Ambassador Hovenier’s Interview with Kushtrim Sadiku, Kanal 10

Ambassador Hovenier’s interview with Kushtrim Sadiku, Kanal 10, October 31, 2023

Kushtrim Sadiku (Kanal 10):
Your Excellency, dear Ambassador Jeff Hovenier, welcome to Channel 10. Welcome to Politico.

Ambassador Jeffrey Hovenier (JH): Thank you. Thank you very much.

Kanal 10: Ambassador Hovenier, how do you see and how do you assess the latest meeting in Brussels, between Kosovo’s Prime Minister Kurti and Serbian President Vucic, with the European trio?

JH: So, I think it’s important to see that meeting for what it is, which is an extraordinary opportunity, that the Chancellor of Germany, President of France, Prime Minister of Italy, together with the High Representative Borrell, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and others, sit down separately with each of them to talk through where things are and to seek to inspire progress in this process. I think that reflects the seriousness of the international community and of our European leadership, in particular, to put this process in a different place. And if you read their joint statement, because they issued a statement on the 27th of October, there are some really important things there. There are some important expressions of expectations, the expectation for the parties to deliver on their commitments to implement fully the agreement on the path to normalization.

They note that this should be done without preconditions, without delays. And they note that in particular, they look to Kosovo to move forward with its commitment to implement fully the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities. And as they say in their statement, they look to Serbia at the same time to, “deliver on de facto recognition”. That’s an important impetus, an important effort to move this process forward. Something the United States completely supports.

Kanal 10: The meeting provided something concretely for the process for the Dialogue?

JH: I think it did, it did not result in complete agreement between the two sides, as Miroslav Lajcak, and said later at – a I think it was a Facebook post, they couldn’t agree on modalities. But it did reach real achievements. I brought a copy of the statement. I’m sure you’ve seen it. There’s a couple of things really important worth highlighting and what they had to say that, first of all they took note of comments by both sides about the Association for Serb-majority Municipalities draft statute. And they welcomed, I think, the readiness to implement expressed by both sides. It was an opportunity for these leaders to reinforce their expectations. So, there’s some important expectations that were reinforced for the parties to deliver on their commitments to implement fully the agreement, that both parties should deliver on their respective obligations in parallel.

Kanal 10: Mr. Ambassador Hovenier, Prime Minister Kurti insists on the signing of the agreement, which President Vucic would not sign. On the other hand, the President of Serbia opposes the recognition of Kosovo’s territorial integrity and eventual membership in the United Nations. How do you see these two positions?

JH: So, I think that’s a really important point you’ve raised. And I think, again, if you look at the leaders’ statement, they speak to this a little bit as well. They laid out their expectations for both Kosovo and Serbia, that they deliver on their commitments to implement fully the Agreement on the Path to Normalization. And they note in it that they want to see this done “…without preconditions, or delays”.

Later on in their statement, they talk about the fact that formalities, including related to adoption, should not stand in the way of progress on achieving this full and complete implementation of the Agreement and its Implementing Annex by both sides. So, from our perspective, while we acknowledge the interest of Prime Minister Kurti in achieving a signature, we think that’s much less relevant than the actual importance of moving forward full and complete implementation of all the obligations of the Agreement by both sides. I could give you lists of other agreements that weren’t necessarily signed, but that are legally binding, including in the Dialogue process, and I will restate that the United States and the European Union do believe the Basic Agreement and the implementing annex to be legally binding.

The European Council, I think, adopted it in its conclusions. The European Union announced that they’re going to build into the EU accession protocols for Serbia and the Stabilization and Association Agreement for Kosovo, their obligations. So, there should be no question about whether these obligations are firm and binding, and we think it’s more important to be focused less on the manner in which it is adopted and more on the obligations reached.

Since you raise some of the issues that Serbia has raised, in particular this question of Kosovo’s territorial integrity, and ultimate membership in the United Nations. Let me be clear about the position of the United States of America. We acknowledge Kosovo’s territorial integrity, and we have made real commitments to support and protect and defend that territory integrity. There is a NATO mission in Kosovo of over 4,500 soldiers who have a job to do, including the protection, of what the boundary between Kosovo and Serbia, what I will call a border, that includes substantial hundreds of American soldiers who are here committed to protecting, to this mission of a safe and secure environment, a freedom of movement that includes respect for the boundaries, the borders of Kosovo.

With regard to eventual membership in the United Nations, the United States view is very clear. We support Kosovo’s trajectory towards the European and Euro Atlantic structures. We support Kosovo’s ultimate membership in the family of nations, we support that from the beginning, that continues to be a priority goal for us. Ultimately, this normalization process from our perspective has to end with mutual recognition, as the only way forward in the long term.

We see this process right now towards normalization of relations as an interim step in this longer term process. So, when leaders of Germany, France and Italy say move forward with full implementation of all of your obligations, without preconditions, I see that – we see that as a response to your question. And the preconditions would include the signature, and they would also include trying to exclude commitments made. We look to Serbia and to Kosovo to implement fully all of their obligations under the Agreement.

Kanal 10: And the concrete question is why not now, recognizing each other, Kosovo and Serbia, for making a big step or big deal between the two countries?

JH: I can’t speak to why not now. I can say that at this moment in time, we believe the President Serbia when he says he’s not prepared to do that. And when we made this decision to advance this process, to advance normalization of relations now, we did so because we believed it was strongly in the interest of both countries to do so; to take this interim step to reposition their relationship, that this would be good for Kosovo in advancing its European and Euro-Atlantic prospects. This would be good for Serbia in advancing its prospects, and it would be good for regional stability. But it doesn’t mean the work is done.

Kanal 10: The European Union and the five emissaries have completed a new – so called modern European proposal, about the statute of the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities. How do you see the proposal, and can you describe it to us if it aligns with Kosovo’s constitution?

JH: So first, again, I think in the recent statement by the President of France, Chancellor of Germany and Prime Minister of Italy, they described the draft statute which they know that they fully endorse, and I will add the United States fully endorses, as a “modern European way to address the sensitive issue of minority protection in line with best European practices and standards within the parameters defined by the parties”. We agree with that, and what we mean by that is we do believe that this draft statute responds to a couple of different requirements.

There is a commitment, a binding obligation on Kosovo to move forward with establishment of Association of Serb-majority Municipalities. But we also understand and accept that that Association of Serb-majority Municipalities needs to be constrained in certain ways. I’ve talked a lot in other media interviews, as have other U.S. officials, that it needs to conform to Kosovo’s current constitution, and needs to conform with the extant constitutional court decision and needs to conform with the Mogherini letter –  that says no executive authorities. It needs to conform from our perspective with an op ed in a position we laid out – the U.S. – by Derek Chollet, the Counselor of the State Department, and Gabriel Escobar, our Special Envoy, that laid out our vision for this thing. Well, this draft statute does that. It allows Kosovo to move forward, a response to legitimate concerns by the ethnic Serb community in Kosovo, to be able to better exercise the rights they have under Kosovo’s Constitution and under Ahtisaari. Last point of; does it conform with the Constitution? We believe it does. We believe it does strongly. But I will also note that we also accept, and one of the elements of it is the ultimate body to determine the constitutionality of anything that goes through, is Kosovo’s own Constitutional Court. And the draft statute has modalities in it to ensure the Constitutional Court is able to pass that judgment as well.

Kanal 10: How do you see the political stance from the many political figures, which are part of the government or the parliament that compare the association with a second Republica Srpska? And how do you see the readiness of the government towards this obligation – this international obligation to us?

JH: Well, again, we take seriously the concern that if done in the wrong way, an Association of Serb-majority Municipalities could have a role, or could play a role, that would affect the good functioning of the Kosovan state. I’m on record many times saying the thing we do not want is another Republic of Srpska like entity in Kosovo. We believe this draft statute avoids that. We believe it conforms with Kosovo’s Constitution, it does allow the Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo to work together in the exercise of the responsibilities and authorities they have, but in a manner that respects Kosovo’s current constitution. So that’s my answer to those who raise this concern. We agree with a concern, but we believe that those concerns have been addressed in this draft legislation.

Kanal 10: Mr. Ambassador, is there any timeframe for Prime Minister Kurti and President Vucic to deliver on the new so-called modern European plan? And what are the consequences for both leaders if they don’t deliver maybe?

JH: Well, if you read again this statement by the three European leaders, it uses such words as; urgent, quickly, swiftly, rapid progress, without delay, without precondition or delay. So, there’s an urgency here, and we agree with that. We think the longer there is a delay in implementing what is a good agreement, the Basic Agreement and the Ohrid Implementation Annex is a good agreement. There isn’t a lot to negotiate with regard to actual commitments to one another, there’s a lot to be done to implement it. But the longer there’s a delay in implementation, the more fragile the situation is. And so, we’re not interested in fragility. We’re not interested in destabilization. We’re not interested in Kosovo and Serbia being a source of instability and problem in the region. And rather, we would like to see them be examples of what can be achieved when difficult issues are addressed in responsible ways. So, there’s an urgency to it.

Kanal 10: Sorry Mr. Ambassador, are we talking weeks, months? Years? And are we talking realistically, because Serbia wants to go in early elections? That is a new situation, new political situation here?

JH: Well, with respect to new elections in Serbia, which I understand are likely going to take place in December, that doesn’t change any of Serbia’s obligations under the Basic Agreement. And they shouldn’t. Just like Kosovo has commitments it’s made that it needs to implement, regardless what’s happening politically right now. I hope we’re not talking months or years, I hope we’re talking more rapidly – be able to move forward with the full and complete implementation by both sides of all of their obligations, and as I said; without preconditions and without delays. That is what the European leaders have asked for and the United States supports that.

Since you asked about consequences. Let me just say that there are enormous opportunities available to Kosovo, if it moves forward. Its path to Europe is opened. It’s a better climate for investors. It’s better opportunities for us to advance Kosovo moving forward towards its trajectory, towards NATO, towards the European Union, towards other organizations.

A failure to implement fully, on Kosovo’s side – its obligations, is a lost opportunity. I would say the same for Serbia.

Kanal 10: Mr. Ambassador, many individuals here in Kosovo, including President Osmani have called for more direct U.S. involvement in the process of the dialogue. Is the United States willing to change something regarding this process, which is started in for 13 years now?

JH: 2011. I was working at the White House at the time on Kosovo and Serbia, among other things. I remember the beginning of the Dialogue well. And that’s the point I would make is; we have adjusted our approach and our engagement in the way in which we’ve cooperated with the European Union on this – and with the parties – several times over the course of the life of the dialogue. But a couple things are fundamental that haven’t changed and won’t change. We are committed to seeing Kosovo take its place in European and Euro-Atlantic structures. We are committed to supporting Kosovo as a sovereign, democratic and multi-ethnic state, playing its role, becoming an aspirant for the European Union, moving towards NATO membership and ultimately, having a regularized relationship with all of its neighbors, including Serbia.

That has always been our strategic goal. And that’s what we’ve tried to advance in the Dialogue. At different times, the Dialogue has focused on different things at different times we played a more supporting role or a more active role. I think right now it’d be difficult for us to be more active than we are. We coordinate extremely closely with Miroslav Lajcak and his team, with Joseph Borrell. You saw the visit by the National Security Advisors of Germany, France and Italy and Miroslav Lajcak, joined by our Special Envoy, Gabriel Escobar, who has been in many of these rounds of meetings and things – I spend a lot of my own time engaging directly with the government of Kosovo, with the Prime Minister, President and others on Dialogue issues.

I think it’d be hard for the United States to be more actively involved than we actually are right now, with one possible exception. And this can sometimes be asked in different ways; why don’t we take over the negotiations?

Kanal 10: That is the will of many people here in Pristina.

JH: It might be, but it’s not the will of the United States or the European Union. And that’s not because we don’t care about the issue, but because we don’t think it would work.

At the end of the day, the outcome of this process is Kosovo integrated into European and Euro-Atlantic structures. It needs to be an EU-led process that makes sure that all of the adjustments and reforms and processes conform to European standards. Your destiny is as part of the European Union, not as the 51st state of the United States of America.

Therefore, it is appropriate the European Union take the lead, but with extraordinarily strong support from us, and that continues to be the case. One last point I’d make on this. If we were the facilitators or the negotiators, we would probably have to be neutral. Well, we’re not neutral.

We made the decision back in 2008. We support Kosovo as a democratic, sovereign, independent state. I sometimes compare as part of this process to watching a football match, where you can already see the final score on the scoreboard. I know how the game ends, I know how this will ultimately… I can’t tell you how we’re going to get through the 45 minutes of the second half and exactly who’s going to play what position and score what goal, but I know how it ends:

Kosovo taking its place, being a member of the European Union, being a member of NATO, that’s our long-term strategic goal. And so, we’re not neutral on this, we haven’t been. We strongly encourage this government now to work with us and the European Union to implement fully the obligations it’s entered into under the basic agreement, the implementation annex, just as we have this conversation with Serbia to advance this vision.

Kanal 10: Mr. Ambassador, we saw big disbelief from Prime Minister Kurti towards Mr. Miroslav Lajcak, the official mediator towards the Dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, how do you see those comments from Kurti towards Mr. Lajcak?

JH: You know, I’ve been asked about this before, and I think I will let my previous remarks stand which is just simply that the United States has full confidence and Miroslav Lajcak as the Special Representative for the Serbia, Kosovo normalization, and we support him.

Kanal 10: Kurti thinks that Lajcak is supporting Serbia.

JH: I’m aware of what he has said I can just repeat that he enjoys our full support.

Kanal 10: Mr. Ambassador, if mediation by the European Union, potentially fails, do you see a possibility for organizing international conference, similar to data in a forum that could open new and old ideas may be like land swaps, or border changes?

JH: So let me address the second part of that question. First, you know, the question of land swaps and possible border changes. And my understanding is, this would only work if there were popular support on both sides for it. I do not believe that to be the case. I do not believe – it’s my understanding there’s not support in both populations for such a thing. And so I think it’s off the table, and certainly for my government it’s off the table.

More broadly with regard to, you know, the hypothetical question. Yeah. I don’t know that. It’s, I mean, I tend not to answer hypothetical questions. But I would say that, I don’t know that we’re at a place where we would need something like that we have a very good agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. If you read the basic agreement and the Ohrid implementation annex, there’s an awful lot of very good commitments made, that’s the sort of thing you would normally work on in a Dayton-like setting. We don’t need to work on reaching principles of what needs to be agreed; we have a very good agreement.

We need to work on something different, and that is both sides finding the political will to do the very hard work of implementation. And that’s a different thing.

So, we will continue working on that. I can only say again, the view the United States, but also the view as I understand it from Chancellor Schultz and President Macron and Prime Minister Meloni and other friends of Kosovo to encourage this government to take this moment in time and this opportunity represented by their engagement to implement fully all their obligations. For Kosovo, that does mean moving forward now, with this draft statute establishing the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities. And as the European leader says, for Serbia, that means delivering on the de-facto recognition that is also is part of this package of commitments to

Kanal 10: Do you see readiness from Prime Minister Kurti to move towards the implementation of the agreement and maybe Association?

JH: You know, I’m going to let the Prime Minister speak for himself, but I do note that he was prepared in Brussels to agree to this draft statute under certain conditions. I see that as a positive sign.

Kanal 10: Last question. Mr. Ambassador, on the 24th of September in the monastery of Bajnska, a terroristic group with people related to Serbian President and political structures like Milan Radojcic and Bojan Mihajlovic committed a terroristic attack killing one Kosovo Police Officer. Do you think that Serbia should face consequences of these acts and should Milan Radojcic be extradited to face a justice hearing in Kosovo?

JH: So you know, what happened on the 24th of September was both a tragedy and a crime. And I’ve said a number of times,  but I will say that, again, our deepest condolences to the people of Kosovo, and especially to the Bunjaku family, for the loss they suffered. It was terrible.

And my government, I’m on record, a number of U.S. government officials are on record, expressing our deep concern about what happened, condemning what happened, and making clear that those responsible should be held and must be held accountable for it. The U.S. government is finishing its assessment of responsibility. We’re not quite there yet. But I’ll repeat what we’ve said before those who are responsible for this criminal act for the murder of a police officer for threatening the security and stability of Kosovo need to be held accountable. And we will work with our Kosovo and international partners and others to ensure that that happens.

Kanal 10: And Milian Radojcic, should he be extradited in Kosovo?

JH: So on that, let me quote what my colleague Robert Wood said at the Security Council during the recent Security Council meeting on this, this is the U.S. Government position. It hasn’t changed. quote, “there must be full accountability in accordance with rule of law, without rule of law for perpetrators of the attack. This includes serving as responsibility to investigate arrest, extradite or prosecute, as appropriate, any suspects who may have fled to Serbia.” That remains my government’s position?

Kanal 10: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for your time and this interview here in Politico and Kanal10.

JH: Thank you very much.