Interview of Head of EULEX with Albanian Post

25 June 2023

In his last interview as Head of EULEX, Lars-Gunnar Wigemark speaks about his work in Kosovo, while recounting the challenges he faced and the legacy he leaves behind.

You stayed in Kosovo for three years, could you please tell us about your experience, challenges, and achievements?

I really enjoyed living and working in Kosovo during the past three and a half years. I found warmth and hospitality among the local people I met both professionally and socially, And I never faced any hostility or threats. I wish more people could get to know Kosovo the way I have. Since I like hiking, I also had the opportunity to explore the beauty of Kosovo’s nature.

Leading EULEX is not an easy task. It is still the largest civilian mission under the Common Security and Defence Policy of the European Union despite reductions in the scope of its mandate and staff over the years. Still, the Mission’s mandate is spanning from monitoring of the judiciary, to missing persons and security. It was much more fascinating and stimulating work than I had expected. As Head of Mission, I had to steer EULEX through a series of complex challenges, starting with the confirmation of the indictment by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers of former President Thaci and other public figures, as well as several crises in northern Kosovo. Let’s also not forget that we all went through the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, EULEX was one of the few civilian Common Security and Defence Policy missions that remained operational. However, I believe I managed to weather the storms and deal with all crises by leveraging the operational and monitoring capabilities of the Mission in a transparent manner while developing close contacts with both the current government, the opposition, and representatives of the non-majority communities, in particular the Kosovo Serbs. As a result, EULEX played an important role in defusing tensions end of last year and is presently enjoying a more positive image and reputation both inside and outside Kosovo, as well as genuine acceptance by its local rule-of-law counterparts. Reflecting some of these achievements, the President of Kosovo recently honored me with the Presidential Medal for Rule of Law. I cannot think of a better way to conclude my service in Kosovo.

Mr Wigemark, you have also served in Bosnia and Herzegovina, could you tell us about the differences between Bosnia and Kosovo with regards to the problems that these two countries face?

Let me start with the similarities between Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, two countries close to my heart since I had the chance to work in both. Both Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina work hard to implement reforms and to strengthen their institutions with the support of a strong international presence, including the EU. In addition, both still face the legacy of the war – the thousands of victims whose quest for justice remains unanswered. And the issue of missing persons. It is not normal, nor acceptable for the families of missing persons both in Kosovo and in Bosnia and Herzegovina do not know the truth about the fate of their loved ones. Without addressing these two issues, reconciliation will suffer and there may be no durable peace in the Western Balkans.

Now, about the differences the political and legal challenges facing Bosnia and Herzegovina are in certain ways greater than the problems in Kosovo. At the same time, the fact that Kosovo is still not recognized by many, including five EU Member States, is a challenge not faced by BiH. The possibility to travel freely between both countries without visas should encourage citizens of both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo to meet and develop their relations at all levels. As multiethnic societies with young populations both countries have a lot in common and deserve a better future than the past.

During your time in Kosovo, the situation in the north has been constantly tense. To what extent has this been a challenge to EULEX as you have reported about the presence of groups of armed individuals belonging to parallel structures?

Yes, through the presence in northern Kosovo of members from EULEX’s Formed Police Unit and Reserve Formed Police Unit, as well as our Senior Police Advisors and other staff, we witnessed last year a significant and worrying armed presence at the barricades erected in northern Kosovo. We also saw attacks with hand or stun grenades and gunfire, which left several people injured and material damages. Let me be clear here: there cannot be impunity for the perpetrators of violence whoever they may be. The justice system should handle all such cases in a professional and impartial manner while respecting the fundamental rights of anyone accused or suspected of committing violent acts regardless of their ethnicity. And EULEX will be there to monitor how they are handled by the Kosovo institutions.

In addition to these concerns, criminality in northern Kosovo is also worrying. The rule-of-law institutions should continue to work hard so that criminal groups which operate there do not exploit the security vacuum created after the resignation of Kosovo Serb police officers. In doing so the Kosovo Police needs respect due process and work closely with the Kosovo judiciary to make sure that anyone who is suspected to have committed a serious crime is brought to justice in a manner that respects all legal procedures and requirements under Kosovo law.

The significant challenges in northern Kosovo are not faced only by EULEX. They are also faced by the Kosovo authorities, KFOR, as well as the local population whose everyday life has changed to the worse due to the tensions on the ground. Steps to defuse and de-escalate the situation are urgently needed in the interest of the security of Kosovo and the well-being of all its communities.

The elections in the north caused many incidents, with attacks on the police, journalists, and KFOR. Do you think such incidents could have been avoided?

In fact, the by-elections on 23 April took place without any major incidents. Serious violence – unacceptable violence I would underline, broke out at the end of May leaving many people injured, including citizens, journalists, police officers, and tens of KFOR soldiers. Despite concerted efforts by the international community, tensions on the ground remain high. We are witnessing incidents almost every day, heated rhetoric, and a volatile security situation in northern Kosovo, as well as a security and rule-of-law vacuum. The local population in northern Kosovo feels insecure, and their daily lives are disrupted. The current situation in northern Kosovo cannot become the new normal. There should be immediate de-escalation, new elections in the north should be held as soon as possible and with the participation of Kosovo Serbs. A long-term solution that can only be found through the EU-facilitated Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. This is paramount for Kosovo, for Serbia, for the region and for the EU.

What is the position of Kosovo compared to other countries of the region in the rule of law area, having in mind the many dissatisfactions with the work of prosecutors and judges?

Although I do not consider myself an expert on all Western Balkans countries, I believe that it if one reads the Commission reports, they give a clear picture about the functioning of the judiciary in the Western Balkans. It is true that the overall administration of justice in Kosovo continues to be slow and often inefficient. It is also true that the rule-of-law institutions need to be further strengthened. We would also like to see more progress in the investigation and prosecution of certain organised crime and high-level corruption cases.

However, we always need to keep in mind the starting point. It was only five years ago, not that long ago, that EULEX prosecutors and judges stopped prosecuting and adjudicating cases in Kosovo. The Kosovo authorities took over responsibility for investigating, prosecuting, and adjudicating cases at all levels in June 2018. For the first time in post-conflict Kosovo the local justice system no longer included international judges and prosecutors and was fully responsible for the handling of all cases, including very complex ones. This is not to say that everything is perfect. There is still lots of room for improvement. The areas where we would like to see improvements are mentioned in EULEX’s Justice Monitoring Reports, which include findings and recommendations for the Kosovo authorities aimed at addressing the identified shortcomings and at improving the justice system. I believe it is important that EULEX continues to work shoulder to shoulder with the Kosovo rule-of-law institutions because we share a common goal: to make the justice system accessible to everyone and trustworthy for the public.