Russian Meddling in the Balkans: “Over and Over, Putin Says Kosovo, Kosovo, Kosovo!”

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During the transition years following the collapse of Hoxha’s dictatorship, Rama, a lecturer at the Art Academy in Tirana and the son of a well-known communist sculptor, joined the democracy movement. There weren’t many like him at the time: a good athlete, an artist unencumbered by historical baggage and an inspirational speaker.

But Rama’s struggle for recognition of a sovereign Kosovo can sometimes take on Albanian nationalist tones. He has repeatedly brought up the idea of a joint government between Pristina and Tirana, an idea seen as a provocation in Belgrade, which fears the establishment of a “Greater Albania.” It doesn’t make establishing peace in the region any easier.

Rama grew up in an isolated country, with many considering Albania to be the European equivalent of North Korea. The difficult balancing act Rama is attempting is a product of that experience: He wants to integrate the Western Balkans internationally and secure Kosovo’s status as an independent state, while at the same time trying to heal the pain inflicted on Serbia by that loss. Is such a thing even possible?

“It was the right thing to do,” Rama says of the decision for Kosovo’s independence, spreading his large hands in the warm summer air. At the end of the day, there is now a “peace and reconciliation process,” he says, even if it is one that has dragged out for a very long time.

A More Open Balkans?

But in the shadow of the crises around the world, there have actually been a few encouraging signs in the Balkans recently. After winning the election and becoming prime minister in 2013, Rama traveled to Belgrade for his inaugural visit, the first by a head of government from Tirana in 68 years.

Once there, however, at a reception with sparkling wine, he called on the Serbian government to recognize Kosovo, and his counterpart Alexander Vučić pulled him aside. Vučić told him that members of his staff were urging him to throw out his impertinent guest. Rama says he replied to Vučić by saying that these stupid people were only his employees, but that he was smarter, which is why he was the head of government. “Then we moved on.”

In the near future, Serbia, Albania and Montenegro plan to open a kind of mini-Schengen area to improve trade and jump-start their crippled economies. He says the project unites him with his “dearest enemy Aleksandar Vučić.” Government leaders call it the Open Balkans initiative, and the freedom of movement between Albanians and Serbs that comes with the agreement even includes the Kosovars, a minor sensation.

Toward the end of the visit, Rama says he wants to add that the idea originally came from former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He says that she helped him and his Serb counterpart Vučić to develop a stable working relationship, “despite our history of pain and blood.”

In 2014, he says, the chancellor invited the six leaders of the Western Balkans to Germany, calling it the “Berlin Process.” “She told us we were Europeans, even if not yet members of the European Union. Until then, we should use the time to think together about the future.”

Then the leaders then sat together at the same table once a year, for the first time in the history of the Balkans, Rama says, and always in a different European city – London, Paris, Trieste and Vienna. Until her retirement in 2021, the chancellor always personally attended the meetings. “It changed everything,” says the Albanian prime minister.

He says the six Balkan leaders accepted during those talks that they just don’t agree. But they all shared one common desire, he says: To turn over a new leaf in history.

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