WORLD: Prime Minister, your country has almost 1.8 million inhabitants. What are the three biggest challenges?
Albin Kurti: Firstly, we need foreign direct investment and the associated new jobs, especially for young people. Tax revenues have recently increased by 34 percent without changing fiscal policy. People are willing to pay more taxes again because they know this government is not corrupt. I encourage all European companies to invest in Kosovo. We have technology parks like in Prizren, high export growth and a young, well-educated workforce. Secondly, we must take even stronger action against corruption, the judiciary and criminal prosecution must be even more efficient. However, there are significant improvements: we have moved up 17 places in Transparency International's Corruption Index, as well as in Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index. And according to the World Justice Project, we rank first out of all six Western Balkan countries in recognizing the rule of law. The third challenge is: Serbia is a threat to us. The country is building up illegal structures, particularly in northern Kosovo, and continues to maintain very close ties with Russia.
WORLD: You are pursuing a policy of reciprocity towards Belgrade. In concrete terms, this means that what applies to the citizens of Kosovo in Serbia should also be practiced in reverse. Serbian license plates on the cars of Kosovan citizens must be replaced by Kosovar license plates in the future. In addition, Serbian passports are no longer sufficient for entry, an additional document must be issued that is valid for 90 days.
Kurti: Yes, the measure was first valid on August 1st. We issued 2679 travel documents that day without encountering any problems. The documents were issued digitally, it was done within 20 seconds and costs the Serbs nothing. On the other hand, if Kosovo citizens want to travel to Serbia, they have to wait between ten minutes and two hours, unless the border officials are bribed. There were reports that Kurti wanted to take away the passports of the Serbs. This is complete nonsense. We do not collect passports, we only ask for an additional document.
WORLD: Nevertheless, there was unrest on July 31, barricades were erected at several border crossings and shots were fired at Kosovan police officers.
Kurti: The riots on July 31 were not triggered by ordinary citizens of the Serb minority in northern Kosovo, but by organized crime and oligarchs, who are on Serbia's payroll and who were briefed at meetings in Belgrade on what to do in Kosovo. This was commissioned work. After the barricades were removed, I - in consultation with the US and the EU - postponed the introduction of the measures by 30 days.
WORLD: Does that mean they will finally come in a few days?
Kurti: The planned border controls for Serbian citizens who want to travel to Kosovo and the new regulations for license plates will be binding and apply indefinitely from September 1st. But I am ready to shake hands with Vucic (Serbia's President, editor's note): If Serbia agrees to waive border controls in the future, then we will do the same. Then it would be on 1.9. no new rules.
WORLD: Is Vladimir Putin playing with fire in Kosovo?
Kurti: I believe that neither Serbia's President Vucic nor Russia's President Putin can abuse the Serb minority in Kosovo. Ordinary citizens do not participate in the warmongering policies against our country. That's what people are on Serbia's payroll for. These criminals deliberately stir up unrest again and again. But we are vigilant, we are not afraid of these criminals.
WORLD: Does Kosovo need more than the current 3,800 NATO KFOR soldiers to be adequately protected?
Kurti: We have increased the defense budget by 52 percent, and our national security forces now have 5,000 soldiers and 3,000 reservists. But there are 48 Serbian military bases around Kosovo. Russia and Serbia work closely together in military policy, they undertook a total of 104 maneuvers and activities together in 2021 - some of which included Belarusian armed forces. Because of the threat from Serbia and Russia, there is an urgent need to significantly increase the number of NATO soldiers in Kosovo. That would definitely improve our security. It would also help us if more German soldiers than before were to take part in the NATO protection troops, which increases deterrence. In addition, the KFOR troops could help us to further expand our own security structures and capabilities.
WORLD: When will Kosovo apply to become an EU candidate?
Kurti: We will apply to become an EU accession candidate this fall or winter, but no later than Christmas 2022.
WORLD: What makes you so sure that this will work?
Kurti: We are the most pro-democratic and pro-Western country in the Western Balkans. In addition, we already have close contractual ties with the EU through the Stabilization and Association Agreement that we can build on. In addition, the security of the European continent is threatened after Russia's completely unjustified attack on Ukraine. So it would be important to have a stable partner in Kosovo at your side in the Western Balkans. So both sides would benefit equally.
WORLD: When does Kosovo want to join the EU?
Kurti: Certainly not this year or next. This will take time.
WORLD: How long?
Kurti: A timeframe from Brussels with milestones to be reached would be absolutely necessary. It would be important for someone with influence in the EU to stand up and say: All six Western Balkan countries should join the EU by 2030. We were promised that back in 2003. Nobody has to be afraid of us. All six Western Balkan countries, together with 18 million inhabitants, are about the size of the Netherlands. The economic power corresponds to the gross domestic product of Slovakia. In addition, every third inhabitant of the Western Balkans no longer lives at home anyway, but somewhere in Western Europe, mostly in Germany.