TIRANA, Albania — Albania’s prime minister said a union between Albania and Kosovo cannot be ruled out if EU membership prospects for the Western Balkans fade.
In an interview with POLITICO that also covered a political crisis in neighboring Macedonia, an upcoming election at home and the inspiration he draws from Tony Blair, Prime Minister Edi Rama said Europe would face “a nightmare” if the Balkans “go crazy” because EU accession is off the agenda, with the region becoming a “gray zone in which other actors have more influence than the European Union.”
Some Albanian nationalists would like to see Albania unite with Kosovo, the majority ethnic Albanian territory to the northeast that unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Kosovo’s largest opposition party wants to hold a referendum on forming a union with Albania, even though this is explicitly ruled out by Kosovo’s constitution.
Asked if he would take a union with Kosovo off the table, Rama said: “No, because the only way to keep the Balkans in this peaceful and cooperative mode … is to keep the path to the EU open, to keep the perspective clear, to keep emotions about the EU positive. No one would like to turn [in] on themselves and look for smaller unions, everyone would like to unite in the big union. But if there’s no hope, no perspective, no space, then, of course, little unions may happen.”
Many fear a union between Kosovo and Albania would trigger a new upheaval in the Balkans, which descended into war in the 1990s as Yugoslavia was torn apart. Bosnia and Macedonia would be especially vulnerable if borders were thought to be up for grabs once again. Rama said a union with Kosovo was not “my wish but a possible alternative to the closed door of the European Union.”
“There is a lack of understanding, or a lack of vision in not realizing that this region needs Europe, but Europe needs this region too” — Edi Rama
An artist, ex-national team basketball player and a former mayor of Tirana, the socialist prime minister met POLITICO in his airy office, where the walls are decorated with colorful stencils and a soccer shirt with the name of former Albania captain Lorik Cana hangs over an office chair.
‘Lack of vision’
Alarmed by rising instability and tension in the region, EU leaders last month reaffirmed “unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans.” But the accession process has lost momentum due to the EU’s internal problems, popular opposition in EU countries to taking in new members and concerns about corruption and the poor quality of democracy in Balkan countries.
Albania, like neighbors Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, is formally an EU membership candidate. Only Serbia and Montenegro have started accession negotiations, however, and are seen as years away from membership. Kosovo has a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Brussels, an early step towards possible EU membership.
Rama warned that stopping accession could destabilize Europe, saying that “the alternative would be a nightmare for the people and countries of Europe.”
“There is a lack of understanding, or a lack of vision in not realizing that this region needs Europe, but Europe needs this region too, for a secure and safe Europe,” he said. “How can the union be secure and safe if the Balkans will go crazy? How can the European Union allow at its own heart a gray zone where other actors can have a larger influence than the EU itself? This is nonsense in terms of security, in terms of safety.”
Recent signs of instability in the Balkans include bellicose rhetoric between leaders of Kosovo and Serbia, allegations of a Russian-backed coup attempt in Montenegro, threats by Bosnia’s autonomous Serb Republic to secede and a protracted political crisis in Macedonia, which has left the country without a government.
Rama said he did not see a new war in the region as “a first scenario” but calming tensions “very much depends on the EU and U.S.”
Support for EU membership in Albania and most other countries in the region remains high, although skepticism is growing in Serbia and Macedonia. Rama said that despite its problems, the EU retains a kind of “magic” for the Western Balkans, just as it did for its founding member countries in the wake of World War II, and had encouraged regional leaders to work more closely together.
“Today in Europe, you have a generation that didn’t see any war. We are a generation [in the Balkans], we saw wars, we get the point,” Rama said.
Some in Serbia’s government believe Rama is using a more nationalist tone on Kosovo now because he has been accused at home of being too friendly with Belgrade and is just a couple of months away from a general election.
Rama also stands accused of pouring fuel on the Balkan fire through his role in the Macedonian crisis. Parties representing Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority, which hold the balance of power after elections in December, drew up a joint platform after a meeting with Rama in Tirana. It calls for greater rights for ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, who make up about a quarter of the population, including making Albanian an official language countrywide.
The platform has been a focus of large street protests, and President Gjorge Ivanov has said that it could “destroy the country” and put Macedonia in “a position of subordination or dependence in relation to another country.”
But Rama defended the platform and said he had merely facilitated a meeting between ethnic Albanian politicians from Macedonia and was not trying to intervene in the country’s domestic politics.
“There is a myth created in Skopje for political purposes that the Albanian parties are following a platform that is written in Tirana. This is a lie, a myth created by the politics of very bad taste,” he said. “The attack on the platform is very dangerous because it’s a kind of politics that fuels divisiveness and not unity … The last thing Macedonia needs, the last thing we all need, is to fuel interethnic conflict, because you can’t control these kinds of things.”
He added that Albanians in Macedonia had an “absolute right to ask for full equality with their Macedonian brothers,” and that the platform largely demands rights and freedoms laid out in the 2001 Ohrid Agreement that ended an armed conflict between Macedonian security forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
At home, Rama himself faces a mounting political crisis of his own, with the opposition boycotting parliament and threatening not to field candidates in a general election scheduled for June 18 over claims that the vote will not be free and fair. Rama has thus far rejected demands that he stand down so a technocratic government can manage the elections, which he said would go ahead on schedule.
“If Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell and New Labour did not exist, I would not have become a politician” — Edi Rama
“You can’t kidnap the democratic process, you can’t kidnap the constitution,” he said.
With opposition MPs and supporters camped in a marquee outside his office, and problems with a junior coalition partner mounting, Rama will need the political skill of his hero Tony Blair to negotiate the coming months.
Rama has used Blair’s political consultancy as advisers to his government (as Vučić has also done) and he has formed a friendship with the former British prime minister and his ex-communications adviser Alastair Campbell. Blair paid a private visit to Rama at a government guesthouse on the Albanian coast last year and Campbell included the Albanian premier in a book he wrote entitled “Winners: And How They Succeed.”
“If Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell and New Labour did not exist, I would not have become a politician,” Rama said. “They’ve been inspirational to me. Whatever Iraq was, it’s not at all a reason to forget what great things Tony Blair did, and how great he was as prime minister.”