Naser Rugova is a senior policy advisor in the office of the prime minister of Kosovo, the coordinator of the "Reforma" initiative within the Democratic League of Kosovo, and formerly the principal liaison between the Kosovo president and the countries of southeastern Europe. He is also the nephew of the late Ibrahim Rugova. He and Albatros Rexhaj, a strategic adviser to Reforma, outlined the case for independence, the need for political reform, economic development, and regional integration for southeastern Europe. After speaking at The Nixon Center, they gave this interview to The National Interest.
TNI: Why is independence the only option for Kosovo?
NR: Independence for Kosovo evolved into the only option over the last decade. Because, in 1989 for example, when we had the first major riots organized by the Albanians, the claim was not to an independent Kosovo, but an equal republic in the family of Yugoslavia. Earlier than that, in 1968, the claims were for basic rights.
And the claim on independence became public in 1992. It also became the only option in the eyes of the people especially after 1996, '97, '98, and '99, because it became clear that the Serbs were not really interested in making the region a functional democracy, where the people will be real equals. And the fact is that they denied us the basic rights of education, work, and a health system. The right to have self-esteem was lost. That made people think that it was time to move on a separate path.
And the wars in Bosnia and Croatia played an important role as well because in the end the Bosnians, the Serbs and the Croats spoke more or less of the same language. The wars in Serbia and Bosnia and Croatia had an impact on the people of Kosovo, especially on Kosovar Albanians. One should not forget that the Bosnians, the Serbs and the Croats, even though they have their differences, they still have many things in common: language, the culture they share. If you don't know the differences, it's hard to distinguish one from the other. And the Albanians, by 1995, began saying that if the Serbs and Croats have so many issues that make them different, then it goes without saying that we ourselves are very different.
Then the conflict came in 1998 and 1999, which drew the plot. So the fact is that we have a history of oppression and of mistrust. And we had great autonomy in 1974. So there is one thing that one should not forget: what the Serbs are offering now is more than autonomy but less than independence, which was more or less the same thing that Tito gave us. We were like a socialist autonomous province, but in reality we were a republic because we had our own president, our own police, our own territorial defense, our own courts, our own representative in the federation. And the representative of Kosovo could become president of the Yugoslavia. But we were not called a republic.
And then in 1989 Milosevic decided: "that's enough, Kosovo cannot be called a province and have all the attributes of a state." That was the argument Milosevic used, he said: "You are a province but you have the attributes of a state, so either you are a state or you are a province, and I say that you are a province." The memories of the people of Kosovo are fresh, and they feel that we should not eat the same nasty soup once again. So, either we have independence or we don't.
TNI: Would an independent Kosovo be able to get a handle on problems like unemployment, crime and protection of minorities. We spoke a little bit about your vision for the protection of minorities, but you seemed to hit on the challenges you face more than solutions. How would you concretely address this? And on economic questions, how would you progress on your vision of reform and privatization without duplicating some of the problems that we've seen in other parts of the world, such as Russia in the 1990s?
NR: The thing is, the status process is taking 80 percent of everyone's energy in Kosovo. Instead of trying to be creative, we are all thinking of the key thing, which is the status. Now once the status is resolved, we will re-prioritize.
I should remind you that Kosovo is a small place, something like two million people, and it also has a lot of natural richness-minerals, a great environment-and a very young population. So, it will not be a very difficult task to improve the economic situation. For this we need foreign investments, and foreign investments do not come to a country with an uncertain future. So investors want to know what the future is.
For example, if a foreign company comes and creates 3,000 jobs in Kosovo, it impacts 3,000 families. So you don't need too many things to happen to improve the economic situation. The main thing is that we should not move backwards to creating a large state apparatus that has many salaried employees.
My idea is that a company can only be privatized if there is a functional and doable plan to make that company work-a commitment to actually creating a company that will work-rather than having someone buy the property and selling it afterwards or doing nothing with it.
When it comes to minorities, the minority issue is a challenge, but I think when the status is solved, the Serbs in Kosovo will reprioritize, and they will realize that Kosovo is Kosovo. And I think that they will face that new reality, and it will make things much easier for the majority to get engaged and work for these minorities. If I were a Serb, I would wait for the very last moment to see what happens because there is always the possibility that Kosovo doesn't get independence, and then I would be a traitor in the eyes of my own people.
TNI: And after the minority has reprioritized, they could then better articulate what they would like to see and perhaps make demands?
NR: Yes, that would automatically come to the table. And those demands will be more of a practical than a political nature. Because I think that most of the political problems will be solved in the status document, and they will get the guarantees that they need. And the Kosovo government will be committed to those guarantees. So whatever they would claim after would be more of a practical than a political nature.
TNI: What will Kosovo's relationship with Serbia and other neighbors be like?
NR: Kosovo cannot be separate from Serbia and Serbia cannot be separate from Kosovo, and this is something that goes without saying because many of the economic ties and many of the things that make Kosovo "Kosovo" and Serbia "Serbia" are in a sense interconnected. So you cannot have a line like a wall between Kosovo and Serbia.
There is one thing that you people in the West need to understand: the Albanian people, for example, that live in Germany, when they come to Kosovo, they drive through Serbia. So it's not that cooperation cannot happen. No one can fight forever. And the region is too small to build walls.
There is one very unusual example we point to: A year ago we caught a gang in Pristina that was stealing cars, and it turned out to be a functioning, multi-ethnic gang-Serbs and Albanians robbing cars together in the center of Pristina. If the Albanians and Serbs can work together in crime, why can't they work together to do something positive for the community?
So in this sense, the Kosovo-Serbian relations will very much depend on the kind of regime there is in Serbia. If there is a favorable regime, we see no problem cooperating in all kinds of special relationships-not just the economic relationship or support of ethnic groups in both countries, but also security cooperation. Security cooperation is critical because we have a lot of international and transnational crime. As they say, the narcotic lines go through the Balkans. And this means that the police forces of Kosovo and Serbia need to work together. That's critical.
TNI: Do you feel that you will need some international mediation to facilitate cooperation?
NR: Of course, it is a Balkans mentality. I would put it like this: If you put a Serb and an Albanian in a coffee shop in D.C., and no one else sees them, they will have stories and stories to tell. But, if someone else sees them, then they will want a third person there. In a sense an international mediator is needed, but just to facilitate. It makes people feel more comfortable.
TNI: What should be the future of all former Yugoslav states? How long before Kosovo might realistically be in the United Nations?
NR: I would say that when the Kosovo problem is solved, and the last piece of what was Yugoslavia gets its place on the map and in history, we will end up in something that will again resemble the old settlement of the Balkans. But it will not be political. You can never have a political new Yugoslavia, but we can have a kind of cooperation between various republics and parts of ex-Yugoslavia in the economic sense, because in the end the greatest market for a Slovenia company is Kosovo, Bosnia, etc.