‘Greater Albania’ statement awakens old ghosts in Balkans

Isa Boletini statue. Mitrovica, 2010. [FitimSelimi/Wikimedia]

Belgrade was upset. Left out of Europe, an isolated Albania had threatened to unify with Kosovo, and awaken conflicts in the Balkans, Prime Minister Edi Rama had said.

Rama’s statement was a message to Brussels on the necessity of intensifying Kosovo’s EU accession which, according to Tirana and Pristina, is progressing too slowly.

On the other hand, some Belgrade analysts believe that Rama’s statement was aimed “the public at home,” while Kosovo Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci said that Rama’s statement had been misinterpreted.

Rama made it clear that the primary objective was unification through European integration. However, the mere mention of the word “unification” is a very sensitive subject in the Western Balkans.

The topic of borders – the secession or unification of territories – was closed in the region after the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The stance of the international community is that no redrawing of borders is possible in the Balkans.

Countries in the region are also aiming to improve their relations through European integration, and show the EU that they have overcome old hostilities and are ready to cooperate and one day live and function together within the EU. The development of good neighborly relations is one of the criteria they must meet in order to join the EU.

Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence, but is participating in an EU-mediated dialog with Pristina on the normalization of relations.

‘Two alternatives’

In a joint interview with Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hashim Thaçi given to Pristina television Klan Kosova, Rama, as conveyed on 7 April, said that the unification of Kosovo and Albania had two alternatives, and that it was all up to the EU.

The first is unification within the European Union. But if the EU continues to close its doors to Kosovo, then “the two countries will be forced to unite in a classical way”, said Rama.

The Albanian premier stated that “the two countries advocate unification through membership in the European Union”.

Thaçi commented that Rama’s words were not a threat to the European Union, but rather a reality that could easily come true in the future, and which could be a result of Kosovo’s isolation from the EU.

Rama reiterated that it was a disgrace for the EU that the visa liberalization process had not been completed for Kosovo citizens, who were the only ones without that benefit in the region, while Thaci said that Kosovo had already fulfilled all obligations for visa liberalization.

During a visit to Zagreb the following day, 8 April, Thaçi commented that the Albanian prime minister’s statement had been misinterpreted, and that at no point had there been talk of the possibility of national unification, or of the changing of borders.

“We are not talking about changing borders at all, but rather about reducing their visibility, according to the European model, so that people can move freely. We will all belong to that European space one day,” said Thaçi.

‘Provocations unacceptable’

On 8 April, the European Union reacted to Rama’s statement, making it clear that “provocations are unacceptable”, since the Western Balkan countries “are progressing each at their own pace” in European integration, which “includes regional cooperation, reconciliation and good neighborly relations”.

European Commission spokesperson Maja Kocijan?i? said that the Western Balkans had a clear European prospect, and that “all partners in the region have confirmed their determination to reach that goal”.

She said that the countries in the region had also confirmed their resolve to “meet the necessary requirements, with full respect for the principles and standards of the EU”, and that the countries are making progress on that path, each at their own pace.

“The aforementioned determination also includes regional cooperation, reconciliation and good neighborly relations; all provocative statements are unacceptable in that framework,” read the EU’s response to Rama.

Belgrade dissatisfied with reactions

Serbia has strongly condemned Rama’s statement, and made it clear that it expects the international community to do the same. Belgrade has announced intensified diplomatic activities regarding the matter in international organizations and other countries.

The Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has handed a letter of protest to the Albanian ambassador in Belgrade, which underlined that the positions of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama were unacceptable for Serbia, Ministry officials said.

Metohija Marko Djuri? , Head of the Serbian government’s Office for Kosovo, said that Rama’s statement was “an attack on peace, a brutal threat to stability in the region, and a dangerous call for the redrawing of borders”, whereas Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vu?i? said that “Kosovo and Albania will never be united” and asked the Albanian leaders “to stop further causing instability in the region”.

The EU, in the eyes of Serbian officials, was late with its reaction, which wasn’t strong enough.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Da?i? said on 8 April that he expected that the EU would “treat everyone the same”, and severely condemn the Albanian premier’s statement about the “unification” of Albania and Kosovo.

“The issue is not just that he (Rama) said that. The issue is that few are reacting to it. How much time should pass before someone makes a statement and condemns such an act? I expect that the EU will treat all of us equally and condemn such statements,” said Da?i?.

The Serbian minister went on to say that Kocijan?i? had reacted to Rama’s statement, but had not “exactly mentioned it directly,” although she did say it was unacceptable.

Calling on the EU to react to “the politicization of the topic” and “irresponsible statements,” Da?i? also said that Serbia wanted good relations with Albania, and that it took a lot of time to build them and just a little time to “tear the whole thing down”.

Kosovo declared independence in February 2008, and 22 EU member states have recognized it so far. Kosovo has approximately two million inhabitants, predominantly Albanian.

In October 2013, the European Union initiated negotiations on a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Kosovo, which will enable the first contractual relationship between the two sides. The agreement was initialed in July 2014.

The agreement is to be signed soon.

In May 2012, Brussels launched a structural dialogue on the rule of law with Pristina, as the dialogue on liberalizing the visa regime for Kosovo citizens officially kicked off several months prior, in January.

The European Union has a judicial and police mission in Kosovo, EULEX.

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