Ruairi O’Connell’s first 18 months as UK Ambassador to Kosovo haven’t exactly been a bed of English roses. Since taking up the position in April 2015 Kosovo has experienced the longest political standoff in its post-war history characterized by divisive rhetoric by both government and opposition, a blocked Assembly, and regular tear gas both on the streets and within parliament.
There has been intense frustration over international agreements signed with neighbors Montenegro and Serbia, controversy over the formation of a new special court to try alleged crimes committed by Kosovo Liberation Army members during and after the war, and the ongoing ‘Pronto Affair,’ in which leaked wiretap conversations involving ruling PDK politicians have revealed institutional abuse of power.
If any foreign diplomat is truly in a position to grasp the complexities of political life in Kosovo, O’Connell appears to have the credentials. He completed a master’s degree in Yugoslav nationalism politics at the school of Slavonic and East European Studies in London (now part of University College London), writing his thesis on “The impact of Western diplomacy on elite decision-making in the Balkans.” Having joined the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2001, he also spent time as the Yugoslav desk officer in London as well as four years in Kosovo between 2004 and 2008, first as Second Secretary Political and later as Deputy Head of Mission to the British Embassy.
Since his first posting to Kosovo over a decade ago, O’Connell has learnt to speak fluent Albanian, firstly through a course organized by the British government (which he describes as giving him a headache every day), but helped by being married to an Albanian (which he says helped his language “a bit”) — he also speaks Serbian. An ambassador being able to speak the language of the country they’re posted in is a, “very important thing,” he says.
During his relatively brief time as Ambassador, O’Connell has been highly visible and has at times used more direct language than some of his international counterparts in order to get his message across; in particular he has spoken out loudly against corruption and other forms of abuse of power.
K2.0 met with O’Connell for a feature interview to discuss some of the big issues facing Kosovo today. The Ambassador says that the current ‘Pronto Affair’ “needs to be a turning point” for Kosovo, but suggests that the country also has much wider issues of corruption that it needs to tackle. He insists that Kosovo has all the infrastructure in place to tackle high-level corruption and organized crime and that it will now take brave individuals to stand up and make a difference — Kosovars should stop waiting for external forces to address its issues, he argues, as historical evidence suggests that this doesn’t work.
In a wide-ranging interview, the Ambassador also talks about the role of his country in Kosovo following June’s ‘Brexit’ referendum vote (in which the UK voted to leave the EU), the dialogue between Prishtina and Belgrade, and the role of the government and opposition in shaping Kosovo’s young democracy.
K2.0: The recent wiretapping revelations have disclosed high-level institutional corruption running through the very heart of Kosovo politics, so far with minimal consequences for those involved. Is it a sign that Kosovo isn’t serious in its statements on tackling corruption that to date no action has been taken against those senior politicians who have been implicated?
Ambassador O’Connell: I wouldn’t want to see the issue of corruption only with these wiretaps … Have they given us a smoking gun? No. Does that mean that there isn’t high-level corruption? No, of course it doesn’t.
We know that there are significant problems here and you only need to look at the experience, let’s say of foreign investors when they come to Kosovo, and they talk to us all the time. And we know the huge difficulties that some of them have faced. So we know that institutional corruption is a significant problem. Everyone knows that and they didn’t need to listen to wiretaps to understand that.
On UK foreign policy objectives in Kosovo:
"In general terms our relationship with Kosovo is evolving. And it has evolved extraordinarily over the last 17 years. In 1999 Kosovo was essentially subject to British foreign policy and the NATO intervention which was in large part driven by the UK, in response to the humanitarian situation which was evolving into a disaster was what drove us to intervene, but very much Kosovo was subject to that.
We supported the development of the institutions of self-government, then we were the first country to recognize independence. That was the second phase — starting a partnership, but really the international community was running Kosovo through UNMIK.
Coming back to 2015 we are much more like partners, now. We have shared interests as two independent states, and that's how I think our policies have evolved."
Now, my sense is that if there are political figures implicated in illegal measures then the Kosovo authorities should take action against them. They should be brought to the courts, the court should take action; if they are then found guilty they should then serve their punishments and not be allowed to — as we’ve seen over the last year — walk in the front door of the prison and walk straight out the back door to go to hospital. Excuse me!
That would show a degree of seriousness. What would show seriousness is if the institutions, that are meant to be independent, the prosecutors, the police, the courts, are able to take action against those who are implicated in corruption, that they then do take action and that the justice system punishes them appropriately. That would show a degree of commitment. Now, does that exist? I don’t know.
If I’m honest I don’t know if there exists the will to allow that to happen and I think it’s now time really for Kosovo’s authorities to demonstrate their seriousness.
But do you feel there has been a sense of demonstrating this seriousness? It has been more than a month and a half and we haven’t seen legal consequences towards those who have been implicated.
I think it’s hard to do a running commentary on investigations … But again, it’s not just this. There are a range of cases where we’ve seen political figures indicted and convicted of corruption offences and they continue in their positions. I find it extraordinary that one mayor gets convicted of a serious crime and is allowed somehow to continue being mayor whilst he sits in prison. I mean that is an extraordinary thing.
"How many instances of judicial corruption does one need to see before one concludes that the judiciary doesn’t act independently?"
The mayor of Prizren has a conviction for corruption, a number of other mayors have been indicted for corruption. But then you have the case of a number of deputies who have been convicted of war crimes or serious crimes who are sitting in parliament. Look, this is a wide issue and it comes back to something I think there has been increasing international focus of in Kosovo over the last 12 months or more, which is the rule of law.
But at the same time these wiretaps date from a 2011 EULEX investigation. Why do you think it has taken five years to see these revelations in the media, while EULEX, which has had responsibilities for the rule of law, did not take any action?
EULEX have taken action for a range of cases and I think it’s a weird myth that has built up that EULEX haven’t had a single case and they’ve not convicted anyone. It’s not true. Over 50 cases of corruption have not just been prosecuted, but they’ve been taken through to a final verdict.
But we are talking here about a particular case.
I am not sure about it. There is lots of evidence across Kosovo of corruption. I think with these, it’s a sense of nepotism and clientelism. And someone needs to answer for that, politically. And if a law has been broken, and again that’s for the prosecutors and judges to work out, then they should take action as well.
But it’s really interesting that thought, that EULEX is responsible for the rule of law in Kosovo. I just don’t think that’s true, honestly. EULEX is there to help Kosovo take action, especially against the harder cases, but Kosovo is independent and sovereign. You have a justice system, you have a court system, you have your own prosecutors. There is no reason why, in any case, a Kosovo prosecutor shouldn’t pick it up and take action.
Do you believe that the Kosovar judicial system has the independence to do so?
Do I? I don’t know, I honestly don’t know. But I do think that legally and structurally they do have the independence … [But] you can see that there has been interference in the judiciary and we can see cases when decisions taken by EULEX, by the local judiciary, where Kosovo ministers have then criticized those decisions and that is an extraordinary interference in the independence of the judiciary.
On impact of Brexit on UK foreign policy in Kosovo:
"There hasn’t been a change, really. It has always been in our interests — and it's not just in Kosovo, let’s look at the wider Balkan region — for us to have societies here that feel secure, that feel prosperous and optimistic and comfortable about the future. That’s the best way to deal with the kind of problems that damage societies here: organised crime, corruption, irregular migration and now, yes, radicalization. We can deal with those by helping the societies build that security and prosperity. That was our joint interest at the start of June, it’s our joint interest today.
We’ve got a significant bilateral program fund as well as the money that we spend through the UN and through the European Union at the moment, and it’s targeted on the kind of things that matter to us: Economy and the rule of law — that’s going to continue, I really don’t see any change there."
But, Kosovo has the structures; the legal framework is there. And it will take somebody, a prosecutor or a judge, to step forward and to say, ‘I’m going to use that legal framework’ even though there is probably political pressure, and other kinds of pressure. They have the chance to become, yes, a hero perhaps in the justice system for doing that. I don’t pretend that it will be easy because it won’t be. But frankly, a lot of Kosovo’s history hasn’t been easy for people who’ve led things. And I actually believe that there are good men and women in those systems who will take the difficult decisions and I know it would be hard; it is necessary.
But the other point is, it’s fascinating, again the assumption, we are now … eight and a half years after independence, that one is waiting for the international community to clear out corruption from Kosovo. Well, you’ve got your own legal system, you’ve got your courts but you’ve got also votes, right? If people don’t like what they’re seeing, there are other ways of changing things other than waiting for foreigners to do it.
Do I think that people act independently? Well, how many instances of judicial corruption does one need to see before one concludes that actually no, the judiciary doesn’t and hasn’t acted independently. We’ve financed for a number of years now the Kosovo legal institutions to do exactly this kind of monitoring of the justice system but also to look at EULEX as well which I think is positive. But they look at corruption cases in the judiciary. And every year they come up with reports centimeters thick of instances where people have done huge damage to Kosovo’s interests and the judicial system and no action is taken against them.
When we have such a poor judicial system even with the assistance of the international community, is it realistic to expect that now we can improve the rule of law in Kosovo on our own?
It takes will and it will take bravery and it will take someone taking a decision that now Kosovo is actually seriously going to take judicial accountability properly.
I can’t think of recent example — I’m not sure I can think of any example — where a significant organized crime problem has been dealt with just by external forces. The societies deal with them. I think it was Lithuania that had a significant problem prior to EU integration and was told that it needed to be dealt with or there would be no positive assessment. And they gripped the problem. It was difficult, it was messy, but they did it.
Do you believe that the ‘Pronto affair’ can be a turning point for Kosovo?
It needs to be a turning point.
You can tell by talking to people that they are fed up with this kind of behaviour and they expect change … I honestly don’t know what will happen, but it’s clear that if Kosovo is serious about economic development, about inward investment, about frankly making its citizens feel hopeful for the future, then the kind of practices that we have seen — the nepotism, the clientelism, the corruption — that needs to end.
Let’s talk about the agreements that Kosovo has signed with Serbia and with Montenegro last August. Do you consider the continuation of the dialogue with Serbia in its current form constructive when existing agreements are not being respected by both parties?
"It’s fascinating to see — and this hadn’t happened ever in the past — a number of Kosovo Serb political leaders learning Albanian."
Firstly, let’s look at high level. We want Kosovo and Serbia to have normal relations. We’ve got bilateral relations with both countries. The future is for all the countries in the Western Balkans to have normal bilateral relations with each other … I think [the dialogue] is the best tool … that Kosovo has to normalize the relationship with Serbia and to consolidate its statehood. I think that’s a big prize.
Now, me and my colleagues have talked a lot about implementation and frankly people want to see that there is a reason to carry on dialogue. That their lives will improve. And implementation has been lacking. You know there are bits that are moving forward … But it’s really important that the deals are actually implemented by both Kosovo and Serbia.
Is the dialogue simply adding to further marginalization, rather than integration, of the Serb community in Kosovo?
People live in the villages where they’ve lived, frankly, for generations. A lot of them were exclusively Serbian, some of them were mixed — there were Serbs living there. The urban populations of the Serbian community in Prishtina, Mitrovica — where it was more mixed — Prizren, reduced almost to zero. We’ve done a lot looking at returns, and I think the British government is the biggest supporter of the returns process.
I don’t agree with the characterization that the dialogue is somehow driving people apart. These communities lived, and still live, quite separate lives. I’d turn that question on its head. I think that there is a lot that people can do in both Serbian and Albanian communities to bring these two communities together … I think some bits of the dialogue will help … [but] I don’t think people should expect that the dialogue will solve all those inter-communal relations; they will require work and a lot of what we do as well is trying to support those people who are doing that kind of work.
It’s fascinating to see, a number of — and this hadn’t happened ever in the past — a number of Kosovo Serb political leaders learning Albanian. I think that’s an interesting thing that is happening below the surface that people aren’t noticing. It’s not going to transform the relationship but I think it is significant.
On biggest personal contribution as Ambassador:
"I almost wouldn’t want to judge for myself, I would want other people to judge for that. But I hope that what we tried to do here is empower the people of Kosovo to take decisions themselves and demand change.
So, a lot of our projects are looking at voter empowerment, anti-corruption, the rule of law and giving people the tools to hold their leaders and themselves to account. And if that’s something that we can achieve and help support Kosovars in the next three or four years, then I will be happy."
The dialogue, the international agreements and the special court are controversial issues that have been prominent over the past year. Whatever the potential benefits of the agreements, are they in fact building up longer term internal issues of frustration and internal division for Kosovars that will have a lasting impact on the country’s young democracy?
I think that point about democratization is very important and I would agree 100 percent with what the new EU special representative said a few days ago, that it is vitally important to have space for public debate, to have the inclusion of… I think the way she put it, “to include the opposition in decisionmaking.” And that means empowering the Assembly, it means the government responding to the Assembly’s requests, being open for debate and having a democratic debate. I think that’s absolutely important.
Have you seen a willingness from Kosovo government to engage with the opposition? There seems to have been a lack of communication by both sides for more than a year.
It’s not for me to judge whether they are willing or not. That feels 100 percent like a question for Kosovo voters, whether they feel that the government is engaging democratically or not. But what I would say is that Kosovo democracy is so young, because of the history and stretching back 2,000 years, frankly, and that every action that a political leader takes has a disproportionately large effect on creating a new political culture in Kosovo.
"I think people need to understand that every action they take right now is going to have a great impact in the future of Kosovo’s democratic culture."
So whether that’s the government refusing to send information to the Assembly, or on the other side making themselves open for debate, it includes whether the opposition, as they hopefully will do, stay within the norms of democratic debate: opposition, protest, perhaps quite harsh critics — all fine. Use of violence — not OK.
It has been a difficult year for Kosovo democracy and again, I think there is a point in time now where the international community has said, “look, we recognized you in the large part because we thought Kosovo would, should and indeed could, manage its own affairs but now it’s really important to abide by those norms of European democracy.”
Is it your feeling that Kosovo’s political culture is in danger and is at risk of being based on divisive rhetoric rather than attempting to achieve consensus?
I think it’s really important now to do it. It’s taken a while to build that political culture and I think parties need to be accountable to their voters and supporters. I think people need to look for opportunities to reach out politically to the other side. I think people need to understand that every action they take right now is going to have a great impact in the future of Kosovo’s democratic culture… and I think there is an opportunity to change it now.
But again, you asked about what my evaluation of it was; I think that’s for the voters. I don’t think that people yet feel that with their votes they can change things but that’s the essence of democracy. And until voters really feel empowered that with their vote they can change things, Kosovo will always struggle.K
Photos: Majlinda Hoxha.