Fragile Normalisation

Ilir Bocka

H. E. Ilir Boçka, Ambassador Of Albania To Serbia:

Fragile Normalisation

We are still in a phase where even a soccer match, or a stone pelted at a football stadium, can provoke an immediate emotional reaction in politics and the media, jeopardising all progress and achievements made throughout a long period of time. Our job is to expand and deepen communication, find common ground for cooperation and focus on mutual interests – Ilir Boçka

Citizens of Albania and Serbia do not interact and communicate at the level they should, which is a consequence of inherited political stereotypes, says Albanian Ambassador Ilir Boçka in this interview for CorD Magazine. Not approaching the end of his term in Serbia, Ambassador Boçka still notes that things are changing in a positive direction, thanks in particular to the work of Aleksandar Vučić and Edi Rama. Out interlocutor considers that these two leaders have established a new standard in relations that implies cooperation and understanding despite “drastic differences” regarding opinions on the future of Kosovo.

Your Excellency, you have spent three years in Serbia already and recently noted that your term to date has been marked the most by the first visit of an Albanian prime minister to Belgrade in more than 60 years. How much did that visit impact on relations between Serbia and Albania?

– Thank you for the question. There has truly been a turning point in relations between the countries. Prime Minister Rama’s visit to Belgrade in November 2014 will be remembered as a significant moment of political decisiveness that surpassed long-existing obstacles, and it will also be considered as an important moment for the creation of a new Rama-Vučić synergy, which continues to impact positively on relations between our two countries.

Prime Minister Edi Rama has also spoken about the normalisation of communication with Belgrade, or with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. However, surveys of the opinions of citizens suggest that, at this juncture, politicians understand each other the most. Citizens of Albania and Serbia are still unfamiliar with one another and rarely communicate. Could that be changed?

– Bilateral relations between our countries have progressed considerably during recent years. Nevertheless, we are still in the period of a “normalisation” process or, as an observer on Albania-Serbia relations would say, a “fragile normalisation”.

I use the word “fragile” because we are still in a phase where even a soccer match, or a stone pelted, or any other similar occurrence at any stadium, can provoke an immediate emotional reaction in politics and media, and can jeopardise all the progress and achievements made throughout a long period of time. Citizens of Albania and Serbia do not interact and communicate at the level they should, and this is not because of them, but rather a result of inherited political stereotypes. Our job is to expand and deepen communication, finding common ground for cooperation and focus on mutual interests, such as good neighbourly relations, trade, tourism, culture etc.

Serbia was also visited at the beginning of this year by Albanian President Bujar Nishani, making him the first president of your country to visit Serbia after 50 years. Do you think that, apart from Bujanovac and Preševo, he should also have visited Belgrade?

– That was not a bilateral visit. At the end of his mandate as president, Mr Nishani asked to make an unofficial visit to Preševo and Bujanovac to meet and greet Albanians living in those municipalities, whom he had met frequently during their visits to Albania. In consultation with the Serbian authorities, it was agreed that the visit would be realised, but it was not considered an official bilateral visit.

Now, with the election of new presidents, both in the Republic of Serbia and the Republic of Albania, we have all the possibilities to work towards an official visit by either the Albanian or the Serbian president.

In consultation with the Serbian authorities, it was agreed that the visit would be realised, but it was not considered an official bilateral visit

And to what extent do conflicting opinions on the issue of Kosovo hinder the possibility of improving bilateral relations?

– We have different opinions on Kosovo. We see it as a independent country, recognised by more than half of UN member countries, and with whom the Republic of Albania has excellent relations in every field. Serbia has a different stance. It is a known fact that our positions differ drastically regarding Kosovo, but this should not hinder us when it comes to expressing our views without exacerbating the current state of relations. This new standard, introduced in practise by the Rama-Vučić contacts, was clearly seen during their bilateral meetings, as well as the remarkable debate conducted last year at the Security Forum in Belgrade.

Discussing the impact of the Kosovo issue on relations between Albanian and Serbia, you recently described illustratively that the first thing that springs to mind when bilateral relations are mentioned is ‘the drone’ (flown into Belgrade’s Marakana Stadium during a 2014 football match between Serbia and Albania)! How would you comment on the stance of the Croatian Judiciary that conditions have been met to extradite the drone’s operator, Ismail Morina, to Serbia? Could this case have an impact on bilateral relations?

– Regarding the Morina case, it is still a pending process and I would like to refrain from expressing my opinion. I am thrilled to know which article of the Penal Code of the Republic of Serbia, or any other country, would be used to punish someone for flying a drone, even in the Partizan Stadium in Belgrade?

By the way, speaking about the Partizan stadium events during the match between the national football teams, the intolerably hostile atmosphere created in the stadium from the beginning and during the match, followed by the drone situation, are events I would like to forget.

When it comes to improving communication between Tirana and Belgrade, where do you think improvements have been most noticeable in the past few years?

– The greatest improvement has been that of the high-level communication in politics, which enables us to improve communication among both administrations, as they seek to cooperate regionally on their mutual path to European Union integration. Every day we see increased interaction among average citizens, tourists, and in merchandising, trade and services.

Bilateral trade nevertheless remains at a low level with the total exchange standing at around 120 million Euro in 2016. And according to experts, Albania and Serbia are more rivals than partners when it comes to the regional economy. However, can you see areas where cooperation could be improved?

– The information that I have, from the Joint Serbian-Albanian Chamber of Commerce, is more promising and encouraging. In the period from January to July 2017, the trade exchange between Albania and Serbia totalled €78 million, with growth of 34.9% compared to the same period last year. Goods imports from Serbia to Albania increased by 32% during this period, compared to the same period last year; while Albanian exports during the same period were up 42% compared to the same period of the previous year. These are impressive indicators that clearly show a new growth trend. Albania has a lot more to offer, such as raw minerals, fresh fruit and vegetables, besides very attractive holiday infrastructure along the beautiful and affordable beaches of the Adriatic and Ionian Riviera, which are attracting increasing numbers of Serbian tourists. We have some of the best offers in the region at present.

Ilir Bocka

Every day we see increased interaction among average citizens, tourists, and in merchandising, trade and services

What do you think of the Berlin Process and new platforms of connecting the countries of the Western Balkans? There are fears that this process could transform into a replacement for EU membership. What do you think about that?

– The Berlin Process is a very interesting cooperation platform among the Western Balkan Countries. For the first time, countries from this region, which have common aspirations like achieving EU membership, are playing for the same team, producing positive synergy. By staying together and working together on the assignments appointed to us on our path to European integration, we develop positive energy in moving forward as a team, so we can improve our chances of presenting our progress to Europe, but also our concerns and requests.

When it comes to cooperation within the Berlin Process, why does Albania oppose the Belgrade initiative for the headquarters of the regional transport union to be in Serbia?

– This must be one misperception. As far as I know, an initial proposal was made by the Serbian Ministry of Construction and Infrastructure in May 2015, which was not followed by a concrete discussion. In this case, there is no opposing position, but no follow-up situation either.

In an interview for Albanian Daily News, you also expressed reservations regarding the Serbians President’s idea of the former Yugoslav countries and Albania strengthening economic cooperation through the formation of a customs union. Why is that?

– Allow me point out that that there has been a lot of confusion regarding this topic. As far as I know, President Vučić has spoken about the “economic zone” of the region. Some sources have translated this idea as kind of a “Customs Union”, which led to different old phobias, or accusations of an attempt to bring back the time of the old Yugoslavia and so on. There is also a certain scepticism among other countries in the region about this. They manifest their concerns about the legitimate interests of manufacturers from their respective countries. At the same time, it is important to mention here that the countries of our region have already signed the Agreement on CEFTA (Central European Free Trade Agreement), an agreement that focuses on the commercial harmony between member countries and includes steps to reduce customs barriers, optimise procedures for goods trading etc., in accordance with the models used by the EU.

In your opinion, how realistic is implementation of the idea to connect Serbia and Albania via a motorway that would lead from Niš to Tirana and Durres/Drač?

– It is the most natural and shortest way of connecting Belgrade and Tirana, which also connects the economy of Serbia with the most important see port of the Adriatic, which is the Port of Durres. This road is only half the distance that Serbian tourists travel to their traditional holiday destinations in Greece, while the Albanian coastline is as beautiful and affordable for Serbian tourists. It is also the shortest distance that will bring exports of the Albanian economy to Serbia and further on to Europe. Therefore, I think the chances are high that this road will be built.

You were once in charge of NATO accession at the Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. With this in mind do you consider NATO membership as being an obligatory precursor to EU membership?

– By becoming a NATO member, Albania has benefited in many aspects. Being a member of the most successful alliance since the end of World War II means being mindful in the way you act. The feeling of being secure goes hand in hand with great responsibility in domestic and foreign policies. Albania, as is emphasised by many political and security analysts of this region, has become more responsible in the country’s foreign policy towards its neighbours, and is also seen as a source of stability in the region. Albania has proven to be a secure ally in the international cause of fighting terrorism. And the most important figure is that vast public opinion in Albania has supported this development greatly.

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