Albania-Serbia, No more Taboos
By Alqi Koçiko
Albanian Daily News
Published July 17, 2017
As far as the professional life of a diplomat is concerned, the old Chinese wish “May you live in interesting times” could very well apply to the current mandate of Albanian ambassador to Belgrade, Mr Ilir Bocka. A lot of unexpected and surprising developments have taken place during these 3-4 years in the bilateral relations Albania-Serbia, most of them positive and for sure, all of them breaking news of their time. Most important of all, the direct communication between two PMs Rama and Vucic (the latter newly elected President), their frequent meetings and, why not, sincere disagreements at times, has opened the way to a radical change of course in the decades long almost frozen relations. Of course one could mention earlier efforts like the Meta-Djindic prime-ministerial meeting, but this time it seems more like a process, than an episode or two.
In short, the intensification of high level communication, the (even earlier) deepening of economic, trade, cultural exchange, even the football episodes show a new level of relations between the two countries and governments.
Ambassador Bocka has been in the middle of these events, if not directly involved in some of them (the Ambassador played down his own the six month ‘freezing’ by the Serbian Foreign Ministry) and undoubtedly has had an “interesting mandate” during these three years of service. According to him, the most important conclusion till now, is that “there are not any more taboo themes between the two countries nowadays. Both sides seem to have agreed to express their views and express all their concerns openly”. Read the exclusive interview below:
-Mr. Ambassador, your service as the top diplomatic representative of Albania in Belgrade has coincided with an unusual and very interesting period as far as the bilateral relations are concerned; full of news and developments that have quickly turned into major international news from the Balkans. How would you define this three-year trajectory that has two leading protagonists, Edi Rama and Aleksandar Vucic?
-I have had the great chance and opportunity of representing my country during this last three years as the ambassador of the Republic of Albania in Belgrade. It has certainly been a very challenging period in the relations between the two countries. During all this time we have exchanged high level visits, which have been missing for a long time, our trade exchanges have grown constantly in all areas, as there have also been moments of transient crisis, as in the case of the two football matches between our national teams. Relations between Albania and Serbia can be considered as dynamic, sometimes accompanied by unexpected episodes, but all in all tend to develop in a positive direction. Both our peoples, the Albanians and the Serbs, have been living side by side for centuries in this part of the Balkans and their historical responsibility for peace and stability in this area is great. More than that, both our countries have chosen as a foreign policy priority the membership to the European Union, which brings us closer. In this process, the personal contribution and the vision of the two prime ministers, Edi Rama and Aleksandar Vucic, is undeniable; they have the merit of understanding the importance of building bridges of communication and they clearly formulated the political orientation that despite the obstacles and crises of the moment we have to look forward. They have met in Tirana and Belgrade, as they often meet each other in Brussels, Berlin and this is a good thing that directly affects the improvement of relations between the two countries and, why not, further in the region.
-Meetings, discussions and public exchange of ‘punch-lines’, however, one thing is certain: there is an undeniable process of breaking the decades old ice; and also some initiatives to get to know each other differently. How much influence has had the common EU target that we have as nations; and what role does the European Union (with Germany as first violin) play in this process?
As I said above, there is an increased dynamism in the relations between the two states; we have contacts at all levels in bilateral relations as well as in regional initiatives. There are a number of regional initiatives that give us the opportunity to sit around and start to dialog and to discuss various topics, and in this way to solve any issues and problems. There are not any more taboo themes between us nowadays. Both sides seem to have agreed to express their views and express all their concerns. We even have difficult topics such as the Kosovo issue, for which the two sides have different views, but now the presentation of these positions is becoming less and less problematic and no one can say that the tackling of this issue can put in danger the atmosphere of the meetings. The many activities that are taking place in the framework of our common endeavors of becoming members of the European Union, such as the Berlin process for instance, which has gathered together lately the leadership of the Western Balkan countries in Trieste, are like joint exercises aiming at the strengthening of cooperative synergies of the Western Balkans countries in their efforts towards the EU.
-President Vucic has underlined more times the idea of "regional economic zone" referring to the Western Balkans; this is a test that we are able to cooperate as a region and would serve as preparation for EU membership negotiations. Tirana has already supported this project earlier. Kosovo has officially shown skepticism, the least, arguing that it would benefit Serbian economic supremacy. Could you share your thoughts on this issue?
This is an idea that has been thrown to the public opinion and is being discussed to see how effective it might be. In these first moments there is the some confusion of terms in relation to this economic zone of the region, which in some respects seems to be some sort of "customs union", which in turn brings along different phobias and reminiscences of the past, like the epoch of former Yugoslavia, etc. There are also solid reasons and a sort of skepticism from other countries in the region, expressing their concerns about the legitimate economic interests of the producers of respective countries. Meanwhile, it should be noted that the countries of our region are already part of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), an agreement which aims at facilitating trade exchanges between our countries, according to the trade model among the European Union countries.
-In your perception, how was the presidential victory of Mr. Vucic received in Serbia, that was followed by a much discussed selection for the Prime Minister’s office, Mrs Ana Brnabic?
-Refraining from entering the domain of journalists and foreign policy analysts, I would like to say that the new president of the Republic of Serbia was elected with a clear majority in the April 2017 elections; no doubt he is a politician distinguished for his dynamic style of governance. The election of Mrs. Ana Brnabic to the Prime Minister's post and the whole process of forming a new government is to a large extent the personal contribution of the President, Mr. Vucic. As a representative of the Republic of Albania in Belgrade, I wish to express my congratulations to the new government of the Republic of Serbia as well the desire to continue the cooperation with the new head of government and with her ministers in all areas of mutual interest. My experience of cooperation with Mrs. Ana Brnabic as Minister of Public Administration and Local Self-Government has been very good, so far. I recall here the visit of Mrs. Milena Harito, Minister of Innovation and Public Administration to Belgrade, as well as Mrs. Brnabic's visit during May of this year in Tirana and Durrës to participate at a regional activity. Their fruitful meetings are a very positive and encouraging experience for both sides. On the other hand my fellow counterparts here in Belgrade, EU ambassadors mostly, have appreciated Ana Brnabic as a very good and capable administrator of important projects of cooperation between Serbia and the European Union in the recent past.
-Mr. Ambassador, what is the situation of Albanians in Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac? We know that you have had frequent contacts and visits with the representatives there.
-Albanians living in the Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja municipalities have always been at the focus of our attention. We have constant institutional and friendly contacts and we pay a close attention to the activity of political parties and civil society organizations operating in the Presevo Valley. During the last three years, the highest representatives of the state and government from the Republic of Albania have visited the area. Thanks to this intense communication, we have had the opportunity to become familiar with all the issues and various problems of their political and economic life. We are well aware of their achievements so far, as well as we know the difficult economic and human rights situation they face: the lack of employment prospects for the young people, which forces them to emigrate, the lack of sustainable economic investments in this part of the country and so on. Our effort has always been present to make the Albanians of the Presevo Valley aware of the weight they actually have, the opportunities that should be created for them in all areas. We have welcomed their recent approach of abandoning the boycott of political life, replacing it with awareness in holding governmental responsibilities, demanding respect for their constitutional rights within the reality in which they are living. The Republic of Albania will always play its constructive role, in line with internationally recognized criteria, for respecting the rights of Albanians in the Presevo Valley. We have supported and will continue to support their legitimate requests, such as a greater presence in the state administration, the meeting of requirements for economic development of this area, fulfilling the students’ needs for Albanian language textbooks and other issues. Every step we take to improve the climate of relations between the Republic of Albania and the Republic of Serbia has a direct impact on the improvement of the position of Albanians of Presevo Valley, in the economic and social sphere as well, in their position as citizens of this country with equal rights and obligations.