Ambassador Kosnett’s interview with Rajonipress

Ambassador Kosnett’s interview with Rajonipress, June 19, 2019

Rajonipress: Thank you very much for finding [time for] portal Rajonipress to interview you. I am very honored and pleased. You were in Gjilan today, you visited many institutions – the Municipality, the Police, Gjilan University, and I hope that you have visited, Ambassador, those places where USAID invested, or the U.S., in projects. How much are you satisfied with the dynamics of these projects, and do you think these projects had a positive impact on the wellbeing of citizens from all communities in Anamorava?

Ambassador: From what I can see, people are making very good use of the cooperative programs that the U.S. government is engaged in here in Gjilan. I’m seeing the Police, the University, the schools, make very big use of what we are providing, and I’ve been very impressed by the energy and the vision that’s on display here in the municipality. I’d like to emphasize: a lot of the programs that the United States carries out in Kosovo are meant to be pilot projects, or demonstration projects, so that the people of Kosovo can decide what works for them, and then duplicate them or do something that they think is more appropriate for local circumstances.

Rajonipress: Gjilan is distinguished for its good ethnic climate [good interethnic relations]. Here everyone does their own job, works without much trouble, yet there are challenges that remain in integration of, let’s say, the Roma community, i.e. their difficult condition and low employment rate. What is the Ambassador’s message to municipal governance regarding these communities? The reason I’m saying this is that here the Roma community is still joked about and I am very concerned for those people. Because, they live here, in the city center. They are not engaged, not schooled, and at some point they – as such – may be a problem, pose a threat to the society.

Ambassador: I think I have to learn more about the specific situation that you’ve described before I offer any opinions on it. I do want to say that, to the United States it’s very important that Kosovo remain a multiethnic, religiously diverse society. As an American, I’m very proud of the fact that America is a country where people of different nationalities and religions, ethnicities, have come together and prospered. And, I think, in the United States now, most people actually have a very positive attitude towards multiculturalism and are pleased when people of different backgrounds move in down the street or work with them in their workplace. So, that’s the sort of future that we wish for our friends in Kosovo – a country where people don’t just tolerate members of other groups, but they are actually enthusiastic about living in a multiethnic society.

Rajonipress: Let’s talk a bit about infrastructure. Gjilan is expected to have a highway. I heard and liked when the Ambassador assessed this as a very positive thing but we as media have big problems with people when we tell them about highways. Citizens usually say there’s corruption in it, the money gets stolen. Do highways and bridges create free movement, develop the economy? I’ve been to America, I know what a highway is. There’s nothing bad in that. But among people there’s belief there’s corruption and that ‘they’ are stealing the monies, and blah blah blah…

Ambassador: Let’s break that question in several component parts. I’m not familiar with the details of every road project in Kosovo, but in general, I believe that transportation infrastructure, including highways, is an important element of any country’s economic development. I’ve been in countries where the road system was just terrible, and it was very difficult for anybody to contemplate building a factory, because they couldn’t have reliability to move spare parts and raw materials, and move their finished products out. It was even worse for farmers, because if they didn’t have reliable roads their food would just rot on the side of the road, and a very large percentage of their production would be wasted. It’s easy to imagine a project where the road itself is very positive, but there is corruption, or there is inefficiency so the cost is higher than it should be. But that does not mean the road was a bad idea, it just means that there needs to be better public oversight of the people who are building the road. So, I am actually quite optimistic, for example, that after six months of a year of people driving on the new highway to Skopje most people will say: ‘Well, this is a great idea!’ And then, as factories open, as economic development continues alongside the road, people will say: ‘why did we ever doubt this idea?’ That does not mean that we shouldn’t be alert to possibilities of corruption, it doesn’t mean that journalists and civil society organizations shouldn’t be very carefully monitoring these projects to make sure that they make economic sense.

Rajonipress: The biggest challenge of local governance remains the inclusion of officials with indictments. You have said this issue is a serious obstacle to Kosovo. How should municipal institutions act about these cases? For example, Lutfi Haziri [Gjilan Mayor] has a director under indictment but did not suspend him. I would also make reference here to Kadri Veseli, who sought the removal of indicted officials. For instance, Besim Beqaj resigned today, and Agim Çeku is expected to do the same, and so on. But, I am more interested in the Municipality [of Gjilan].

Ambassador: As you probably know, I have been very vocal about the importance of officials who lack qualifications, or had been convicted of crimes, or are under indictment, being removed from official positions. Whether they resign or they are dismissed isn’t really that important for me. I don’t think it’s appropriate for people who are under indictment, or who have demonstrated they don’t have the qualifications for a government position, to be in those positions. And when I say that, it is not to support, or to criticize any particular political party. I think those policies should apply to all political parties, regardless of whether they are in opposition or they are in the Government. So, I think Speaker Veseli’s statement is certainly welcome and a positive move, and we’re going to be watching to make sure that it’s actually fully implemented. At the same time, we hope that other political parties will take a cue from what PDK is doing and that they would follow the same line. Let me add one more point: I am not suggesting that everybody who has been indicted for a crime is guilty, and I’m not suggesting that everyone who has been convicted of a crime is evil and that they haven’t done anything honorable and good in their lives. But it is a major distraction for people like that to be in political positions, and the people of Kosovo deserve to have leaders who are free of corruption and free of criminal involvement.

Rajonipress: Kosovo is now in a very delicate situation. To start the dialogue and decide about Thaçi’s idea of change of borders, or to go to early elections. Which of these options you would personally support, Mr. Ambassador? Both are a double-edged sword. However, dialogue is without a compromise, there’s no alternative to it, but…

Ambassador: First on dialogue. The position of my government is that we think that the dialogue is necessary to create conditions of peace and justice and prosperity for Kosovo and its neighbors, and we strongly support rapid resumption of the dialogue. We believe that both the government in Pristina, the government in Belgrade, need to approach this process with creativity, and in a spirit of compromise. That means that both governments are going to need to take steps that are not very popular. So, we do think that temporarily suspending the tariff is a necessary step to get the dialogue process moving again. There are things we’d like Belgrade to do to get the process moving again. But in addition to that, I want to emphasize that the United States thinks that the negotiators from both governments need freedom to decide what they’re going to talk about.

So, when we said last year that the United States government did not object to the negotiators talking about a border adjustment, we were not saying that we actively favor a border adjustment. We were saying that the negotiators should be free to talk about whatever they wanted to talk about.

With regard to an election, I talk about policies that the United States would like to see Kosovo carry out. You will never hear me talk about who I would like to see in office, what parties I think should form the government, when there should be an election. Kosovo is a democracy. It’s not up to me as a foreigner to offer an opinion on that. It’s up to the people of Kosovo using the legal and constitutional processes that exist to decide who should lead this country. That includes the question of when there should be elections.

Q: How responsible is the Haradinaj Government regarding major issues – was it serious enough towards international factors? Haradinaj often demonstrated perserverance and did not even yield when USA had some serious requests. For instance, the tariffs.

Let me answer your question this way. I think the long-term friendship between the United States and Kosovo is rock solid. Nobody in Kosovo should doubt that the United States is committed to Kosovo’s success. At the same time, it’s natural for our governments will sometimes disagree about particular policies. That doesn’t mean that there is some kind of crisis in the relationship. So, again on the tariff, our position is that we think that it is in Kosovo’s interest, not only in America’s interest, to suspend the tariff and get the process moving again. We disagree with the Prime Minister on that, but there are other politicians in Kosovo who also are not in favor of suspending the tariff, so we don’t have to personalize it in that way.

Q: Is there an end to this tariff?

Again, our view is not complicated. We believe that Kosovo should temporarily suspend the tariff. That will get Serbia back to the table and then we can get the dialogue process moving again. Our hope is that once the negotiators start talking, enthusiasm will grow on both sides, as the governments and the people in both countries see all the benefits that normal relations can bring. I want to emphasize, we think that resuming the dialogue is in Kosovo’s benefit, in Serbia’s benefit and also in the benefit of the United States. It is something that we care about deeply. And in that sense, it is a significant policy disagreement between the current government of Kosovo and the administration in Washington. That doesn’t mean that the two countries’ friendship is at risk, but it is a significant policy difference. One more thing about the dialogue. Sometimes people ask, “what’s the rush?” What’s the hurry, why do we need to work on this now?” My answer to that is that improved relations between Kosovo and Serbia is going to be important for the economic future of this country as well as for justice, and it will help improve relations among the different communities in Kosovo. If the dialogue doesn’t continue, we expect to see less progress in those areas, and that affects peoples’ daily lives.

Q: Is Kosovo ready to enter serious negotiations with Serbia without solving the issues of the missing, without the punishing of Serb crimes and without Vucic changing his approach towards the Kosovo problem? We understand that there has been a dialogue that is already in place.

I think that people should sit down across the table with their counterparts from Serbia and talk about all these sorts of issues. That’s the path ahead. There’s a role for civil society in both countries to address these issues, because they are bigger than just the government. It’s up to civil society and the government, and individual citizens to try to rebuild the relationship with Serbia.

Q: Let’s go back again to corruption and organized crime at the central level. In Kosovo we sometimes have a perverse situation because the ones who have indictments are those who speak about corruption, and those who are part of crime talk about crime. What is your message for this category of politicians and MPs?

I think that the ironies are clear and that it is up to the people of Kosovo to demand honesty and leadership from the Parliament, from the government, all people who are in positions of power. A lot of people died to bring democracy to Kosovo. I would say to the people of Kosovo: Don’t just sit back and watch. Democracy is not a spectator sport. It is up to the people to build the kind of government that they deserve.

Q: The new USA Embassy Pristina will be dedicated on July 4 – a beautiful and gigantic building in Pristina. What is your message to the people of Kosovo, and what does this mean for you and your view of Kosovo’s enjoying its freedom today?

That’s how we view it, that the fact that we are building a modern, high-tech environmentally sound embassy here, is a physical manifestation of our commitment to Kosovo. We expect that the United States will continue to invest heavily in Kosovo’s success in the years ahead. When I say investment, I don’t mean that there won’t be any changes in the nature of our economic support for Kosovo. Our assistance programs are aimed at making Kosovo self-sufficient. We look forward to continuing to partner with our friends in Kosovo as Kosovo builds a future of peace, justice and prosperity. When I meet the sort of young people like I did here in Gjilan, I have enormous confidence that the people of Kosovo can guild their future.

Q: In the end, Mr. Ambassador, is there hope for Kosovo to get visa liberalization? There is lot of dissatisfaction among the population, there’s lot of unemployment. It is unimaginable that, while we have most of the European countries here in Kosovo, the Kosovars are deprived of travelling to these countries for work-related issues. A bit absurd, isn’t it?

Well, I’m not a spokesperson for the European Union. I will say that the United States thinks that closer relations, closer economic and other ties between Kosovo and the European Union is very much in America’s interests as well. It’s good for Kosovo, it’s good for Europe. It’s good for us.

Sometimes people will say to me that Kosovo doesn’t really need good relations with Europe because we have good relations with the United States. That calculus doesn’t work for us. We think Kosovo will benefit from close relations with Europe as well with the United States. The bottom line is: Look at a map. You’re in Europe. I will say that the things that the United States thinks Kosovo should do, are the same things that I hear my European colleagues talk about, like fighting corruption. Creating better conditions for investments for economic development and improving relations with Serbia and improving relations among the different communities inside Kosovo. There is no choice to be made between steps that will strengthen your relations with Washington and steps that will strengthen your ties to western Europe.

Q: There is corruption in Europe, too. People are tired.

There is this expression you hear a lot in the United States, “Think globally, act locally.” All of us face the same sort of problems. America has a lot of economic, social and political problems. We don’t have all the answers. We have to try to work on those problems in our country and it is primarily the responsibility of the people of Kosovo to work on these problems here in Kosovo. We will do what we can to support our friends.