US Engagement in the Balkans is Critical, Says Albania’s Foreign Minister

Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati says US engagement in the Balkans is critical to ensure that there will be no derailment of the effort by Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to normalize relations that would pave the way for the latter to join NATO.

“Now that both countries [Greece and Macedonia] are doing the last mile [toward normalization], the United States’ focus on this issue is incredibly important. Especially given the fact that there are third actors who do not support the deal that has been reached between Athens and Skopje,” Bushati said in an interview with Atlantic Council Executive Vice President Damon Wilson.

On June 12, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras agreed on a deal to end their countries’ twenty-seven-year name dispute. Under the deal, Macedonia will be renamed Severna Makedonija (“Republic of North Macedonia”). Macedonia will hold a referendum on the deal in the fall. The agreement paves the way for Macedonia to join the European Union (EU) and NATO. On July 11, Macedonia was invited to join NATO pending final approval of the agreement.

The deal has created tension between Russia and Greece. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly canceled a trip to Athens earlier in July after Greece expelled two Russian diplomats for allegedly trying to drum up opposition to the name agreement.

In Washington, Bushati participated in the US Department of State’s first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. His visit comes at an important time for Albania, as the country looks to begin formal negotiations with the EU on potential membership and aims to improve relations with its neighbors in the Balkans.

In his interview with Wilson, Bushati discussed Albania’s quest for EU membership, the state of its relations with its neighbors, and the role the United States can play in the region as a whole.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Wilson: Minister Bushati, you are here in Washington to attend the US Department of State’s summit on Religious Freedom. Tell us a little bit about how that went and why this is relevant for your country.

Bushati: It was a good occasion to meet with colleagues to share both the work different countries are doing to ensure religious harmony, and also the challenges that different countries are facing with respect to violent extremism, radicalization, and other phenomena. This was the first ministerial on the subject to bring more than eighty countries together. It is a good platform.

Wilson: You mentioned the challenges of radicalization. This has been a concern throughout Europe, specifically on the issue of fighters moving to and returning from the war in Syria. What has been Albania’s experience?

Bushati: In Albania, we have been very focused on education. We have seen in the past that especially in the rural areas, there is always fertile ground for extremist forces to occupy the stage. We are a multi-confessional society, with five religions. We are working a lot with UN agencies to introduce new curricula about different religions into our education system and are working quite closely with religious and community leaders. Second, it is a question about legal and institutional set-up. We have tightened up legal and institutional measures in the fight against radicalization, especially for potential foreign fighters. In the last two or three years, Albania has had no problem with fighters going to or returning from Syria. On the other hand, our proximity in the Balkans, close to the Mediterranean and Middle East, will always pose problems. But we are a multi-confessional society, as I mentioned. And in this respect the introduction of new curricula will continue to feed constructive interreligious dialogue in our society.

Wilson: You are a multi-confessional society but are also a Muslim-majority country. Is this affecting your pathway to the European Union?

Bushati: We are a secular society. We are European, and, in this respect, there is a strong determination across the political and social spectrum to join the EU. It is the second-highest national objective after joining and supporting NATO. The reform process is going quite well. Certainly, there are also some negative stereotypes [in Europe] trying to associate us with Islam, which are unfounded because the way public life is conducted [in Albania] is in an European way.

Wilson: I think it is an important thing to see Albania being welcomed in Europe. You are European. There has certainly been a debate in various ways, within the EU, about the issue of adding a Muslim-majority country, for instance Turkey. But that so far has not been problem for Albania. I think the example you create will be significant.

Bushati: This should not be a challenge for Albania, because otherwise it would set a negative precedent, not only for developments in the region, but also the European project as a whole. You have more Muslims in Germany or France right now than in Albania.

Wilson: You just hosted [the European Union’s Enlargement Negotiations] Commissioner Johannes Hahn in Albania on July 17. What do you see as the next steps and big milestones for your path to the EU?

Bushati: The screening process has been launched officially, a couple of days ago. In September, the experts from the European Commission and the Albanian government will sit down and will come to a deeper understanding [on Albania’s progress in fulfilling] the relevant chapters of the acquis communautaire [the accumulated body of EU law]. At the same time this process will give us an opportunity to have a sober assessment about the level of compatibility of our legislation and institutions with those of the EU. This is what is going to happen at a technical level. The EU has set a timeframe, in the case of Albania and Macedonia, so next June we hope we will start formal accession negotiations. We believe that this screening process will help us. First, it will save time, and second it will help us to be better prepared for the accession negotiation process. There is nothing we can directly negotiate with the EU on, it is a process more of adaptation. We will use this period time in a very efficient way with the help of the European Commission.

Wilson: It seems like there is a lot of emphasis on bringing forward some of the tough issues that your country has had to grapple with, such as the rule of law and justice issues. How is that progressing?

Bushati: Things are progressing well, especially with the [new judicial] vetting process. All [of Albania’s] judges and prosecutors at various levels are going through a vetting process. This new process is also setting an example for other countries in the region, especially as the EU is launching disciplinary proceeding against member states for the violation of rule of law and human rights standards. It is also creating a precedent for countries that are in the accession path with us. It is a huge reform, and is causing a tough situation, because [the removal of] judges and prosecutors that are not passing the vetting test [is] creating a vacuum in those institutions. In this respect, we must focus on the strengthening of human resources when it comes to the higher levels of the judiciary and prosecution. We believe that these reforms will have a ripple effect for the fight against corruption and organized crime.

Wilson: Let’s turn to the region. Southeast Europe has seen substantial progress, as demonstrated by your membership in NATO and potential membership to the European Union. What are the remaining challenges?

Bushati: First, it is important to ensure that there is US engagement in the region. The United States is instrumental for providing security in Southeast Europe. Second, it is also important to ensure a division of labor between the United States and the EU, when it comes to the transformation of our region.

Wilson: Why is sustained American engagement important for the region?

Bushati: It is very important because of the geographical location of Southeast Europe between the Middle East on one hand, and the EU on the other hand. The United States has proved successful in our region in stopping the bloodshed and war in Yugoslavia, and in completing some of the most important projects for the security of our region, including the enlargement of NATO to Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, and hopefully soon Skopje [the capital of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia]. It has also encouraged the dialogue process between Serbia and Kosovo. We know very well that the Serbia-Kosovo process is being conducted by the European Union, but without the backing of the United States, the expected results cannot be achieved. We have seen that the role of United States, in the case of Skopje, was traditionally very positive. Now that both countries, [Greece and Macedonia], are doing the last mile [toward normalization], the United States’ focus on this issue is incredibly important. Especially given the fact that there are third actors who do not support the deal that has been reached between Athens and Skopje. But we have seen in the past months some positive developments in the region. First, with the [Good Neighbor Treaty] between Skopje and Bulgaria, the name deal between Athens and Skopje, and then the rapprochement and substantial steps [Albania has] taken together with Athens.

Wilson: What motivated that? Why does their need to be a rapprochement?

Bushati: I don’t think that we have transformed ourselves from devils into angels overnight. But there is this drive for European Union membership. It is instigating these positive developments in the region. We need an EU united in support for the nations of the Balkans and their inclusion in the Union, which unfortunately has not always been the case, for instance for Albania and Macedonia.

Wilson: Do you see a good pathway forward for NATO welcoming Macedonia as its thirtieth member?

Bushati: There are some political hurdles that need to be addressed. First is the question of the referendum [on FYROM’s name agreement with Greece]. We hope that citizens [in FYROM] will vote in favor of the peace process that has just started, which will allow members of parliament to make the necessary constitutional adjustments. Also, Greece must pass the agreement in their parliament. We are hopeful that the ratification process will be completed quickly because this could transform the Western Balkans in a positive way. We must begin to transform the new security space in the region into a development space. That is why we also need the European Union on board, with more projects boosting connectivity within our region, and also our connectivity to the wider European Union. We need to implement new projects of strategic importance, such as the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline and other pipelines, where we believe we also need an American presence. Then there are also the two toughest questions in the region, in relation to the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo and the coming elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Wilson: What progress can be made between Serbia and Kosovo?

Bushati: First, we have to see some political results out of the peace process. Right now, the main focus has been on technicalities in relation to driver’s licenses and citizen movement in the border areas. Now it is time for both Serbia and Kosovo to make more painful concessions and hopefully reach a mutually-beneficial agreement, which could also be legally binding. It is quite clear that for Serbia there is no EU accession without a recognition of Kosovo. For Kosovo, there is no EU or NATO path without addressing the issues related to Serbia or its Serbian minority in Kosovo.

Wilson: What has been your reaction to the possibility of territorial swaps between the two?

Bushati: I think this would go against the spirits of all the efforts made in the Balkans in the last three decades. It would go against the spirit of the Helsinki Final Act and other internationally legally binding documents. We have to be very cautious not to open a Pandora’s box for other cases in the region. The United States, the EU, and NATO have invested a lot promoting the multiethnicity of the Balkans, making sure societies remain open. I know very well that it is a difficult challenge to build societies and institutions that serve this purpose, but we need to continue on this path.

Wilson: We see those difficulties playing out most evidently in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bushati: It is important to see how the [October 2018 general election] vote goes in Bosnia. Then, of course, it is also important to ensure that the prospect of NATO and EU membership for Bosnia is real. We say that the Dayton Agreement saved Bosnia, but now it seems that it does not offer a real platform for allowing Bosnia to make some the necessary substantial steps to achieve NATO and European Union membership.

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Image: Damon Wilson (left), Executive Vice President of the Atlantic Council, and Ditmir Bushati (right), Albania's Minister of Foreign Affairs, meet at the Atlantic Council on July 27.