Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Palmer’s Interview with Agron Bajrami of Koha Ditore

Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Palmer’s Interview with Agron Bajrami of Koha Ditore, October 25, 2018

Koha Ditore: It would be no surprise to you that the Dialogue with Serbia is the main topic, not only of this interview, but in general in the last several months. And there has been a lot of talk about possible solutions, and you yourself have also said, and other U.S. officials have said that nothing is determined, that you are open to any sort of solution, but there are no blank checks—that’s the wording I hear was used. So where does this leave the actual talk that we are having which is about the possible land swap, is it within the acceptable? Or maybe, is it part of what the blank checks are all about?

DAS Palmer: Let me challenge you a little bit if I might in terms of what these talks are about. What the United States wants to see is an agreement on the full, comprehensive normalization of the relationship between Pristina and Belgrade, between Kosovo and Serbia. That is necessarily going to be a multi-dimensional agreement: there is going to be a political component to it, there will be a security component to it, there will be a part of it about economics, trade, cultural issues, and property. There’s a wide range of concerns that would need to be addressed and resolved as part of a comprehensive agreement. Whether or not border corrections, exchange of territory, is a part of that, I think, is a little bit misleading to say that that’s what it’s about. It’s comprehensive. Our position is that we want to encourage the parties to negotiate the best possible deal they can…to come up with a solution that is locally-owned, that’s durable, that’s implementable and salable on both sides. We have told the leadership on both sides that we have no redlines, that we’re not excluding areas of discussion for the dialogue…for the parties. But neither does that mean we will blindly accept whatever it is that can be agreed. We want to see them negotiate the best deal they can, put it on the table, let’s take a look at it, and if we have concerns about the specifics, we will articulate those concerns and see if we can work through them.

Koha Ditore:  Where does this leave the Ahtisaari Plan because you mentioned economic dimensions and property and there are many annexes within the Ahtisaari which deal with these issues which was not accepted by Serbia. But based on that Kosovo did declare independence and was recognized by more than one hundred countries including U.S. (DAS Palmer: Correct.) Is this a challenge to that plan and to the independence, or, how do you see that?

DAS Palmer: It is certainly not a challenge to Kosovo’s independence. The United States remains firmly, unambiguously committed to Kosovo’s sovereignty and independence. But I do think that there’s room for wide-ranging conversations between the leadership on both sides about what full normalization means and how it should be operationalized. So, really what this is, is an opportunity for the two sides to sit down, define normalization together, and engineer a process to get there.

Koha Ditore: So this is not a status discussion.

DAS Palmer: A status discussion—no. Kosovo’s status is clear.

Koha Ditore: And how about the reactions you have seen, which is quite negative, towards whatever is being discussed now, at least here in Kosovo. All the Parliamentary parties have expressed themselves against, what the President calls, correction of borders. What if at the end, that deal, however complex, would be refused by the majority here.

DAS Palmer: Well, there is certainly going to need to be a political process on both sides in order to affirm and ratify any agreement. It will be up to the two sides themselves to define exactly what that process is like. So, just because the two Presidents reach an agreement, that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. So they are going to have to go through whatever their respective processes are going to look like. I’m sure there is going to be the involvement of Parliaments in both countries. It’s quite possible that there would be referenda, I don’t know. That’s really up to the political systems to decide, themselves, what it is that’s necessary in order to create the buy-in and legitimacy that’s necessary to implement an agreement of this scope.

Koha Ditore: We have heard also yesterday, and the week before, the whole summer actually, that there has been for us, it seems, a different position from Germany. And there has been a lot of talk about who supports, who doesn’t, and so on. Do you see that there is a difference? And what is your feeling about what the Germans are saying right now, most loudly, and what you are saying now. Is there any gap?

DAS Palmer: I don’t really want to speak on behalf of the German government (Koha Ditore: No, but from your perspective….) but what I can say is that fundamentally, the United States, the government of Germany, all of our partners in the European system support the normalization of the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia. That’s the goal of this.

Koha Ditore: Because at the end this is supposed to lead both of the countries toward the EU, and if part of the EU is not comfortable with the solution, then it puts a big question mark, this is why I am asking.

DAS Palmer: I understand the question, but I think the issue here is: what is it that the parties themselves understand full normalization to represent, and what is the process for moving towards that goal? That is goal that is shared by the leadership on both sides, it is a goal that is shared by the United States, by the members of the European Union, by the European Union as an institution. In fact, it is the EEAS, a European Union body, that is leading the Dialogue process and facilitating the negotiations.

Koha Ditore: You mentioned economy, I read somewhere, I’m not sure, in Belgrade you also mentioned Trepca and Gazivoda Lake, as being maybe something that needs to be discussed within this segment.

DAS Palmer: It’s really not up to me, it’s not up to the United States. It’s up to the parties themselves to talk about what it is that they need to include as elements of an agreement as part of a fundamental deal on normalization, and I’m not going to define what those elements are. They’re going to have to define them.

Koha Ditore: I guess we’ll have to wait and see what they come up with. So let’s move to another, until recently very hot topic. Now it seems to have been, somehow, overcome. That is the transformation of Kosovo Security Force. The Parliament did vote the three laws—there was a bit of a reaction expected from Serbia, but generally what was previously said to be quite negative reaction from NATO, especially, because the demand was to go through the Constitution to do this, is now, somehow softened. So we are lead to believe that this is fine with NATO and U.S., the way that KSF is being transformed.

DAS Palmer: I’ll speak on behalf of the United States here, which is we support this process of KSF transition. We believe that it should move forward in a fashion that is slow, deliberate, transparent—we will support this process. It will be a multi-year process as agreed between the governments of Kosovo and the United States. We want the KSF to remain multi-ethnic in character, we think that’s important for the KSF as an institution, we think it’s important for Kosovo as a society. And we want the transition to move forward in a fashion that is supportive of regional peace and security.

Koha Ditore: And, to what extent can U.S. continue to help this process now? Will there be a different input coming from U.S. now that this is starting to happen?

DAS Palmer: There is an agreed process between our two governments about how this should move forward. So, I do expect that there will be a conversation. I do expect that there will be a process in place to assist in the transition, to help manage it, so that it is smooth and consistent with the agreed plan and that it contributes to peace in the region.

Koha Ditore: Rule of Law has…..

DAS Palmer: ….one of my favorite things….

Koha Ditore: ….been a thorn in the eye of many people here as well because many of the things have been, let’s say, denied to us because we didn’t achieve success enough. For example, the visa liberalization was said to have been blocked because of lack of success in rule of law department. We also had EULEX, we had a lot of experiments here but still we don’t feel that we have really achieved the level that we want. How do you see the rule of law here? What needs to happen so that we can finally say that, “yeah, we are now, doing it”?

DAS Palmer: There has been progress but more is expected and, frankly, the people of Kosovo, the citizens of Kosovo, deserve more in the area of rule of law. This is fundamental to Kosovo’s future, it’s fundamental to the success of the Kosovo state, and it’s fundamental to Kosovo’s aspirations to integrate into the European and international system. We’ve been concerned, for example, by the pace at which political parties have been putting loyalists into government jobs at all levels, from the very top to the very lowest, entry-level positions in government. It’s important that positions of public service, positions of public trust—that those positions are competed openly and fairly in a transparent process and that the best and most qualified candidates are given these jobs, these opportunities, these responsibilities.

Koha Ditore: You do express these views and positions to the Government officials when you meet them?

DAS Palmer: Of course I do, I’ve said that in private. I’ve said that in public.

Koha Ditore: Yes, and what is the response. I mean, I know you cannot quote them, what they said, or who said what, but what do you feel they… they really understand that this is so important or…?

DAS Palmer: Everyone agrees with the principles. (Koha Ditore: Principles only?  What about the…..) this is what needs to change, right?  I think there is a broad understanding on the part of all as to why this is important and why this matters. What we’d like to see is that understanding translated into action.

Koha Ditore: But what we have seen, at least in some very recent cases, like with the so-called fake veterans’ case, the politicians actually do meddle in a negative way. They interfere quite a lot, at least putting up pressure towards prosecutors even when they try to do something which most of us agree should be done. What needs to be done to break this, sort of, say, vicious circle in which politicians do pressure, and then, because of the pressure, the work is not happening?

DAS Palmer:  There are a number of the things that can be done, I mean, the first and most important is for elected leaders and the leaders of the political parties to behave differently, to not do that.  And that’s a decision, that’s a choice.  There is also opportunity for the parliament to put in place rules, systems, protections, that will ensure that it’s harder for politicians and political parties to interfere in what should be independent transparent processes, in that fashion. There is some legislation that’s under consideration being debated in parliament now. (Koha Ditore: For quite a while). That would be helpful and it’s important that that legislation move forward. And it’s important that the legislation be effective in what it is that it’s trying to accomplish and that it be implemented in a way that advances the goal.

Koha Ditore:  We have a problem with parliament, you know, that there’s been some issues that they’ve been trying to tackle for years and they still haven’t. I mean, in rule of law department, the so- called anti-mafia laws have been on their table of discussion in the last, I don’t know, four or five years. Or, for example, election reform, has been talked about for seven or eight years.

DAS Palmer:  We’d like to see this legislation move forward and then be implemented.

Koha Ditore:  You really expect that these people who didn’t do it for the last seven years would do it now?

DAS Palmer: I think it’s entirely possible.

Koha Ditore:  What I may be saying is, what do we expect the society to do, to push these people to do it, because obviously, just telling them is not working enough.

DAS Palmer:  I mean the citizens have opportunities to elect their own leaders, right, so, the ultimate check on the unwillingness or inability of leaders to deliver on promises to voters is the electoral cycle. In the meantime, I think that it’s important that political leaders hear from their constituents what their concerns are, so there are opportunities for the citizens of Kosovo to make clear to their elected leaders what it is that they expect.

Koha Ditore: So the final solution is within the democratic process. And my final question will be about the energy sector (DAS Palmer: Sure.), in which US has been involved quite a lot, either through assistance, also through guidance and advising. Now we have a situation with the new Kosovo power plant project, which is also an old idea, so to speak, in the last more than 10 years. It has suffered, I would say, a serious setback, I don’t know if you would agree with the statement coming from … (DAS Palmer: Doctor Kim, I’m familiar with the statements)…. I mean the support is now going to be withdrawn from the World Bank.

DAS Palmer:  The United States strongly supports the efforts to put in place the Kosovo e Re power plant. It would provide the baseload energy generating capacity that Kosovo needs. It would significantly improve the environmental circumstances in Kosovo, reducing the particulate matter that plant emits by some 95%, if I remember the numbers right. We are pleased that there is an American company that is lined up to lead this project. We are disappointed with the statements that came out of the World Bank out of Doctor Kim. But we think that it is entirely possible for Contour Global and the Government of Kosovo to line up the financing that is necessary for this project to move forward.

Koha Ditore: You do expect that this will happen in the planned timeframe?

DAS Palmer: We remain committed to this project.

Koha Ditore: The U.S. government as well?

DAS Palmer:  Absolutely.

Koha Ditore:  You read, I mean, we read a lot of things and then when you read something like “this is about peaceful ethnic cleansing,” and I’m going back to the first questions. It makes your hair, you know, grow a bit (i.e. stand on end….)

DAS Palmer:  I understand that.

Koha Ditore: And nobody is really explaining that it is not.

DAS Palmer: I would be more than pleased to explain that it is not. This is about the normalization of the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia….

Koha Ditore:  I know what the idea is about…of the dialogue, but what it is really happening behind the closed doors once people start talking about land swap, which then, by definition, involves also movement of people, which is a reminder of something that was tried years ago not…..

DAS Palmer: I don’t agree that it involves the movement of people, by definition, that’s not true.

Koha Ditore: It has been claimed, I just mentioned this Kupchan article, which is just one of many saying this. And the Serbs also, in Kosovo, the ones south of the river have been quite vocally against. So maybe we can use this opportunity to say, what would your message be to the people of all communities here because they fear that this deal will actually just prolong the conflict, instead of closing it.

DAS Palmer: Kosovo is a multi-ethnic society—that is central to its identity. The United States supports Kosovo as a multi-ethnic society. There is room in Kosovo for ethnic Albanians, there is room in Kosovo for ethnic Serbs, there is room in Kosovo for Gorani and Turks and Roma, and all others who are citizens of Kosovo, irrespective of their ethnic backgrounds. It’s important that the legal framework in Kosovo provides protections for minorities and Kosovo’s existing legal framework provides strong minority protections that in many ways exceed European standards. We will continue to partner with Kosovo, Kosovar authorities, Kosovar society in support of the goal of a firm, stable multi-ethnic civilization, in which everyone feels invested.

Koha Ditore: So this means U.S. position has changed one percent, zero point five percent, or not at all… (DAS Palmer: On Kosovo’s multi-ethnic identity?)….. no, no, in general, towards the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue or the kind of state that Kosovo is and should remain, or should become.

DAS Palmer: In terms of the U.S. goals and objectives—normalization of the relationship between these two countries, in terms of our vision for the partnership with Kosovo as a multi-ethnic society—that remains entirely the same.