Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs and Special Representative to the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar Interview with Reporteri, January 27, 2022
Is your official visit to Pristina confirmed on January 31 and February 1? If so, what will be the agenda for this visit? Who will you meet and what will be the key topics of discussion?
I will travel to Brussels, Pristina, and Belgrade from January 30 to February 4 and plan to be in Kosovo from January 31 to February 2. This will be my first trip to Kosovo in my new role as Special Representative to the Western Balkans, and I am very much looking forward to it. I will be traveling with EU Special Representative Miroslav Lacjak. In Pristina, we plan to meet with Kosovo’s political leaders to advance the EU-facilitated Dialogue. The U.S. goal is a comprehensive agreement that normalizes Serbia-Kosovo relations centered on mutual recognition.
After Pristina, will your visit continue in Belgrade or not? Will dialogue be the focus of your meetings? What exactly will you ask the officials in Pristina? And what about in Belgrade?
I will travel to Belgrade on February 2, delivering the same message to leaders in both capitals: prioritizing the EU-facilitated Dialogue is the best way for leaders to deliver for their citizens. The status quo is not working, as we can see by the continued exodus of young people who believe their future is elsewhere. I have hope that leaders in Serbia and Kosovo understand the importance of moving forward, not backward, through the EU-facilitated Dialogue toward comprehensive normalization of their relations, which remains essential for their respective EU paths.
And when it comes to dialogue, there are currently no high-level meetings between the parties. How do you assess the approach of the parties in this process?
Kosovo and Serbia are culturally European, historically European, and their economies are tied to Europe. Their citizens deserve to enjoy European values of rule of law, freedom, and respect for human rights.
We continue to call on both Kosovo and Serbia to fully implement the agreements and commitments they made in Brussels. Doing this will require flexibility, creativity, and, in some cases, compromise. Our expectation and hope are for lead negotiators and leaders in Belgrade and Pristina to engage with each other honestly, openly, and in the spirit of compromise.
Former chief negotiator of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, Robert Cooper, in an interview with local media last year stated that “the US in my time was not officially at the negotiating table, but they were there. I remember a case where the situation was tense between the parties, the meeting was interrupted, and they did not want the dialogue to continue. But after a call from the White House, I do not know what happened, but the parties returned to the table.” Will this role of America be restored in the current EU-mediated dialogue process?
The Dialogue is between two parties: Kosovo and Serbia. The EU is the logical actor to facilitate the dialogue, as Kosovo and Serbia’s future success is tied directly to Brussels and their respective future accessions into the EU. The United States, however, is a strong supporter and advocate for this EU-facilitated Dialogue and we are supporting the effort to achieve a comprehensive agreement on normalization, which President Biden has said should be “centered on mutual recognition.”
Is there an alternative to establishing an Association of Serb Majority Municipalities? Prime Minister Kurti has stated several times after taking a second term that “there will be no ethnic association”, implying the rejection of the agreement reached in Brussels, initially in 2013 and then in 2015.
We expect both Kosovo and Serbia to honor their prior commitments. The Government of Kosovo has made a commitment for the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities (ASM) to exist. The United States has not and will not dictate what this ASM should do or what its authorities should be; that’s a sovereign decision for the Government of Kosovo. There are workable models available including many that would allow for better local coordination without adding additional layers of government or executive power. We encourage the Government of Kosovo to carefully consider these models.
The US has stressed that the final agreement requires compromise from both sides. Prime Minister Kurti said that Kosovo has made many compromises with the Ahtisaari Pact. How do you see the possibility of reaching an agreement when the parties are firmly positioned in their positions?
Things can seem impossible until they are not. It is all about political will.
Let me make clear – no one is asking Kosovo to “compromise” its sovereignty or territorial integrity; those issues are firmly established. That said, it is important to conclude this negotiation on a comprehensive normalization agreement centered on mutual recognition. The young people of the Western Balkans region are leaving their countries to find jobs and opportunities elsewhere, and they are doing this for the simple reason that there are not enough opportunities for them at home. It’s time to give these young people an opportunity to use their energy and ingenuity to build their futures and prosper in their own countries. We encourage the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo to find proactive solutions that put their people first and with that in mind will cultivate European integration and economic prosperity.
And, referring to the time, do you believe that during 2022, this process started 10 years ago, will conclude with the final agreement?
While there is no deadline for success, we encourage Kosovo and Serbian leaders to engage urgently, creatively, and transparently in the EU-facilitated Dialogue. The status quo does not help the people of Kosovo or Serbia. It impedes both countries’ future economic progress, regional integration, and makes it extremely challenging to see another path forward where both countries are fully integrated into the EU and other Euro-Atlantic institutions.
During the Trump administration, the US had an open position that if the parties agreed on an agreement which could eventually include an exchange of territories, they would not be against it. What is the position of the Biden administration if the same topic is returned as an opportunity for a final agreement?
Any future agreement and its elements must be acceptable to both the people of Kosovo and the people of Serbia. The United States has never, and will never, impose any terms or parameters on either Kosovo or Serbia. Both Kosovo and Serbia are sovereign states.
And while we are in the north of Kosovo, the Government has recently refused to hold the referendum requested by Serbia in Kosovo. The public stance of the ruling party, Vetevendosje, is that the same will be done in the Serbian elections to be held in April. In the US position, should Kosovo stop Serb citizens from voting as they have done in the past, in a process organized by the OSCE?
Kosovo is a sovereign country. As such, it has every right to determine the terms under which other countries’ elections take place in its territory. However, we believe it’s important for residents of Kosovo that have the right to vote in Serbian elections to be able to do. We have supported past efforts by the OSCE not only to transport ballots, but also to directly facilitate the voting process and, in so doing, ensure appropriate conduct acceptable to the Government of Kosovo. The United States did not and does not consider this a threat to Kosovo’s sovereignty – which, I might add, is inviolable. We look forward to discussions with the Government of Kosovo on identifying solutions and arrangements that are acceptable to it while ensuring those eligible to vote are able to do so.
We have seen that the US has sanctioned politicians, businessmen and the media in the countries of the region. Can we expect that in Kosovo there will be sanctions for politicians, business and media?
As a standard practice, we do not preview sanctions actions. That being said, the United States does not sanction individuals or entities for their political views. Additionally, whether or not someone is or was a politician, businessperson, or journalist is irrelevant to whether or not they will be sanctioned. Individuals are sanctioned for criminal activity, not their professions. Recent sanctions have been targeted against actors who through their corrupt activities have destabilized local communities, eroded trust in local governments, and diminished regional prosperity.
Corruption is a blight – not only here in the Balkans but around the world. As President Biden has said, “corruption is a cancer: a cancer that eats away at a citizen’s faith in democracy, diminishes the instinct for innovation and creativity; already-tight national budgets, crowding out important national investments. It wastes the talent of entire generations. It scares away investments and jobs.” That is why we are committed to promoting accountability and combating impunity for those involved in significant corruption in the Western Balkans and throughout the world. The United States will continue to use all tools available, including sanctions, to punish malign and destabilizing actors and the organizations and businesses that support them.
Prime minister Kurti has said he will visit the United States, but that visit has not yet taken place. Is such a visit being prepared this year?
Kosovo remains a trusted partner and we look forward to strengthening our bilateral ties, but I don’t have any more specifics on potential future visits to offer at this time.
While in opposition, Albin Kurti made a statement that is famous in Kosovo. I am quoting: “I do not think that Albanians love Americans, nor America, but I think that Albanians have more anxiety that America will leave one day”. The possibility of withdrawing American troops from Kosovo has been rumored several times. Is there a possibility that the US at some point will surrender, withdraw from Kosovo, if the country’s leadership will not be willing to take the courage to find an agreement that would contribute to the conclusion of the problems in the Western Balkans?
The United States remains committed to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo and there are no current plans for troop withdrawal from Kosovo Force (KFOR). Ultimately, we view a comprehensive agreement on normalization centered on mutual recognition and eventual EU accession as the most effective long-term means to ensure regional security and prosperity.
The same Prime Minister has said that the September 4 Agreement does not apply to him and the Government he leads. Are those commitments still valid for America?
It is important for both Kosovo and Serbia to honor prior agreements and commitments. This includes implementing all prior Brussels agreements in order to advance the EU-facilitated Dialogue. The Washington commitments were agreed to by both Kosovo and Serbia, and, when implemented, can provide lasting economic benefits to citizens in both countries.
US Department of State Reports and Progress Reports estimate that Kosovo has a high level of corruption and organized crime. How do you see the work of the Kurti Government in fighting crime and corruption?
Fighting corruption is a top Biden administration priority. I know it is also a top priority for United States Ambassador Hovenier and his team here in Pristina and it’s one we clearly share with the Kurti Government. The United States will continue to work with the Kosovo Government, civil society partners, independent media, and citizens to support efforts to combat organized crime, root out corruption, and further strengthen independent rule of law institutions.
In the letter of the Secretary of State Blinken, it is requested from the Prime Minister Kurti that Kosovo should implement the court decisions, in particular those related to the rights of minorities. As far as we can understand, it is also about a decision of 2016, that the Constitutional Court of Kosovo has taken a decision in favor of the Monastery of Decan, where it has determined that 24 hectares of land belong to that monastery. Do you expect Kosovo to meet this White House request?
We’ve been very clear and consistent in our position: this case is about the rule of law—not ethnicity, politics, or religion. We continue to call on the Government to implement the 2016 Constitutional Court decision and register the land. The Kurti government was elected on a platform focused on strengthening the rule of law. Respecting court decisions is not a matter of choice, and it is certainly not a matter of negotiations, politicking, or deal-making.
At the end of last year, the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina was assessed as politically aggravated, but there were also warnings of its escalation into armed conflict, as the leaders of Republika Srpska announced the creation of an army of its own, which would lead to the breach of the Dayton Agreement. What is the way the US administration sees the solution to the problem in BiH?
Dayton has held the peace for 25 years in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the U.S. remains fully committed to BiH’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The United States will continue to press for a diplomatic solution to the current political crisis and a return of Bosnian Serb parties to state-level institutions. The fact is, corruption and current events in BiH are hurting all constituent peoples and preventing the full realization of a more robust and prosperous economy in BiH.
Instead of spending time dealing with corrupt officials, I would far prefer to have the U.S. investing our energy in raising awareness about the enormous talent and economic potential of BiH. I hope the leaders of BiH agree that focusing on the needs of their people is more important than scoring political points or pursuing self-enrichment and personal gain.
Inevitably we are interested to ask you about the latest situation created in Ukraine and its eventual connection with the situation in the Western Balkans. Is there a risk that a conflict there will interfere in the unresolved problems in our region?
We’ve consistently spoken of the two paths Russia can choose: dialogue and diplomacy or escalation and massive consequences. Over the past several weeks, you’ve seen us make genuine and sincere efforts to pursue a diplomatic solution. We made clear that this path provides the only durable solution to the security concerns of the United States, our Allies and partners, and Russia.
We have made clear that any dialogue must address our concerns about Russia’s actions, and take place in full coordination with our NATO Allies and European partners. All countries have the right to decide their own future and foreign policy free from outside intervention.
The decision of the Biden Administration to sanction the former leader of the Democratic Party, Sali Berisha, has made this party enter a deep crisis. Berisha is claiming the elimination of the current chairman, Lulzim Basha, and his return to the helm of the party. What would be the American position if the Albanian Democrats decide to follow this line?
President Biden has made it clear. Secretary Blinken has made it clear. The United States will hold people accountable for engaging in acts of significant corruption or in efforts to undermine democracy around the world and specifically in the Western Balkans. It is not normal and it is not acceptable to have someone designated for significant corruption to be the face of any party. And in that respect, we made very clear that if the Democratic Party or any party is led by someone, is represented by someone, who is designated by the Secretary of State for significant corruption, then you cannot expect a normal relationship.