid the foundations and for the last several years we have tried to build the party up to solve problems, not to just deal in political theory. And this is why our party is different.
Were you pleased with the report that was presented to the U.N. Security Council?
It’s a very positive step. Our achievements have been evaluated three times now, and each time we have met with a positive reaction. Even though it was not said directly in the Security Council meeting, [our] status will depend entirely on the citizens of Kosovo. The democratic development will depend on us, and on our work, and the envoy that Mr. Annan appoints will see how far we have come.
In 2003 a provision was made that in order for Kosovo to even be considered as an independent nation it must first reach certain standards or benchmarks. Serbia and some other nations have complained that Kosovo has not fulfilled these, yet it looks like Kosovo could be moving on to the next step of status talks in September. What is your reaction to those grumblings?
I can say that most of these standards have been fulfilled. There are eight standards, and each of these standards has separately more than 100 different parts. The first standard is democratic institution building and most of those have been fulfilled—peaceful elections have been held, new democratic institutions have been created and so on. But yes, you may find one single issue like a law about the public broadcasters that has not been passed yet in the assembly. Since that has not yet been fulfilled then you can be right in saying this is not 100 percent done. There are some highly political standards like minority rights that cannot be limited by time. We cannot say they will be fulfilled within two or three months but these standards have opened up the process and we have created mechanisms that will enable their fulfillment. It takes time.
Nicholas Burns, the U.S. undersecretary of State, told Congress last month that the status quo was not an option for Kosovo—that things needed to move forward. How do you feel about the U.S. putting pressure on the international community to get things moving?
They want Kosovo to move forward faster. We consider this to be a big help, a big and good help. Seven years ago the decision was taken to help the people of Kosovo, it was the diplomacy of the United States who pushed it more than anyone. And I personally believe that the American diplomacy is more pragmatic and separates the politics from diplomacy much more than the European countries.
If we delay the decision-making moment, then we endanger the whole process and ourselves. For example in the economy we are facing difficulties, we cannot get assigned to foreign loans, there is no big investment because everyone is waiting to see what our final status will be. But what I am saying to a doctor, a teacher, an administrative worker is to be patient because in 2006 we [could] become a state and the road for development will open. If the decision gets delayed till 2007 or 2008, then we can ultimately lose patience. Our [hope] is to be like every other nation and every other people: to live free, to have the possibility to develop our democracy, to get rich if you want, to develop the economy and to just live a decent life.
There have been rumors that radical elements within Kosovo have threatened to destabilize things if plans do not move forward. Is this a concern?
There is no radical movement as such. I am saying we should not prolong the decision-making process because we damage the essence of it. If the process gets longer and longer and if you lose your faith, it does not mean you push your radical elements. But you have people who lose faith [in government] and this endangers us all.
There are about 1,800 U.S. troops based at Camp Bondsteel in central Kosovo, and the United States has officially said that one of the reasons they are pushing talks is so that they can eventually deploy those troops to other locales. However, there has been much speculation that the Pentagon plans to keep Bondsteel open as a “lily-pad” base in the Balkans as other bases in places Germany and Turkey close. What are your feelings on this?
I believe that the American troops should stay here for a long time—not just American but the NATO troops [as well]. We see the presence of these troops, even after Kosovo becomes independent, as needed. It has direct impact in the security of the region and it has an impact of the psychological aspect of people. For over 100 years there have been wars between the Albanians and the Serbs who have fought against each other, and the presence of NATO creates a factor of stability.
How is the situation for the Serb population in Kosovo? I visited Gracanica, a Serb enclave just outside of Pristina, and while some told me they have not felt comfortable enough to leave the area since the war ended, others say they think things are getting better. How can you reach out to those who feel marginalized and show them things are moving in a more positive direction?
There has been big progress but changes come slowly. Until a few months ago you would still see in Gracanica posters of [former Yugoslav president] Slobodan Milosevic. But not every Serb thinks like this. I have spoken with Serbs from [another enclave called] Babljak and I entered their houses and they were really happy I came to visit. And I saw that those Serbs in their visions and in their views differ from the politicians in Belgrade. These are the simple people in a village, they believe in the future of Kosovo, they believe in their future here. They believe Kosovo will be a free place and they will be a part of this Kosovo.
In the government buildings there are 2,600 people who belong to minority groups who work here. They come into Pristina every morning, they work in their offices, they work with their colleagues. This is all normal. And no one stops and stares when they see a Serb walking down the street. Last month at the National Theatre a drama troupe from Belgrade gave an evening performance, and the theater was filled with Serbs. They watched the play, everything was OK and they went home. In my government one of my ministers is a Serb, and there were two Serbian members of the assembly who voted for me to become prime minister. This happened in Kosovo for the first time.
All these are arguments to tell you that people are free to work, whether Serb, Turk, whatever. They are our friends, they are part of the government. I am not saying everyone is like this. In northern Mitrovica, the problems are bigger because Belgrade is financing parallel structures [such as hospitals and schools for Serbs] there but the majority of the territory in Kosovo has seen big steps forward.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.