Wolfgang Petritsch has a rich diplomatic career as an Austrian diplomat carrying important tasks all over the world. But he also spent part of his career in the Balkans. Kosovo occupies a special place, as he also occupies a special place in the late history of Kosovo, as one of the organizers of the Rambouillet conference, in the capacity of the EU Special Envoy. In an exclusive interview with Demokracia.com, Petritsch recalls negotiations with Rugova on one side and Milosevic on the other; efforts to gain the trust of the KLA and the hope that there will be no need for bombings against Serbia.
For Petritsch, the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia means normalization of the lives of the citizens of Kosovo, first of all, and notes that reforms in every sector of life will suffer if this normalization is delayed.
From the EU, Petritsch expects to show clearly that the Balkans belong to Europe.
In the days when we mark achieving peace and the sacrifices for freedom, messages from a friend who continues to follow the developments in the region, are not only reminders of the past but also instructions on how to understand today’s developments in Kosovo, the region and the world.
Demokracia.com: What is your connection with the Balkans? How did you become involved with the region?
PETRITSCH: I come from a small village in the region of the Slovene minority in the south of Austria. The border with Tito’s Yugoslavia was very close. During the many crises in the Cold War there was always a strange feeling about a possible war. But we could talk in the Slovene language to the Slovenes in Yugoslavia and felt less threatened than many other Austrians.
Later I studied Southeastern European history in Vienna and conducted research for my doctorate in Yugoslavia. When I came as ambassador to Belgrade in 1997, I felt I was well prepared through my studies. I had closely followed the break-up of Yugoslavia, the wars of succession in Slovenia and Croatia and then in Bosnia. This was important for my next job as EU Special Envoy for Kosovo. Together with the Americans and the Russians, I organized the Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission (KDOM) in July 1998 and conducted the Shuttle Diplomacy between Belgarde and Prishtine with Chris Hill. Later, the two of us and a Russian diplomat were charged with the negotiations in Rambouillet and Paris. It was an extremely stressful period.
Demokracia.com: You were among the last diplomats who tried to reach a peaceful settlement for Kosovo, in March 1999. I read a very good piece in “Profil” where you recalled driving to Vienna after the last attempt to convince Milosevic to accept the agreement, and hearing that the bombing will start. What was it like?
PETRITSCH: Yes, I was the last from the negotiators to leave Belgrade. Hill and Holbrooke had already left, since Milosevic refused to continue to talk with us. The Russian negotiator was called back to Moscow, so I knew that the last chance for accepting the peace treaty – which, as you know, was signed two days earlier by the Kosovar delegation in Paris – by Milosevic was over. I received anonymous threats and had to decide to leave with my small team via Hungary to Vienna. While we were driving, we heard in the news that the NATO bombardment on Belgrade had just started. It was a big shock for me since I was still hopeful there is going to be a last-minute compromise.
Demokracia.com: A long process preceded the bombing campaign. You were part of this political process as well? Why didn’t it result with an agreement?
PETRITSCH: The mediation and negotiations went on for a very long time. They were begun by the Americans, by Holbrooke and then later Hill, immediately after the massacre in Prekaz. The EU joined a little later. These were very intense meetings in Belgrade and in Prishtine, with Milosevic and his ministers and with Rugova, Fehmi Agani, who was later so brutally murdered by Belgrade’s special forces, and all the other political parties.
We also tried to approach the KLA, but this was difficult because of the security situation. So, we had to first establish informal channels to build trust. We tried to include the KLA leadership into the talks, but this was always opposed by Belgrade.
Even in Rambouillet there were never direct negotiations between Belgrade and Prishtine.
But in one of the meetings with the KLA somewhere in a small village outside of Prishtinë, where we were negotiating the release of Yugoslav soldiers who were taken hostage by the KLA, I first encountered the young Albin Kurti who was quietly observing our meeting. Later, when Kurti was taken prisoner by Milosevic, I organized on behalf of the EU a call for his release.
Why did Milosevic refuse to sign the Rambouillet Accords? Well, I believe he thought that NATO would not go to war for the Kosovars. He speculated that there might be a few days of US bombing but then it would stop. Well, the Western powers were still under the shock of the Srebrenica genocide of 1995 where NATO acted too slowly. Now the slogan was: „Not another Srebrenica!“. Even the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer from the Green party supported the NATO intervention to decisively stop Milosevic’s war machinery.
Of course we would all have been happier if the UN Security Council would have supported the „humanitarian intervention“ in Kosovo, but Moscow and Beijing threatened with their Veto. So the West went alone and the rest is history, as they say…
Demokracia.com: It is more than two decades since the war ended. Kosovo is an independent country for more than a decade now? How do you see Kosovo today?
PETRITSCH: Kosovo has made considerable progress. The democratic process works, elections have produced democratic change in the parliament, the new government has chosen the right program for the people. The rule of law seems to be well established and the public administration works, in spite of many challenges left.
But Kosovo is a young country with a young population, so I am quite confident that the EU-facilitated dialogue will produce results and help normalize the lives of all Kosovo citizens – Albanians, Serbs and the other groups who are all citizens of the same country.
Demokracia.com: Kosovo and Serbia are still seeking a final peace agreement. Is delaying a difficult agreement better than putting all efforts to reach an agreement? Is status-quo attainable? Is it in Kosovo’s interest to delay the decision? Is the time working for Kosovo or not?
PETRITSCH: After initial progress in the dialogue process which needs to be appreciated, there was a stand-still for the past two years. Now under the able leadership of the experienced politician Miroslav Lajcak, I am quite confident that the new EU-US cooperation will quickly bring progress.
I realize that the government has a lot to accomplish, particularly in the economic field by investing in qualified jobs. Foreign investment will flow into Kosovo once the judiciary and the public administration work better and the fight against corruption is successful. The rule of law is the backbone of any democratic country.
However, it is in my opinion necessary to seriously engage in the renewed dialogue process. As long as normalization is not achieved, all other necessary reform projects will suffer.
Demokracia.com: The international context has changed a lot in the last two decades. Not all the changes are better for Kosovo? In what international context does Kosovo find itself today?
PETRITSCH: True, the Balkans has become the geopolitical battlefield of many more actors than it was the case, let’s say, 20 years ago. A new „Cold War“ looms on the horizon, between Russia and the US and Europe. China is fast becoming a serious economic actor in the region and is not adhering to the European rules. Its political influence through the 17+1 platform is nefarious. Just think of Montenegro which cannot pay back its debt to China any longer.
Brussels has to make clear to Beijing, as well as to Russia, the Arab investors, also to Turkey, which has adopted a neo-Ottoman approach in the Balkans, that the Balkans belongs to Europe.
Here I expect and demand from the EU that the accession of the whole region needs to move much faster. Many of the regional problems would be easier to resolve if Europe would start acting in a more robust and decisive way.
But it needs two to Tango: The so-called West Balkan Six (WB6) which just met in Vienna, need to become active partners in the implementation of the long overdue reforms in all spheres of life – economic, social, political. Remember, Europe after World War II only started to get better once the two historic enemies, Germany and France, decided on reconciliation. This model needs to apply in the Balkans as well.
Take this example: The Covid pandemic has hard hit the region. More cooperation is necessary also in this field between neighbors, as was concluded at the Vienna meeting of 18 June.
Kosovo needs to adapt to the new international circumstances and conduct an active neighborhood and foreign policy. Then, I am convinced, progress and a good future will come.