Jeta Xharra, Pristina, BIRN, June 10, 202012:50

A ‘Le Monde’ journalist says Kosovo’s ambassador to France asked him to advocate territorial exchanges between Kosovo and Serbia – while a US academic says he came under similar prodding from Kosovo’s President.

A French journalist and an American academic have told BIRN that they were lobbied to write positively about “border corrections” and a potential land swap between Kosovo and Serbia.

Jean-Baptiste Chastand, the Central Europe correspondent for Le Monde, said Majorelle PR & Events contacted him to arrange a meeting with Qendrim Gashi, Kosovo’s ambassador to France, on September 19, 2018.

As BIRN previously revealed, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci contacted the French PR firm to promote “territorial modification” as part of a solution to the dispute between Serbia and its former province, whose independence in 2008 it does not recognise.

“Gashi came to Le Monde with a woman from Majorelle in order to talk about the territorial exchange,” Chastand told BIRN. “He [Gashi] was basically saying that [territorial exchange] is a good idea to bring about peace, but he wasn’t very specific as it wasn’t clear what territory we were talking about.”

Gashi was appointed ambassador to France by the PDK-LDK coalition government in 2016, in which current Kosovo President Thaci served as foreign minister.

Gashi told BIRN on 27 May that he got in touch with Majorelle, to “make contacts with journalists easier” and “categorically” denied that he had ever been involved in lobbying in favour of border changes. “The answer is simple, categorically: no,” he stated.

After his meeting with Gashi, Chastand said he wrote an article on the idea of territorial changes, but did not quote the ambassador, as he didn’t need to.

Other articles discussing territorial exchange continued to appear in the French media. In September 2018, Le Figaro published an article on the apparent readiness of President Thaci and President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia to exchange territories.

Isabelle Lasserre, the author, told BIRN that representatives of Majorelle helped to arrange her interview with Thaci, though she insisted that the PR company did not influence her article.

Majorelle’s “activity report”, submitted to the Kosovo government on October 21, 2018, meanwhile cited the publication of articles in French newspapers including Le Figaro and Le Journal du Dimanche.

“We have raised positive awareness on the Serbian-Kosovo dossier amongst French public decision makers through recent articles in mainstream media such as Le Figaro and Le Journal du Dimanche, both read by a large public,” the report, in English, said.

The report referred to Majorelle’s success in setting up meetings between senior French journalists and Ambassador Gashi.

“Numerous briefings between influent [sic] French journalists from established media (press and radio) and your Ambassador Qendrim Gashi have been set-up: Le Monde, Le Point, La Croix, AFP, France Inter,” the report added.

US academic asked to write favourably about land swap:

Meanwhile, David Phillips, Director of the Peace-building and Rights program at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, told BIRN that President Thaci asked him to prepare a paper endorsing land swaps in autumn 2018.

The Kosovo expert signed a contract with the Kosovo Foreign Ministry on February 28, 2018 that tasked him with providing “advice as requested by the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs … on issues concerning Kosovo and the region”.

Phillips told BIRN on June 7 he received two requests from Thaci while working for the ministry. The first, in autumn 2018, was “to prepare a paper arguing that the Special Court was illegitimate”, he said, adding: “I refused.”

[The so-called Specialist Chambers, set up in The Hague, were established to try Kosovo Albanian war crime suspects, and remain controversial and unpopular in the country.]

“He also asked me to prepare a paper endorsing the territorial swap,” Phillips added. “I don’t believe that partition is in Kosovo’s interest and I would never do anything that was not in Kosovo’s interest, so I refused,” he added.

Phillips also said that when he and his family visited Kosovo in March 2019, Thaci accused him of being “bought off”.

“He accused me of being corrupt. He asked, ‘Who paid you off to oppose my proposal to swap territories? I know you’ve been bought; where did the money come from?’”

“No amount of money could persuade me to violate my conscience,” Phillips added.

BIRN asked President Thaci to respond to these claims but did not receive a reply by the time of publication. BIRN has contacted Majorelle PR & Events but has as yet received no response.