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Interview to Ambassador De Riu: “We support the EU integration of Kosovo but we also expect a constructive commitment”

Italy has invested “largely” in Kosovo, from the financial point of view as well, therefore it will continue to support the development and the european integration of the country from which it expects a “constructive” commitment on reforms and dialogue with Serbia, stated Antonello De Riu, the Italian Ambassador to Kosovo during the interview with “Agenzia Nova”. De Riu – who returned to Kosovo as Ambassador at the end of September 2021, after having been there as diplomatic representative in various missions in the periods between the end of the 1990s and beginning of 2000s – found a significant evolution from the socio-economic point of view achieved in this period of time from the young Balkan country, hoping for a greater number of visits abroad by Kosovar ministers to furthermore provide a “different image” of Kosovo compared to the one linked with the conflictive past. Kosovo also seems to have managed the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic better than other countries in the region, although it should continue to insist on vaccinations given that, as of December 4th, 42.7% of citizens were vaccinated with the second dose. The pandemic also had an impact on bilateral trade relations between Italy and Kosovo, which according to the Ambassador, remain “overall positive”. “According to temporary data from ISTAT – noticed De Riu -, in the first semester of 2021, the commercial interchange between Italy and Kosovo equaled the amount of 100 million euros, an increase of 106 percent compared to the first semester of 2020. In 2020, bilateral interchange amounted 133 million euros with a decrease of 9.9 percent compared to 2019, a decrease mainly due to the effects of the first lockdown in the two countries and Europe in general. Certainly, the economic sector is the one where our cooperation records the most interesting growth perspective. And I am referring not only to the increase in exports and imports of goods as much as the possibility for the Italian investors to focus on the Kosovar market, which presents interesting complementarities with our economy: I am thinking of favorable taxation, relatively low labor costs, the presence of young and skilled work force”.

“The challenges are many and demanding” continued the Ambassador, answering to a question on the necessary reforms in Kosovo to progress towards European integration. “It is not just a matter of adapting of its institutions and national legislative frameworks to European standards – he explained – but to merge and assimilate the entirety of values ​​and principles comprising the foundation of the European Union. Reforms should be accompanied by effective action in the fight against organized crime and corruption, issues to which – it must be recognized – the government led by Prime Minister Albin Kurti has given absolute priority. This is not a secondary choice in a region where crime and corruption are real plagues with very high social costs, and cause citizens to distrust institutions and simultaneously turning away companies and private investors. There is also the other great issue, obviously, the dialogue with Belgrade, for which significant efforts are needed on both sides”, said Ambassador De Riu speaking of the need for a “constructive” and “creative” approach that for Pristina does not mean to renounce the “inalienable right to sovereignty”, but to demonstrate the will for a concrete commitment to resolve the situation. Responding to a question on the judicial reform in Kosovo, the Ambassador highlighted that “in the latest report from the European Commission, published in October, some progress is recognized, however, with a long way still to go in this field. As in many other countries – he said – the pandemic has slowed down the processes and in the intentions of the new Kosovar government there are projects such as the so-called vetting of judges and prosecutors, on which we need to expand the idea. The Italian experience, as it happens in Albania, can certainly be put in good use, and in this sense we are moving towards some assistance programs with our Guardia di Finanza. For the broader reform of Kosovar justice, the essentials remain European standards and the inputs of the Venice Commission”.

The Italian Ambassador in Pristina, during the interview with “Agenzia Nova”, then hoped for progress towards the effective liberalization of visas for Kosovar citizens in the EU. “It has been our wish for some time. And it is also that of the European Commission, which in the October report confirmed its previous assessment, asking the Council to resume the discussion on the issue. You see, visa liberalization for the Balkan countries, launched in 2008, was one of the most important strategic investments the European Union has made in the region over the past 20 years. It has allowed civil societies and companies in the area to interact freely with European ones and to unfold all their extraordinary potential. It is an Italian wish that we can now complete that strategic investment by recognizing the same liberalization as well to the Kosovar citizens”. Commenting on the “Open Balkans” initiative, which aims to create an area of ​​free movement in the region, but for the moment limited to Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia, De Riu highlighted that the choice to join it is “a sovereign decision of the Kosovar authorities. In general – he specified – we look positively at any initiative that favors regional integration; the important thing is that it does not exclude anyone and does not constitute an alternative to other regional cooperation mechanisms that affect the same issues”.

Ambassador De Riu then answered some questions on the mediating role of the European Union in relations between Kosovo and Serbia, also in light of the presence of five member states – Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania – which do not recognize independence of Pristina. “There lacks a unanimous position, it is true, but there is certainly a position of a very large majority: Kosovo is recognized by 22 out of 27 EU countries and the mediation that Brussels is conducting, through Special Representative Miroslav Lajčák, enjoys the support of all Member States, without exception”, said De Riu, according to whom “it is essential to look at this path of reconciliation with far-sightedness and an open spirit. The dialogue facilitated by the European Union between Kosovo and Serbia – said the Ambassador – is an opportunity of historic significance, which both sides must now seriously grasp, engaging in good faith in the process and in each other to reach a final agreement that satisfies the two countries and their citizens. It is necessary in particular for both sides to avoid, before and after the meetings, the rhetoric that closes the space for negotiations and limits the potential for change”.

Furthermore, according to the Italian Ambassador in Pristina, the recent “license plate crisis” has shown “how important the role of the EU is and how important is the coordination with the main partners including Italy and other international organizations operating here, such as NATO with the KFOR mission. As for the security situation on the border between Kosovo and Serbia, we normally refer to a stable but still fragile context, where small tensions can easily lead to incidents. Also, in this case, it is difficult to imagine a stabilization without an all-inclusive agreement between Pristina and Belgrade and the normalization of their relations”. Last October, after several years, Italy handed over the command of KFOR mission, entrusted for the first time to Hungary. “The Italian attention for Kosovo and the region remains unchanged: the proof is that our contingent in KFOR has not undergone any change following the passage of command”, assured the Ambassador, highlighting that “during this year of Hungarian leadership, our country holds the deputy commander position, through Brigadier General Luca Piperni, and will return to occupy the commander position starting from the next autumn. “It regards a strategic contribution for Italy, which also thanks to the work of women and men in uniform, enjoys great appreciation from all institutional interlocutors and the local population”, concluded De Riu.

The interview on the website of Nova Agency