Vlora Çitaku, Former Minister of European Integration, on Significance of EU and UN Membership for Kosovo and for Women
Vlora Çitaku is the newly appointed Consul General in NYC. At the time of this interview she had just resigned from her position as the Minister of European Integration in Kosovo. She previously served as Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, in a ministry established after Kosovo declared its independence. Ms. Çitaku helped establish the Ministry, created the first Diplomatic Corps of Kosovo, and has represented Kosovo in bilateral and multilateral settings, including in the UN Security Council. She has also served as a Member of Parliament in two legislatures as a member of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, which she joined in 1999 and previously served as spokesperson for. Prior to her political career, Ms. Citaku worked as a journalist and interpreter for several Western media outlets during the Kosovo crisis of 1998 – 1999.
A Kosova Press headline yesterday stated that you resigned as a member of PDK and as the Minister of European Integration. Can you comment on this?
I am moving to a new post, General Consul in New York. We don’t have an embassy there yet because we are not a UN member. But that’s going to be my job—to pursue Kosovo’s membership in the UN.
You once described political involvement as a way of life, of survival. Why did you get involved in politics?
When I was a teenager, politics was not a choice. I lived in a country that was occupied. I was less than ten years old when my parents were forced to leave their jobs, were fired because of their ethnicity and because they didn’t accept Milosevic’s rule. And I was no exception. Everyone in Kosovo, every single family, has gone through what my family has gone through. So, pursuing freedom and trying to build our own state was not really a choice. That was a way of survival and a way of resistance—a way of not giving up.
Now once you’re free and independent you realize that’s not enough. Independence and freedom are preconditions but they’re not enough. You want to make sure you are building a state, leaving a good legacy behind and that’s what I’ve tried to do.
You were once quoted saying, “it is almost impossible to forget even for a moment that I am a woman — I’ve been reminded of that every day since I became a minister.” Can you share what it’s like to be a woman in politics in Kosovo?
I don’t want to sound discouraging because we’ve had so many great women who have succeeded and who have paved the road ahead for me. That’s why I have this wall in my office with photos of very strong Albanian women, to remind me everyday. There were days when I was tired and I felt angry and frustrated. For the press, (and I don’t think we’re an exception in Kosovo), women are a very easy target. I was so angry once with one journalist because he portrayed me like a sexual object basically not like a politician which I am and I asked him why. And he said, ‘Vlora, you bring clicks on the web.’
The point is we have come a long way. We have a female president, we have 30 percent women in parliament, we have managed to elect our first female mayor. But this is not the real picture. The real picture is that women still have to struggle much more in order to get their own well deserved space in the public sphere. There are still way too many prejudices. People expect you to deliver twice as much in order to prove that you’re worth it. Additionally, I have never seen or very rarely see stories in the media about the way that men dress. Whereas our makeup is discussed every day in the press. Well, I’m not going to give up being a woman, I’m not going to grow a mustache. I am a woman and people have to accept this and I will make sure I look good because that’s how I feel. People have to start accepting that women are equal participants in the public sphere whether it be in politics, academia, or business. We’ve made progress but we’re still not there.
What do you think are the next steps to achieving women’s empowerment in Kosovo?
We have managed to adopt very good legislation when it comes to women’s empowerment in politics. We managed to adopt a national strategy for gender equality and we have clear steps ahead.
What we have achieved in these first years since our independence is to make sure that women are represented. We have 30 percent of the parliament. We have women in the government but this representation does not equal empowerment. We still do not have enough women in strong and important positions. When it comes to budget, to distributing the resources, women are not there. So we need a better agenda in budgeting and we have to make sure we empower women economically.
For example we have a very good law on inheritance but that law is not being implemented. Only 2 percent of Kosovo property is in women’s hands. Basically women renounce their inheritance from their parents and leave it to the brother or the husband and this leads to more problems because if you want to take a bank loan there’s nothing in your name. Also we need to focus on education. We are seeing more and more women in university and the latest figure shows that we have more female than male students, but we still have to make sure we have more economic empowerment because that will ultimately lead to more political empowerment.
You have spoken out in the past about violence against women and were recently part of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Can you speak to your efforts to address violence against women?
I’ve been very active in all the agendas to make sure that we raise our voice and those women have someone they can rely on. Domestic violence is a consequence, not the cause. As long as there is inequality, as long as women are not economically independent, as long as they don’t have a house and a job and a salary, there will be domestic violence. And not only that, but they will live with that violence because they will not have a place to go.
We are a champion in the region because we were the first to adopt the action plan for the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1315. We have also worked with NGOs and civil society to help create more safe houses and shelters for women who are victims. But again we are just dealing with the consequence, we need to address the problem—the real problem is political and economic inequality and this is where we need to focus our efforts.
In March I saw that legal rights were extended to wartime rape victims. What are your thoughts on this?
That was one of the things we have accomplished and I am very proud of it. I am very proud that together with the President we have been championing this issue for quite a while. It was not easy because we are talking about a category of women who were raped during the war but that never spoke for 15 years and it was very difficult to give them strength and confidence that something can be done.
Now more than legal and financial support, they need acceptance. They want acceptance from their families. They still live with shame and with stigma and we have to make sure they know that they have nothing to be ashamed of. It’s us who should be ashamed for not doing anything in the last 15 years. And this issue also created a lot of debate because lots of men were angry. ‘We were emasculated, our women were raped during the war and we could not use our strength as men to protect our women.’ So they thought that the best way out was to not talk about this. But the silence has been broken and we’re gradually addressing the problem. I’m so proud of it.
How significant is EU membership for Kosovo’s future?
It is going to be crucial for Kosovo, for its people, and especially for women. People sometimes fail to realize that European membership, the European integration process is not an external process. It’s an internal dynamic. It’s about building Europe here. It’s about establishing European values and principles here. So this journey ultimately will make Kosovo a better place to live.
The process is as important as the act of accession because it is throughout the process that you do reforms. And some of these reforms are quite unpopular, some require lots of effort. But as long as the ideal of joining the family is there, the engine keeps moving. Now of course for us it will be very challenging because we have five EU member states that still have not recognized our independence. So basically we have to be A-plus students to get a C-minus—we have to over perform to get the support and attention of the entire family. But I’m happy to see this process going in the right direction.
The European integration process for us has an added value. And that is the value of peace and stability for my family, for my parents, for my friends. Joining the EU means that no neighbor will ever again drive us from our homes. For us it means peace more than anything and certainty that we can move on.
Future President of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker reportedly stated in the European Parliament yesterday that no Western Balkan country will become a member of the EU in the next five years. What is your reaction?
That’s not a surprise. It’s a very long process. But as I said what’s important is that the engine keeps moving from point A to point B. Enlargement nowadays is not a very popular topic within the EU so championing for enlargement is not going to be very easy for the next commission. But I’m also very encouraged to see that the current commission highlighted the other day that Western Balkans will one day be joining the EU. Now whether that is in five years or ten years will not only depend on Brussels. It’s a two way track: We have to deliver on the reforms, they have to deliver on their promises.
Some hailed the 2013 Brussels Agreement as a landmark moment while others indicate that it undermines Kosovo’s status. What is your opinion?
The 19th of April agreement is truly historic for several reasons. It was the first mutually accepted agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. We’ve had negotiations before but they never led to an agreement. Also it was very important for Kosovo because it helped Kosovo in three very important layers. First it helped normalize the situation in the north. Now in the north we still don’t have full integration but for the first time in the north we had local and national elections in accordance with Kosovo law. For the first time in the north the border patrol and the customs function under Kosovo jurisdiction and under Kosovo law. So it helped us start the process of normalization within our country. Secondly, it helped us normalize the situation with our immediate neighbor, Serbia. We cannot change geography—blessed or doomed we will be living next to each other for the rest of history so we need to make sure that we have a normal relationship. So it helped us in that dimension. And third, it helped Kosovo normalize its relation with the EU because we didn’t have the stabilization process before the Brussels Agreement. And the visa dialogue was going very slowly.
So the agreement created very positive momentum in Brussels vis-à-vis Kosovo and it absolutely did not harm our international subjectivity. Quite the opposite. We’ve had recognition after the agreement. Kosovo has joined several international organizations as a full-fledged member after the agreement. Now of course agreements of that kind can never be universally consensual. There are people in Kosovo who do not like it. There are people in Serbia who will not like it. There are people in the international community who will not like it. But agreements of this kind require leadership. You have to know you are doing the right thing and you have to do it with the risk of not being applauded by everyone. I am quite confident that we made the right decision.
Given your experience with the international community, how do you envision the future of bilateral and multilateral relations for Kosovo?
While we can be proud of how much we have accomplished in terms of recognition and bilateral relations with members of the EU, the UN, and especially the U.S., we still have to do much more to strengthen our international subjectivity and put Kosovo on the map in the multilateral scene. Not being a member of the UN means that we cannot participate and Kosovo wants to participate. We want to be integrated and although progress has been made a lot more must be done.
Now we also have to be realistic. We have two UN Security Council members that have not recognized us—Russia and China strongly oppose our independence and personally I do not see that changing until we have recognition from Serbia. This will force us to make several choices: whether we should pursue another way of integration in to the global family or stand still and wait until Serbia recognizes us and then move on. These are difficult choices, but I think we need to move on. If Serbia recognizes us soon, all the better, but I don’t see that happening tomorrow. So we have to be very creative in order to integrate Kosovo in the multilateral sphere.
Feature Photo: cc/(Agon Syla)