MPs discuss legacy, trade and geopolitics in vibrant and ambitious Kosovo
My overall impressions of Kosovo are of a young, vibrant, and ambitious country – proud of its close associations with the United Kingdom, the US and NATO. We were made to feel extremely welcome, and the potential for further close partnership between our Parliaments and Governments is substantial and should be pursued.
Kosovo is a hidden gem of Europe, beautiful countryside, wonderful food and drink, culture, historical sites, vibrant night life, music, art and a young dynamic population keen to expand business and trade links across Europe and with the UK (which are oddly not as strong as they could be). English is widely spoken, and cultural ties to the UK, US, Switzerland and Germany are strong – not least given the role all those countries played in taking in refugees during the conflict.
However, it is also clear Kosovo remains fragile, and at the risk of increasingly destabilising forces in the region, and events in Bosnia, Serbia and of course the Ukraine-Russia war.
It’s people and institutions are still dealing with the legacy of a horrific war, atrocities, inter-ethnic tensions and a divided society in some parts of the country, and in areas such as education. Institutions are incredibly young, having only emerged just over a decade ago from UNMIK administration. Kosovans also remain cut off from significant travel, due the lack of progress on visa liberalisation with the EU and UK. We also discussed human rights, including LGBT+ rights, and disappointment that recent reforms to the civil code including on same-sex unions had not passed in a recent Parliament vote.
We met with a range of senior figures in the new Government – including the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister / Foreign Minister and other officials – and were warmly welcomed. We also met with members of the President’s cabinet. All of them stressed their commitment to European integration, NATO and to working closely with the UK despite Brexit. All strongly welcomed our visit, and it is clear that they see the UK Parliament and UK Government as key partners, not just because of the role played in securing their independence but also for the future.
Key issues discussed included: energy and climate change (Kosovo currently depends almost entirely on lignite coal power generation), trade, security threats in the region, the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue, recognition efforts at the UN and in other international bodies, including the Council of Europe, human rights, institutional development, and tackling the legacy of corruption. We also discussed the worrying plans to close the British Council presence in Pristina.
We also had a very interesting and different set of meetings with the Mayors of Pristina and Prizren discussing urban challenges, local services, sustainability and domestic political dynamics.
Parliament / Political Parties
We met the Speaker, Deputy Speaker, and many Parliamentarians from all of the main political parties, as well as the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Friendship Group. It is clear that Kosovan democracy, while young, is vibrant, diverse – and the increased representation of women and young people is clear, and the institutional design is progressive.
Similar topics were discussed as with the Government representatives – particularly with regard to international recognition and on climate/energy issues – with a wide range of perspectives expressed (as expected) on the current government.
Business and Civil Society
We met a range of business and civil society organisations throughout our visit – ranging from minerals and railway development companies – to media and investigative journalism, to cyber security experts and youth, women’s and LGBT+ organisations. Business is looking for closer ties, infrastructure investment, and greater trade with the UK, and across Europe and the region. Civil society in Kosovo appears vibrant, dynamic and largely free.
We had a very informative visit to the KFOR HQ in Pristina and met with a range of international forces stationed there – and also had conversations with the contingent of UK armed forces who are contributing to the KFOR mission.
There are clear distinctions between the KFOR mission, which operates under a UNSC mandate UNSCR 1244 – and other military support / training in the region.
It is clear that significant threats to stability, particularly in the border region and at some other flashpoints remain, and that the presence of the multi-national NATO and non-NATO force remains essential, while the domestic security forces are further developed.
The legacy of conflict
The 1998-1999 war, NATO intervention which halted further atrocities, and the much longer history of conflict still understandably loom large over Kosovo. We visited a museum commemorating the killed and missing children of Kosovo in Pristina, which was deeply moving, and reminded me of visits to similar memorials in Bosnia. For such atrocities to have been committed in very recent history in Europe, is a stark reminder of the fragility of our democracies and the rule of law. Tragically, we are seeing the same repeated right at this very moment in Ukraine.
We also visited the memorial to Kosovan hero Adem Jashari, in Prekaz, where the shelled remains of the buildings, and the graves of Jashari and his entire family were a stark reminder of just some of the horrific atrocities committed by Serbian forces during the conflict.
It was also clear that significant opposition exists domestically to the current proceedings being undertaken against former KLA and Kosovan Albanian leaders in The Hague. As we travelled throughout the country we saw regular signage for the “Freedom has a name” campaign.
Despite significant efforts to ensure the formal representation and engagement of all of Kosovo’s communities in the formal structures of Parliament and Government – it is clear that in practise, Albanian, Serbian and other minority communities live substantially separate lives, not least in the four northern municipalities.
During our visit we met with members of the Serbian minority, and representatives of the Orthodox church (who did though seem to have good contacts with their Islamic counterparts) and saw the visible evidence of flags, signage and language indicating the separation. The education systems also remain completely separate, with little attempts yet at linguistic, historical or cultural integration.
There are also significant Turkish, Bosniak, Roma and other minority communities. In Prizren we saw substantial evidence of Turkish investment and influence.
Our short visit to Kosovo was packed, hugely informative, and welcomed by all sides. There is huge potential for further partnership, and to continuing to support Kosovo, its institutions and people through difficult and destabilising times in Europe. I want to thank the BGIPU, our delegation leader Harriett Baldwin MP, the British Embassy in Pristina and the Ambassador of Kosovo to the UK for their invaluable help in putting together and accompanying us on our programme throughout.