Deputy Assistant Secretary Yee Interview with RTK

Deputy Assistant Secretary Yee Interview with RTK, March 29, 2017

RTK: Mr. Yee, thank you for finding time for us once again. And welcome.

DAS Yee: Thank you very much.

RTK: You have had meetings with leaders of Kosovo during your visit here. Was the purpose of the visit just to discuss about the recent developments or do you have straight forward messages for them?

DAS Yee: I haven’t been in Kosovo for about a year so I am very glad to be back and to have a chance to talk to some of the leaders in the government, members of Parliament, some of my colleagues from the embassy, of course, and the diplomatic community about some of the challenges the country is facing. And also to reaffirm the United States’ strong support for Kosovo, Kosovo’s continued development as an independent, sovereign state, continued development as a stable, democratic and prosperous state, and to review our proprieties for Kosovo. Our agreed priorities with the government, which includes strengthening the economy, strengthening democratic institutions and governance in Kosovo, and also strengthening relations with neighbors, with Serbia and also with Montenegro for example, in order to strengthen regional security.

RTK: One of the most trending topics has been the formation of the Kosovo Armed Forces or the transformation of the Kosovo Security Force. Now Kosovo has always asked for the United States’ blessings and its allies blessing when it comes to important decisions. Does the United States of America support the formation of the Kosovo Armed Forces.

DAS Yee: As you know, the United States and Kosovo are strategic partners and the United States has supported Kosovo from the very beginning in its development as an independent, sovereign state. That includes of course for us and for Kosovo eventually, Kosovo having an army. We feel that is a normal development. We helped Kosovo develop what we called the road map for how Kosovo can achieve this goal. The road map has many steps. One of the very important steps of course is very close coordination with us, Kosovo’s strategic partner, as well as with NATO and NATO allies. We think it is extremely important for such an important, significant step, the formation of an army, that all of the countries’ leaders that will have anything to do with the process of transformation, that will be affected by the transformation, that all these parties are consulted as fully as possible. So far, the consultation process has not been adequate in our view. And that is why we are asking the government, the Speaker of Parliament and others involved in this initiative to withdraw the legislation until the consultation process, the coordination process, can take place appropriately according to the road map. Again, we support the goal of eventually Kosovo having an army. We feel this is a normal process for any sovereign state. But there is a right way to do it. And there has to be consultation. And that’s what we want to take place.

RTK: And which is the right way to do it?

DAS Yee: Well, I think starting an army is, of course, a practical matter. First and foremost it involves troops, equipment, training. It requires support from allies, future allies. Which we hope Kosovo will be in NATO one day. So there needs to be the coordination between military authorities. It is also an important political step. Because there has been an agreement between the government of Kosovo, between the United States and other partners of Kosovo, that there will be a process of consultation, a process of coordination on all the elements, both political and military steps. So far, that coordination has not been sufficient. So we want the government to step back and take the legislation off the table so that the coordination and other steps can take place appropriately.

RTK: Are the constitutional changes in this matter the only way to go forward with the process.

DAS Yee: As I mentioned, there is a roadmap that the United States and NATO allies have developed with Kosovo in how such an important initiative should go forward. And that involves having political support within Kosovo for such a step. That means that all political parties should be consulted. There should be a period of time in which there is a debate among interested parties and stakeholders so that concerns can be taken into account and that the necessary steps within the road map can take place in full transparency without any secrecy. There is no need to have any secrecy on such a matter. And our view is that the transformation should take place with a constitutional amendment.

RTK: What if the Kosovo leadership cannot convince the Serbian list to vote for the constitutional changes? What should be the next step? Should we wait for them eternally?

DAS Yee: Well as I said, I think it is very important for the government of Kosovo to insure that there has been adequate consultation with all political parties. This is a matter that will affect all the citizens, all the political parties in Kosovo. That consultation needs to take place. I think we also expect that the government consults with the coalition partners, partners in government, all the ministers in the cabinet need to be consulted. The important factor is not for any one specific party to have a veto or a special say over whether it happens. The idea is that in a democracy, all political parties deserve to have a voice. So we are looking, as Kosovo’s strong supporter, strong strategic partner, for the government to have those consultations, to make the good faith, sincere effort to gain support of all political parties before it moves forward. Before it puts legislation in front of the assembly, that consultation should take place.

RTK: Another important issue that has been going on for a long time in Kosovo is the issue of demarcation of the border with Montenegro. This is one of the conditions for Kosovo in order to move on with visa liberalization with EU. Opposition parties have opposed this object, this matter and they don’t want to vote the Agreement as it is. How do you see this matter and what is the best solution?

DAS YEE: Well, I should say, and I probably should have said from the beginning that, of course Kosovo is a sovereign state and we respect the right of leaders to decide as the elected representatives of the citizens of Kosovo on which agreements it makes or does not make with other countries. In this particular example, we believe that the Agreement is a good one. We believe that the Demarcation Agreement with Montenegro is something that has been adopted. It has been planned. It has been prepared in a very serious professional manner. As you know, the United States’ State Department has conducted an assessment with its experts. There’s been a Government Commission that has also looked at the Agreement to ensure that the map, the demarcation, is correct, in both cases. Both the Government Commission and the State Department assessment that the conclusion is that it is an accurate demarcation. And also we believe there is great value in resolving an issue between neighbors. It is one of I think our important goals in the region to see neighboring states reach agreements to end disputes, to show that there are no further problems between neighbors. It’s important for us, as strategic partner, it’s important for the European Union, to know there are no outstanding issues between neighbors. So, we think it a good deal. We hope very much now that the Border Demarcation Agreement will be adopted by the Assembly. We welcome the fact that “Srpska” list has returned and it has indicated that it is willing to support this. We understand there has to be some discussion, some debate of course, but in the end we believe it’s important. I understand that the High Representative of the European Union, Madame Mogherini, was here about three weeks ago, and she said that passage of this Agreement will unblock visa liberalization for Kosovo, we feel that’s significant step. As I understand it, many people in Kosovo would support it, so we hope it will be approved.

RTK: Exactly, demarcation is one of the conditions of the European Union for Kosovo in order to get visa liberalization. Now, this was not a condition for other neighbor countries, and Kosovo citizens and political leaders seem to be frustrated because of this fact. We are the only country that is currently isolated in the region. How long until this process is wrapped up and what would be the main benefits for the Kosovo citizens of visa liberalization?

DAS YEE: As you know this is a decision for the European Union and its member states to make, not for the United States. Of course, we hope very much that Kosovo will achieve this goal. It is an important step forward in the country’s joining other European democratic states. It is a sign of the increasing maturity of Kosovo as a democracy, as a member of the European family. It will allow citizens to travel more easily, as they should be able to do, to European neighbors, to allow more exchange of information, exchange of ideas. That will be of tremendous benefit. So we hope that the Government of Kosovo, Assembly, will do everything necessary as soon as possible in order to achieve this goal. The High Representative has been very clear about what is necessary to unblock this. I take your point that other states who have visa liberalization might not have had to perform the same step, but I think that’s an important lesson of the integration process – that it’s not static. It doesn’t stay the same. Conditions change, and over time there have been new conditions imposed. That’s another reason why we feel it’s important for Kosovo’s leaders to seize the opportunity. Don’t delay further. Pass this agreement. Take the other steps that are necessary to advance towards the European Union, towards NATO, because the longer that there is delay, the longer there is stalling and lack of progress, the greater likelihood there will be other conditions.

RTK: Demarcation and Association were part of the agreement reached between Kosovo and Serbia in 2015 in Brussels. On one hand we have Albanian opposition parties opposing these two issues, and on the other hand we have the Serbian List, which recently returned to the Parliament, and which opposes the formation of Kosovo Armed Forces and insists on passing the Association. You have met with both sides during your visit here. Is there a possibility of compromise in order to solve these issues?

DAS Yee: As a diplomat I believe that there’s always a solution to any kind of dispute between countries, between parties, if there is political will, if there is good faith and honest effort made by all leaders. And that’s what we’re calling for. We’re calling for all the leaders to do their job, to sit down and to find solutions, not simply score political points. There’s a need to remember the goals of the citizens of Kosovo, which is have a better future, stronger economy, jobs, opportunities for young people, better government services, the chance to integrate with the rest of Europe. All of these things require progress in the normalization between Kosovo and Serbia. If there’s not progress in the normalization, there will likely not be progress on the road to the European Union. So, we know it’s difficult. We know that there are no easy solutions but there needs to be an honest efforts, there needs to be political will by the leadership to find solutions.

RTK: Taking in consideration all the developments in Kosovo in the last couple of years, all the disagreements, even between the coalition partners, is there a possibility for the preliminary elections in Kosovo? Would this be a good idea?

DAS Yee: Well, again, this is a decision for the elected leaders of Kosovo to make. It is our view, the United States’ view, that Kosovo has many important challenges before it, many important initiatives that the people of Kosovo are expecting the Government to face, correctly, not to postpone and delay. Elections, unfortunately, have the effect of delaying reforms, of delaying hard decisions. It’s an important sign, again, of democratic development, political maturity, for a state to have elections according to the schedule. So, according to the schedule, elections should not take place until next year. This will give more time for the Government and the Assembly, to do its job – pass legislation, pass reforms, adopt BDA, make progress on normalization, improve relations with neighbors, fight corruption. This is one of the biggest problems in Kosovo that leaders need to face. If leaders, whether at Kosovo, or anywhere in this region, or anywhere in the world simply hold early elections whenever they run into difficulties in trying to resolve problems, there’ll be no progress. So, our advice to the leadership in Kosovo is to face the challenges, not delay, not postpone, not hold early elections. This is something that we encourage leaders around the region by the way. It is a very welcome sign that in some countries, Albania for example – Albania will, it should at least, hold its regularly scheduled elections in June, June 18th, I believe. There, we’re urging the opposition, all parties to participate fully in the elections, to not block them. And if there are issues, we believe the opposition and the Government need to have a dialogue to work out the issues in order that the elections are free and fair. In Kosovo, when it’s time, and there is a schedule, according to law, when the election should be, we hope the elections will also take place in a free and fair manner. Not as an escape path, not as a way to avoid responsibility.

RTK: Mr. Yee, thank you for the interview. It was a pleasure.

DAS Yee: Thank you very much.