Why Kosovo and the Balkans found relief in Austria’s election result

As president of the tiny Republic of Kosovo in the Western Balkans, Hashim Thaçi is the first one to admit to being very relieved by the results of the presidential elections in Austria.

Hashim Thaçi is president of the Republic of Kosovo.

I have sent my congratulations to President-elect Alexander Van Der Bellen and I look forward to working with him on the issues that unite our region with Vienna – the old capital of the Habsburg Empire – that has played a crucial role in our history, culture – even our architecture.

The choice of the president was a completely Austrian affair and it would have been inappropriate for any of us in the Balkans to have spoken in favour of either candidate during the campaign.

However, the election was vitally important for us in Kosovo and the wider region.

Like his far-right counterparts in France and Germany, Norbert Hofer attacked the foreign policy of the Austrian establishment that recognised the sovereignty and independence of Kosovo. He also publicly stated that “it would be wrong to admit Kosovo to international organisations, as it would only cause problems”.

This is the sort of argument we are used to hearing from Putin’s Moscow, but not from a country with such a long history of supporting the self-determination of the former Yugoslav republics who won their freedom from Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević.

Austria became a beacon of hope when she opened the doors of her universities for our students after Serbia banned Albanian language teaching in occupied Kosovo in early 1990s. I, personally, will never forget the homages to democracy and human rights uttered by politicians such as Alois Mock and Otto Von Habsburg when I was a student.

This is why we in Kosovo were so shocked that a politician could climb to within touching distance of their national presidency on a platform that dismissed decades of established, progressive policies that have helped the Balkans overcome hate and nationalism.

Hofer’s platform, like other far-right movements in Europe is based on the Huntingtonian concept of the clash of civilizations and on promoting the theory that Islam is incompatible with Europe. For us in Kosovo, Albania or Bosnia, with large strata of our societies belonging to the Muslim faith, this effectively excludes us from feeling part of the continent where we have lived for centuries, indeed millennia.

Besides, Kosovo is not Muslim: our society is secular and civic.

Kosovo became the first Balkan country to elect a woman president in 2011 and is the only Balkan country to have recognised the LGBTI community in its constitution. I led the LGBTI Pride Parade in Kosovo last month to mark our support for this community precisely to show our citizens and the wider world that extremism and prejudice has no place in our midst.

Neither are we a safe haven for extremists. Our security services have made 110 arrests and secured 67 indictments and 26 convictions against ISIS supporters in our country. US Secretary of State John Kerry noted in a recent visit to Kosovo that Kosovars are the regional leaders in combating violent extremism.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also recognised Kosovo’s active role in promotion of interfaith dialogue in a 2013 report. The European Union also took note of the quickened pace of our reforms and granted us the first pre-accession treaty, the Stabilisation and Association Agreement.

The visceral Eurosceptic sentiment being propagated by Hofer and the far-right is profoundly dangerous for all Balkan nations.

It was precisely the gravitational pull of Brussels that managed to bring peace and stability in our region. Without the prospect of joining the EU as a family of common values and shared interests, our region’s politics risks descending into a void that can be filled by the extremists in our own midst.

According to the polls, more than 95% of Kosovars desire membership in the EU and NATO.

As a step towards this goal, the European Commission has now formally recommended visa liberalisation and free movement of our citizens within the Schengen zone, in line with the rest of the Balkans.

Visa liberalisation has been hard earned after making difficult domestic reforms, but it is clear that some politicians in Europe are tapping into the current mood of public discontent about migration and are using Kosovo and the Balkans as a scapegoat.

As we celebrate the narrow victory for Austria’s progressive forces, one thing is for sure. Balkan leaders must work harder in strengthening the rule of law and stamping out illegal immigration and violent extremism to provide an increased sense of security and reassurance for the sceptics across Europe.

We must be – as the saying goes – “more Catholic than the Pope” in order to convince the naysayers that the European dream, the European path, is our only chance, the best contract we can sign to guarantee our future.