BIRN has discovered that in 2019 the Ministry of European Integration paid 168,000 euros to a Paris-based company that promoted ‘territorial modification’ as a solution in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.
By Jeta Xharra
According to documents obtained by BIRN, the company was tasked among other things with shaping European opinion in favour of what is described as “Kosovo’s position” supporting “territorial modification” as a means to achieve a Kosovo-Serbia peace deal.
The contract with Majorelle was signed and negotiated in 2018 by Dhurata Hoxha, Kosovo’s Minister of European Integration from the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, in the PAN coalition government led by Ramush Haradinaj. This contract was extended in March 2019.
One of the few tangible outputs received in return for the 168,000 euros was a vague five-page report in broken English that the company addressed to Qendrim Gashi, Kosovo’s Ambassador to France, dated September 20, 2019.
The report states: “The reopening of peace discussions has been quickly focused on territorial border modification and has put on the table the debate/taboo on possible reconsideration of Balkans’ map.”
It noted that putting Balkan borders back on the negotiating table was “raising surprise, fear, worry on [sic] a renewal of Balkan war,” adding: “This issue has often been misunderstood and misperceived by French media and politics, seeing a possible reopening of Pandora’s box and a high risk of ‘domino effect’ in the region.”
The report made it clear that altering borders was the agenda being pursued by its Kosovo client – but that these attempts were not cutting through.
“Kosovo’s position, showing how territorial modification could, on the contrary, serve relations’ pacification and be a way to the resumption of dialogue with Serbia has been inaudible,” the report states.
The report concluded that despite US support and the diminishing of the taboo around the subject in Europe, the window of opportunity for reaching a Kosovo-Serbia deal based on border changes, which had some potential in 2018 and 2019, was closing.
According to Majorelle, this was due to “internal dissensions and oppositions against peace, the lack of support on both sides…”
PM seemed unaware of ministry’s agenda:
The notion of territorial exchange was raised by Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, who publicly indicated his support for the idea at the 2018 European Forum in Alpbach, Austria, while participating in a panel discussion with his counterparts from the Western Balkans.
Asked by the moderator if he was willing to give away Kosovo territory in return for a final settlement with Serbia, Thaci replied: “Yes, I am in favour of border correction.”
Haradinaj, prime minister of the bloated PAN coalition government, took issue with Thaci, stating his categorical opposition to border changes.
It seems that he may not have been aware that a PDK-run ministry in his own government was running a lobbying contract for “Kosovo’s position” in favour of a peace deal based on border changes.
Dhurata Hoxha, the minister that entered into the contract with Majorelle, was a former advisor to Thaci and a prominent member of PDK, the party that Thaci co-founded and led until he took office as President in April 2016.
Contacted by BIRN on Wednesday, Hoxha stated that the aim of the contract “was to lobby for visa liberalization, but I never looked at the reports that [Majorelle] sent. I don’t know what they reported; that was the job of the [ministry] secretary and the contract manager.”
Asked who the contract manager was, Hoxha replied: “There are so many contracts in that ministry, I don’t know who oversaw this one.”
A tale of two ministry secretaries
Judging from the correspondence that BIRN has seen, including three letters to two different secretaries, this was no ordinary contract.
Hoxha applied a great deal of pressure to sign the contract with Majorelle PR & Events specifically.
In a letter dated May 10, 2018, Hoxha asked Demush Shasha, then the General Secretary of the ministry, to start procedures to sign a single-source contract with Majorelle PR & Events, without entering into a public call as Kosovo’s Law on Public Procurement requires.
Hoxha argued that the contract needed to address three obstacles that Kosovo faced in European Integration: not being recognised by five EU member states (Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Spain and Slovakia); Serbia’s de-recognition campaign against Kosovo; and Russia’s continued undermining of Kosovo’s state-building agenda.
Shasha replied by asking Hoxha what circumstances could justify the ministry bypassing the public procurement process, and warned that entering into a contract in this way would violate “principles that ensure quality, transparency and competition”. In a letter dated May 29, 2018, Hoxha replied by saying: “The circumstances are extraordinary.”
“In my daily coordination with the President [Thaci], Prime Minister [Haradinaj], head of parliament [Kadri Veseli] and Minister of Foreign Affairs [Behgjet Pacolli], we have agreed that we must take urgent steps to lobby and communicate the Republic of Kosovo’s vital interest to decision makers in France and the European Union,” Hoxha responded.
Shasha told BIRN on Wednesday that discussions about the contract at the ministry began in 2017.
“I could see that Dhurata [Hoxha] was under pressure from someone to sign this contract, because she was insisting on signing it with this particular company,” he said.
Shasha added that he researched Majorelle PR & Events and did not discover any particularly famous names from the world of European diplomacy attached to the company. “It seemed suspicious to me, partly because the minister was asking me to sign this contract without following the public procurement law,” he said.
“As a secretary, it was up to me to put my signature on these contracts, and I wasn’t going to put my name on something that looked dodgy to me,” he added.
Shasha told BIRN that he wrote to the Anti-Corruption Agency to check whether the procedure was permissible. He said he also wrote to Safet Hoxha, head of the Public Procurement Regulatory Commission, PPRC, who is now a judge at the Constitutional Court.
“Safet Hoxha came to meet with the minister,” Shasha said. “They both invited me into the meeting, trying to convince me to sign this contract as there was ‘nothing wrong with it’, but I left this meeting unconvinced.”
Speaking to BIRN, Hoxha did not deny that this meeting took place and confirmed that letters were exchanged on this matter between the PPRC and Shasha.
Shasha told BIRN he refused to sign either the Majorelle contract or another contract he described as “dodgy” that involved the ministry paying large sums to rent a building. “I decided to resign from that post a month later,” he said.
A few months afterwards, Shasha was replaced as General Secretary at the ministry by Kushtrim Cukaj, the brother-in-law of Hajredin Kuci, a former PDK Justice Minister, and the brother of Fisnik Cukaj, who reportedly was a business partner of PDK-leader Veseli.
In May 2020, the government’s Disciplinary Commission for High Level Civil Service Posts dismissed Cukaj. The decision to sack Cukaj listed failure to exercise oversight of contracts signed by the ministry under Dhurata Hoxha as one of the former General Secretary’s breaches of duty.
The decision also stated that the contract signed with Majorelle had violated the Law on Public Procurement, that the provided services did not correspond to the services paid for, and that it was not clear how Majorelle had contributed to Kosovo’s EU integration.
Haki Abazi, the Deputy Prime Minister who headed the Disciplinary Commission that dismissed Cukaj, told BIRN that the former General Secretary’s irresponsibility “cannot be justified”.
“This high-level misconduct is a criminal act against the public interest,” Abazi said. “It is unfortunate that this has happened, and that the prosecution failed to protect the public interest. Officials and politicians have treated the state as its private property.”
Asked whether he was aware that Majorelle PR & Events promoted the idea of territorial adjustments, Cukaj told BIRN he was not in a position to comment as he had been dismissed from his job, a decision that he plans to appeal.
Dhurata Hoxha claimed that, “it is of course worrying if [Majorelle PR & Events] lobbied for border changes, but nobody notified me. Whoever managed this contract should have brought it to my attention because I wasn’t dealing with it.”
BIRN sent questions to PDK chief Veseli through party spokesperson Avni Bytyci, asking if he had been aware that a minister from his party had contracted a company to lobby for border corrections. Veseli was not available for comment.
Questions were sent also to Haradinaj, the prime minister at the time, through Lulzim Leci, media officer of his AAK party. Haradinaj was also not available for comment.
BIRN asked Qendrim Gashi, Kosovo’s ambassador to France, whether Majorelle PR & Events had indeed initiated articles in French newspapers that supported border changes in Kosovo, and whether the embassy in Paris had seen these articles or been witness to meetings that lobbied for this.
The embassy told BIRN that it should address these questions to the Ministry of European Integration, as the ministry had signed the contract. It “categorically” denied that the embassy in Paris had joined any lobby supporting border changes.
BIRN contacted Majorelle PR & Events but received no response by the time of publication.