Ambassador Kosnett’s Interview with KoSsev Portal, December 28, 2019
KOSSEV: Kosovo President, Hasim Tachi’s advisor, Bekim Colak, said that the US and the EU expressed dissatisfaction over a 100 percent tariff and announced a proposal on the readiness to temporarily suspend this measure, in the spirit of continuing the dialogue, and this is the first change in relation to what we had so far from the Kosovo side in connection with this customs tariff. What’s your view on this?
AMB: I will say, my government thinks it would be a positive step if the government of Kosovo were to suspend tariffs at this point, as a means of creating momentum, of getting the dialogue process moving forward. Frankly I think that both the government in Pristina and the government in Belgrade have taken some steps in the past to show how tough they are, to show that they have leverage to use against the other side, and what I’m more interested in now is seeing what steps the two sides can take to show how committed they are to the Dialogue process and to moving forward.
KOSSEV: Can I just ask a follow up in terms of this custom taxes. If you freed the entire topic from political context, just imagine it’s not Serbia or Kosovo, does it have any sense to you from the economic perspective? Is that something that you’re used to seeing could take place if you just deliberate from the political context? Or to rephrase, once you hear that someone imposed a 100% tax, does it immediately imply a political context, or it can only be analyzed from the political point of view?
AMB: I think that the tariff clearly has both economic and political, diplomatic implications.
KOSSEV: You’re for the first time in the north of Kosovo?
AMB: That’s right. I had served at the U.S. office in Pristina 15 years ago, only for a short time, about six months, and I never had the opportunity to come north at that time.
KOSSEV: And you clearly saw kind of different reality for this short period of time, at least in terms of this so called war of flags from the south into the north. Is that something unusual to you, or have you noticed that from the car? That you saw, for instance the U.S. flags in the south, and then you see here, Serbian and Russian flags?
AMB: Well I think I have to spend more time in the north before I start drawing those sorts of conclusions. And this is my first visit, it certainly won’t be my last. I’m not just checking a box to say okay, I’ve been to the north, I’m done. I hope to build relationships, build real friendships here. My wife and I look forward to traveling to every corner of Kosovo, not just to enjoy the cultural sites, but to really get to know people and to listen to their voices, because I think that as a foreigner, as a foreign diplomat, it’s important for me to listen to lots of voices and understand people’s voices on the past, the present, and their hopes for the future.
KOSSEV: May I ask you about the agenda of your day today here in Mitrovica? Have you talked to people, to the representatives? To whom did you meet? Is that okay to ask?
AMB: Sure. We had a pretty short program because, again, I’m not a visitor from Washington. I hope to be back many times. We met with some representatives of non-governmental organizations, really to get their views as residents of northern Kosovo, people who are deeply engaged in the effort to improve the status of people here, and just for their views on politics, on the daily lives of people, and how Kosovo can move forward as a multi-ethnic, multicultural, religiously diverse country. Then we visited the basic court, we met with judges there. The United States government has been able to provide some assistance to the court and to other institutions here to help them move forward. And you’re my last stop today.
KOSSEV: Thank you. Did you meet with so far until your arrival with Serbian political representatives in Kosovo institutions?
AMB: I’ve met in Pristina with some representatives of non-governmental organizations and also people who are in the Assembly.
KOSSEV: Srpska List, the political representatives?
AMB: Not yet, I’m looking forward to that.
KOSSEV: Sir, you arrived in the midst of the whole wave of latest tensions. Let me just remind a couple of them. Kosovo made several very decisive attempts recently throughout November and December that were perceived by the Serbian government, that’s how Belgrade interpreted them, as very aggressive move. The second thing that actually has been lasting quite for a while is the idea of the two presidents that has been interpreted, of the idea that as Mr. Thaci puts it, a correctional border, and Mr. Vucic presented as a delimitation. But both of these rhetorics by the great portion of public, both in Kosovo and in Serbia, and by quite a significant percent of international community, have been perceived as an act of partition, with the alert on very bitter experience that we had throughout 90s. So that part, quite a significant portion of public do not support the idea of the two presidents. Then we had also the third point, which is that the relationship between the two governments in Pristina and in Belgrade, and also the Dialogue between the two delegations has never been since the beginning of the Brussels Dialogue to the lowest level as it is while we are speaking. All of those, with a series of incidents also on the ground. But on the other hand, what we’ve seen from the U.S. position is this kind of strong boost to the Dialogue and optimism. And we’ve recently seen some of your statements, including also the statements of the other State Department U.S. officials such as Mr. Bolton. So my question to you is, where do you find this kind of optimism? When we have one situation on the ground, and on the other side, optimism expressed from the U.S. position on the resumption of Dialogue. So what are the indicators to you to show that the Dialogue might continue soon, and my second question, sorry, in terms that we reach this kind of final legally binding agreement, will that agreement be the synonym for a lasting peace in the region?
AMB: That’s a lot of questions
KOSSEV: Sorry, two questions.
AMB: That’s about nine questions. But let’s unpack that. Let’s break that up into pieces. So, first of all, the United States government, the Trump administration, is deeply committed to helping our friends in Kosovo, and in Serbia, to find a lasting, sustainable, mutually beneficial agreement that will be to the benefit of both countries and strengthen both countries’ connections to the west and to the United States. That is one reason for optimism. I have not seen the United States demonstrate this commitment, this level of energy and prestige to this issue. I have to see the Trump administration looks at what we call frozen conflicts around the world, and says we need to shake things up. We need to make progress now. So I think that both in Serbia and in Kosovo, President Trump’s commitment has been well received. I would add however that we’re not going to see progress without the active involvement of the European Union and other European partners. It’s true that many people in Kosovo have a deep connection with the United States. The United States has a special relation with Kosovo. We all know our history. But Kosovo is a European country. It’s in Europe. Its neighbors are not going anywhere. Kosovo has to build those relationships with Serbia, with other neighboring states. So, when you ask me what reason do I see for optimism, I think that there is strong support in the international community for progress now. I think 2019 has to be the year for a comprehensive agreement. If the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo doesn’t get better, it’s going to get worse. There is really no option to maintain the status quo. And I think that it is clear to me that a growing number of voices are participating in this process on the Kosovo side. We’ve seen with the creation of the state delegation a much broader representation, including by some elements of the political opposition, to the process. And my government firmly believes this is a moment for national unity. This is a moment when all political parties should participate in this process. That the voices of all communities, including the voices of Serb citizens of Kosovo, must be heard. This is not a time to sit on the sidelines and criticize. This is a time to get involved. Now, that’s a slow, complicated process, but I think it is important as the negotiations resume with Belgrade, that everybody understand – people of Kosovo understand, and also people in Serbia – that the negotiators are speaking with one voice for a unified country. And, I believe that 2019 is the year that we will see a comprehensive agreement. Now, to your point about borders, border adjustments, land swap and all that, it has consistently been the policy of the United States that we do not have a preferred outcome. We are not trying to write the script of what an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia should look like. We repeat that, not everybody necessarily accepts that explanation when we say it, but it’s really true. If the governments, the people of the two countries, can reach an agreement on the economic, political, security, educational, cultural, legal issues that have divided them, that’s wonderful, and we will see what that looks like at the end, because it is in the interest of the United States to see peace, prosperity, and justice in Kosovo, in Serbia, and all the countries of the region.
KOSSEV: Your view would be very much shared by many sides. Now to translate that into real politics. How real this is, knowing that there is a huge split between the Kosovo political actors, A. Role of Kosovo Serbs is deeply analyzed by pretty much both of the political centers. Third there is a very huge dissatisfaction strongly felt in the region, in Belgrade, in Pristina amongst the Kosovo-Serbian community against what has been strongly seen by the two presidents have been talking about, which is this kind of ethnic partition. And C, finally, it’s a very strong perception within the local and regional public that the two presidents are really lacking huge support. Or maybe to put in a very simple way, there are so far two views perceived: one is the kind of German stance that has been felt that, as you say, 2019 could be the year of the agreement, but the Dialogue could resume, or they’re willing to restart the Dialogue as of September. Not because they want, due to the analysis of the situation on the ground. We have this election within the EU, and they are pretty much dissatisfied with the team in Brussels, specifically with Mrs. Mogherini, or the U.S. position to push as soon as possible to reach a deal, which is early in the year.
AMB: Well, I don’t think there’s that much difference between the European approach and the American approach. We want this process to move forward as quickly as possible, but we recognize it takes time. As I said earlier, if the Kosovo side is going to have negotiating positions that reflect a multitude of voices, of political opinion, that is going to fully account for the needs and the concerns of minority communities, that’s going to take some time. But the time to start is today. In fact, the time to start is yesterday. And that has already begun. And I think the fact that there is now a state delegation is a big change from where we were a short time ago. And I have met with President Thaci, Prime Minister Haradinaj, Speaker Veseli, representatives of other parties, and I will continue to do so. And they all seem to recognize that for this process to succeed there needs to be broad support. There also has to be good communication with the public, so that the public understands the process and so the government can address concerns and anxieties that might come up. None of this is easy, Tanja. If it was easy this process would have resulted in an agreement many years ago. But Kosovo is now in its second decade of independence, and I think we have seen that Kosovo is capable of acting as an independent, sovereign state. Its institutions are maturing, its political system is a vibrant one. You know, the media certainly is diverse and vibrant. Democracy is a messy process sometimes. It takes time. But it really speaks to Kosovo’s strengths that there is so much disagreement, and sometimes rather energetic disagreement about the way forward here. I do believe that both the government of Kosovo as a whole and the government of Serbia are serious about this process and want to move forward now.
KOSSEV: Sorry, once again, you’re right. There’s this kind of delegation for the negotiation. But just to remind you that Mr. Thaci delivered a speech in a half empty, or a half crowded Parliament, so even there, there was a problem. What would be to you personally a bigger surprise, that the talks are resumed within the first months of 2019, or the talks resume in early, in the fall of 2019. Personally, what would be a bigger surprise?
AMB: I am optimistic that the process is going to resume sooner rather than later in 2019. We’ll see what happens. And again, this is an ongoing process of coordination and discussion and debate among Kosovo’s political parties, and also again civil society voices, the voices of the public need to be heard as well, and I think that’s going on. My government as well as other foreign governments are committed to doing everything we can to support this process, but it’s the citizens of Kosovo and their leaders who need to own it, just like it’s the citizens of Serbia and the government of Serbia that have to own it on the other side.
KOSSEV: I’ll ask you maybe to me it’s the most serious questions. Imagine that Mr. Thaci and Mr. Vucic reach a deal even in the first few months of 2019, it is strongly welcomed by the U.S., probably by the EU. It’s a final binding agreement whatever the outcome is as you say as long as two presidents agree on that. Presumably if it’s the idea of any kind of ethnic delimitation or land swap, whatever but its ethnic partition, there are many voices fearing it will not be the … to the lasting peace, but it will provoke the deepening of the crisis throughout the region. Will the U.S. have a plan B to reach a lasting peace? Have you thought, even beyond the box, we reach a deal, but there is still crisis going on, and we, as the strongest sponsors to have this issue closed and the two sides reached a deal, but we still can foresee the crisis, continually think the crisis will be over as soon as the two presidents sign the paper.
AMB: It’s a hypothetical question, so, I should emphasize that we want to see a creative comprehensive agreement between the two countries. I didn’t say the two presidents, because again, these are democracies, and it takes more than two men, even though I have great respect for the work that they’ve been doing so far to create a sustainable mutually beneficial agreement, that’s why we’ve seen on the Kosovo side the broadening of the participation, the establishment of the state delegation. I think that if the two governments come up with a solution that is acceptable to the people of both countries that results in improvement of our goals of peace, prosperity, justice for both countries for the region, the United States will welcome that. We are not, as we say “writing a blank check”, which means we are not saying that whatever these governments agree with the Unites States is going to support and that’s an important point. Again, I’m optimistic that after all of this hard work that two governments will come up with a mutually beneficial agreement which we will want to endorse but we can’t say that in the abstract hypothetically until we see it. So you asked “is there a plan B”. Plan A is Dialogue. We really don’t see an alternative to Dialogue. We think that there have been times in the past as difficult as it is there has been discussions that have resulted in real progress. I mean the fact that after the Brussels Agreement there were new institutions that were established, there were new connections being made that can build confidence, that’s positive. Work remains to be done but we are not going to get anywhere without enhanced communication and dialogue on every level: government to government, people to people. You know, we would like to see enhanced ties at the university level, enhanced cultural exchanges. We think that more that people in Kosovo and people in Serbia are actually talking to each other, understanding each other’s perspective, the better. And that includes, by the way, looking at history, because everybody have their own interpretations and perspectives on history, I’m not completely ignorant of the history of this country and this region. There have been some terrible times and I think that the more that people embrace the need to understand the other people’s perspective then the better prepared they are to look together towards the future.
KOSSEV: Most people would agree with the aiming of what you say but that’s exactly what people are afraid of, that they are not active players in this Dialogue so far since the beginning of Brussels Dialogue but it’s been actually very much behind the scene led by the two presidents. This has been perceived by quite significant portion of both public and expert that Dialogue so far has been highly intransparent, the two people have not discussed.
AMB: Let’s talk about where we are today, because the President Thaci, Prime Minister Haradinaj and others have all said that process that the state delegation is going to be leading is not meant to be a rival, an alternative to the work that’s already done. It’s going to build on the work that’s already been done. I believe them. I have met with these people. I think that there is a broad understanding that transparency with the people, transparency among political parties is vital to moving this forward. And President Thaci agrees with that. I really am optimistic that we will see more, broad participation. And I reiterate that those political parties that are standing aside because they are skeptical of this, I don’t think that’s to their benefit or to the benefit of the people that they represent. I think this is an opportunity for everybody to get into the game.
KOSSEV: And the last question about the Dialogue. To translate again to real politics. Are you aware of the fact that not a single time, Kosovo issue has been discussed within the Serbian parliament, quite unlike Pristina, Kosovo political scene. And B, are you aware of the voices that, Mr. Thaci saying this, Mr. Haradinaj has drafted the final agreement, but many voices are saying it’s just cover up to be standing in the way to Mr. Thaci, in his hurrying to reach this kind of deal.
AMB: I don’t believe that the Prime Minister is attempting to obstruct the process of Dialogue. I believe that –
KOSSEV: Sorry, just, not the Dialogue, but the way how Mr. Thaci is leading to speed up with the idea of partition.
AMB: I believe that all of Kosovo’s political leaders want to see improved relations with Serbia. They know it is to Kosovo’s benefit. As I’ve discussed before, we’re not going to see enhanced foreign investment, economic development until there’s improved regional stability and a sense of confidence that peace has come to the region for the long term. So it is very much in the interest of both countries to find a, to create a sustainable agreement, a mutually beneficial agreement. I believe that Kosovo’s political leaders agree with that. They may disagree on this or that policy, there’s no question about that. That’s quite public. Obviously Mr. Thaci and Mr. Haradinaj have publicly expressed differences of opinion about what steps to take now. And the fact that instead of… the fact that Kosovo’s political leaders are not just talking at each other but are talking with each other, I think, is an important step forward.
KOSSEV: What is your message to Kosovo Serbs? They feel that the south is the most endangered community, to be squeezed in this kind of political sandwich, especially if such, as they see, a hasty, final, binding deal is reached, that from both of the sides they would be sacrificed. There is a wide perception among Kosovo Serbs that Kosovo Albanians would like to see fewer Serbs remaining in Kosovo. Also there’s a wide perception that from Belgrade’s side they have been very often subjected to the political goals from Belgrade, and there’s this kind of tendency from Belgrade to victimize, all the time victimize Kosovo Serbs. So in this kind of political deal they would be the biggest losers.
AMB: I do think any effective comprehensive agreement between the two countries has to take into account the concerns and the safety of Serbs in Kosovo. I frankly think that’s pretty obvious. You can’t ignore that. I certainly understand why some Kosovo Serbs are nervous that an agreement could emerge that will not fully reflect their concerns and address their needs. I understand that. I will say that the United States firmly believes that the rights and the security of Kosovo Serbs and other minority communities have to be protected going forward. That is very important to us. You know, Tanja the United States is a multicultural, multi-ethnic, religiously diverse society, like Kosovo. We find this very natural, and it’s something that Americans grow up seeing as positive. I was telling some people today, when I grew up in the 1960s, 1970s, you could hear some people in America talk about the concept of “tolerance.” What I mean by that is, if some of those ‘other’ people live nearby, we would say “that’s okay, they have a right to live there.”
KOSSEV: That’s something that we haven’t seen pretty much here, so far.
AMB: America I have to say has evolved. We’re a nation of 300 million people. We still have a lot of unresolved social and economic issues. I don’t want to suggest that we have all the answers or that we live in a perfect society. But what I have seen is that for young people especially, my children’s generation, they don’t just think of tolerating people of a different religion, a different color, a different ethnicity, they actually enjoy living nearby, sharing culture, learning about their religions. It would be a very – I think if America were not the sort of multicultural, multi-ethnic, religious diverse society it is, it would be a pretty barren place. So, I don’t have all the answers. America doesn’t have all the answers. I think that Americans have gotten better about asking the questions, and that starts with honestly discussing history, different perspectives of history. I have seen over the years as a diplomat, and I’ve been doing this for many years, sometimes Americans or other foreigners show up in some country that is dealing with difficult issues in its history, and they say “you shouldn’t talk so much about your past. You should focus on your future.” I don’t think that’s realistic and I don’t think that’s possible. I think we have to understand our past, we have to embrace the negative aspects of our history, and the United States has gotten better at embracing, at studying the negative aspects of our history. And not just the sort of ancient history. We’re getting better at understanding how, for example, slavery, the treatment of Native Americans over the years, is not just some ancient history we read about in books. It has effects even today. So to put it in a Kosovo context, it is important for all the people of Kosovo to try to understand other community’s perspectives on history in order to resolve some of the problems and tensions between them and move into the future. I have great respect for people, whether they’re in the government, civil society, journalism, education, who are making the effort to reach across the line to talk to people in the other communities. And we should never look at that as some sort of disloyalty to one’s own community, to be able to talk honestly to others.
KOSSEV: You exclude violence in 2019, doesn’t matter against which community, or is it highly unlikely, is it realistic to take place? Many are fearful in both communities of so called staged incidents.
AMB: So, you can never rule out the possibility of violence when political tensions are running high, when emotions are running high. It would be naïve to rule it out. I will say my government, like our NATO partners, are committed to the security to all the people of Kosovo, and I believe it’s important for the government in Pristina to continue to reiterate its commitment to the security and safety of everyone in the country. I understand the historical reasons for people’s concern, their sense of worry, their insecurity. I’m not saying “oh, you shouldn’t worry, don’t worry.” I’m saying that my government, our allies, our partners, and the government in Pristina all have a responsibility to ensure the safety of minority communities. I will add in addition to that, I think that those people who have suggested that Serbs should avoid the police, avoid the security forces, are making a big mistake. What I’ve seen in my own country as well as in many other countries in the world, is that it’s important for members of minority communities, when they look at the men in uniform, the men and women in uniform, with guns, to feel, “those people are here to serve and protect my community, they are not just part of some outside force.” So, the more minority representation there is in the police, the security forces, whatever name they have, I actually think that will make the minority communities safer. And I hope that that view will take hold.
KOSSEV: Have you got time for the Special Court, or that’s it?
AMB: We can talk about the Special Court.
KOSSEV: Just to tell me the position. We’ve seen after that much time, recent changes. Some ten people have been invited. We still don’t know in which position. This is quite the major breakthrough in comparison to the huge obstruction in recent times. It’s not really on the surface of the political scene. Do you think it will really be a serious issue? Will it continue, and can it affect the entire political stability and security stability in Kosovo, as it is actually threatened by especially the KLA former leaders?
AMB: So the United States is fully committed to the Special Court. We believe that its operation is important to justice for the people of Kosovo, and we trust it to operate in a professional manner. It is our view that people who are invited to the Special Court, to assist them with their inquiries, should cooperate. And you know, there are people, there are political figures in Kosovo who have gone to the Hague, who have presented their defense, who have cleared their name, and who have come back to Kosovo. That’s what we like to see. We think the system works. And I think people suggesting that if the Court continues to work that will affect the stability of the country, I think that’s just irresponsible, and we completely reject it. We know that the government of Kosovo has a responsibility to see to the workings of the Special Court. You remember it was a year ago that there was a move in the Assembly to abrogate the Court, and at the time, my predecessor and good friend Greg Delawie, Ambassador Delawie, said that to abrogate the Court would be a betrayal of the United States. I agree with that, but even more important, I think it would be a betrayal of the people of Kosovo, and the people of Kosovo – all the people of Kosovo – deserve justice.
KOSSEV: Your Excellency, thank you for talking to KoSSev.
AMB: It’s a great pleasure.