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Venera Hajrullahu – Getting Kosovo closer to the EU

“It is time for clarity and formal advancement of EU-Kosovo relations
without softening the EU criteria, rigor or conditionality.”

 

Venera Hajrullahu is most probably the first Kosovar to have obtained – in Geneva in 1993 – a degree in “European Studies”. When she began her studies in 1989 Europe was a different place. But within weeks of her arrival, the (Iron) curtain fell on most of Europe’s communist dictatorships, paving the way for a Europe as united and democratic as never before. While the fall of communism was remarkably peaceful, Venera’s native Yugoslavia became a horrible exception.

Venera was born in Pristina in 1963, early enough to experience the peaceful and relatively affluent 1970s which preceded the rise of tensions between Albanians and Serbs. As was customary among the urban elite at the time, Venera’s mother would speak Turkish with her parents and siblings.

In 1989 Venera travelled to Switzerland with her husband who wanted to finish his studies in architecture. Having already earned a degree in French language and literature from Pristina University, Venera dropped her initial plan of doing a master in development studies and settled for European Studies instead.

“The period when I did my studies in Geneva was marked by the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. At the same time, the political, economic and social life in Kosovo was rapidly deteriorating, announcing that a similar scenario might unravel in Kosovo … Throughout my studies I had this constant feeling that my colleagues thought I was doing something inappropriate, since my country did not have the slightest perspective to become an EU member.”

In 1998, Venera and her husband returned to Kosovo, now with a little daughter in tow. Venera took a job with the OSCE-run Kosovo Verification Mission, set up as the international community’s response to the increasingly tense crisis in Kosovo. During the NATO bombardment in 1999 she continued to work for the OSCE in Macedonia. After the war, she moved back to Pristina to work with the OSCE Head of Mission and then to help set up RTK (Radio Television of Kosovo), Kosovo’s public broadcaster. After two years of coordinating the public administration and local government programme of KFOS, the Kosovar branch of George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, Venera took a few months off.

In late 2002 a job advertisement in the local press caught her eye. The Provisional Institutions of Self-Government, as the Kosovar government was formally called at that time, was recruiting a deputy director for its Stabilization and Association Tracking Mechanism unit, the first official body dealing with EU integration. (The Stabilisation Tracking Mechanism, modelled after the Stabilisation and Association Process for the Western Balkans, had been set up by the EU in November 2002.) Venera applied – and got the job, which she now recalls as “the most fulfilling phase of my professional career.” When on her first day she climed the stairs to the office, it was with “mixed feelings of pride, determination, and hope, but also fear that I would not be up for the task.”

Venera was in for a difficult start. “We were totally understaffed in the unit, and generally the understanding of the process within the government structures was limited.” In addition, Venera found herself engaged in a battle with the European Office, established by UNMIK within the EU Pillar.

“This permanent fight over authority was exhausting … They insisted in preserving the authority of UNMIK and made it very clear that they were running the show as this was not a ‘transferred competence,’ while I wanted us [Kosovars] to be in the driving seat … support and co-operation was most welcome, but at the end of the day it was about my country’s European future.”

Under the Stabilisation Tracking Mechanism, meetings of officials from Kosovo and the European Commission were held every few months. Venera played a key part.

“It was challenging to prepare for these meetings: ensuring that all participants were duly informed and prepared for long technical meetings where clear answers were required to very specific questions. This was new to all of us! I think that the European Commission has been positively surprised, since we managed from the very beginning to show seriousness and commitment. It was a tremendous capacity building exercise and a vast internal coordination exercise.”

Venera could build on the support of Bajram Rexhepi, Kosovo’s prime minister from March 2002 to December 2004.

“This was very helpful because I  could go to line ministries with the authority that I was given. I had access to government meetings. I was talking to the government … and asking for reforms to be done according to the agenda that had been proposed by Brussels …

Again, the difficulty was with UNMIK, as an intermediary. I was not corresponding directly with Brussels. Initially, letters, e-mails, everything would go first to this office [in the EU pillar], which would then filter and pass it on to my office. All of this took time and made it extremely difficult to meet deadlines. However, with a lot of persistence and over time this improved and the EU office got more supportive.”

In June 2004 the Council of the EU adopted the first European Partnership with Kosovo (as part of the European Partnership with Serbia). In August 2004 – after extended negotiations with UNMIK’s legal office – Venera’s unit was turned into the Office for European Integration within the Office of the Prime Minister. Venera became its director. By January 2005 Kosovo had adopted the first action plan for the implementation of the European Partnership.

With Kosovo’s international status unclear, the task of spearheading its EU integration drive was a demanding one. After nearly four years on the job, and having served under three different prime ministers, Venera left her position in 2006. “I think my patience was running low and I must say I was also getting exhausted,” she explains. Her office had twelve staff at that time and was soon to transform into the Agency for European Integration, which would become the nucleus for the Ministry for European Integration after Kosovo’s independence.

After quitting her job, Venera was offered the chance to head the Kosovar Civil Society Foundation (KCSF), an NGO working on civil society development and European integration. She accepted – and remains at KCSF to this day.

“Our priorities are initiating debates on Kosovo’s European future, monitoring the performance of Kosovo institutions in fulfilling the obligations which come out of the EU integration process, as well as contributing to this process by creating a critical mass of professionals with whom we can have a deeper and more meaningful debate about the developments in Kosovo, region and the EU.”

More than 700 policy makers, journalists and civil servants have graduated from KCSF’s School for European Integration. However, “the most important thing we are doing right now,” says Venera, “is trying to open ways for better involvement of civil society in the policy making and decision making processes in the country.”

To Venera, the European Commission’s increased focus on civil society under the Stabilisation and Association Process Dialogue, as the enhanced tracking mechanism is now called, is a big success. It has become customary for visiting Commission staff to meet civil society representatives ahead of discussions with government officials.

On 17 February 2008 Kosovo declared its independence. With five EU member states refusing to recognise Kosovo, however, its European integration prospects remain unclear. Be that as it may, Venera sees that the EU accession process has already delivered tangible benefits.

“The most beneficial aspect of the EU accession process is how helpful it is for the transition process. Reforms are framed, structured, systematically supported … Take for example the Progress Report: this is a huge exercise of gathering data, of prioritizing it; organizing it into something that is realistically achievable, in the short-, mid- and long-term. It is an instrument central not only to action plans, programming of assistance and capacity building for the state agencies but also for media and civil society who have a very important role to play in this process.”

“My efforts today go in the direction of combating dry political rhetoric, by calling on the Kosovo Government to take concrete actions that will produce concrete results and progress in fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria … It is time for clarity and formal advancement of EU-Kosovo relations without softening the EU criteria, rigor or conditionality.”