Deputy Assistant Secretary Yee’s Interview with Voice of America

Deputy Assistant Secretary Yee’s Interview with Voice of America, October 25, 2017

VOA: What is the purpose of your visit to the region?

DAS Yee: Thank you first of all for this opportunity. My purpose in coming to the region is to visit both Pristina and Belgrade to meet with leaders of both governments, to meet with members of Parliament, to meet with civil society and members of opposition in both countries. It is part of my normal travels to stay abreast of the situation in both countries and the region. And also I had the occasion to speak at an economic forum in Belgrade yesterday.

VOA: Kosovo’s fragile government is faced with daunting challenges and has to take on sensitive issues. Among them the border demarcation with Montenegro. The new Prime Minister Haradinaj has opposed the agreement in the past. Is there a way out of the situation without having the agreement pass in the Parliament?

DAS Yee: First I want to say that Kosovo has a number of important opportunities facing it that it can realize in the next year or even sooner. One of these opportunities is the Border Demarcation Agreement, which it has already signed with Montenegro. We understand from our European Union colleagues that the Border Demarcation Agreement, once ratified, will unblock Kosovo’s path to visa free travel within the European Union. This is extremely important, we believe, for the people of Kosovo to show them that they are part of Europe, that they are not isolated, that they are welcome in Europe and will give I think a lot of hope, a lot of encouragement, to those in the government and outside that the work they are doing, the reforms they are making, the hard decisions they are taking, actually paid off. We are encouraging the government of Kosovo to seize this opportunity, where the last government was not able to use the opportunity to ratify in the Assembly the agreement, and to then benefit, with the consent of the European Union, from visa free travel. And we do believe it is possible.

I want to say we understand that agreements like this, issues involving borders, relations with neighbors, are sometimes complicated. But what we feel is necessary is first for the public to understand what they will gain, the benefit for them in their everyday lives in having such an agreement ratified, and then the visa free travel. It is also important for the leaders of this country to assume the responsibility, to show the leadership necessary to gain the majority in the Assembly necessary to ratify the Agreement. So a combination I think of public awareness, which of course is the responsibility of the leaders but also the media, of politicians, members of Parliament, to make sure the public understands what is at stake. And then, for the leaders to take responsibility for being elected representatives of the people.

VOA: Kosovo has entered a new phase of negotiation with Serbia. Kosovo leaders have asked that the U.S. take a bigger role. EU has taken the leading role so far. Do we expect any changes? Will the U.S. be more actively engaged in the Dialogue?

DAS Yee: First of all, we are honored to be partners of Kosovo and of Serbia and of other countries in this region. We believe it is in both of our interests- both the countries in the region and the United States. It is important for the United States that Europe is peaceful, it is stable, it is prosperous. When Europe is peaceful, stable, and prosperous, the United States usually is. So our fates are connected. Our security is connected. Our economy is connected in many ways. That is why we feel it is important for us to participate, for us to contribute, in the affairs in Europe, including the Western Balkans. I am very happy to say that the U.S. government remains committed to helping the countries of the Western Balkans to address problems they are facing, to gain further progress in their integration into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions including the European Union. For those countries that wish to join NATO, that are able to join NATO, we wish to help them get to that goal. We have already been playing a direct role in many initiatives in Europe. It is not always well known because by its nature diplomacy is not always advertised, but we are already taking a fairly robust role in the Dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo with the consent of the European Union, which of course is leading the Dialogue, the facilitation is primarily the European Union. But we have been there from the beginning. Our intention is to remain there as long as the European Union wants us to be there and so far the European Union does want us there. And as long, of course, as both parties, Serbia and Kosovo, want us to be participating. We will do our part. We feel it is a partnership between the EU and the U.S., Kosovo and Serbia. The responsibility is on all sides, and we will meet our obligations.

VOA: The United States urged Kosovo to refrain from making an army without constitutional change first. People say that while Serbia is being armed by Russia, Kosovo is being told basically you cannot create an army, you have to wait for Belgrade’s approval. How do you answer such a criticism?

DAS Yee: First, I think when you look at the overall picture for Kosovo’s security, Kosovo in our view has a commitment from the international community, from NATO, from other countries that are partnered with NATO, to help maintain stability and security here in Kosovo. We have a NATO-led peacekeeping force, KFOR, which has been here for a number of years and has the intention to remain until it is no longer necessary, which we hope will be sooner rather than later. There has certainly been progress, the size of KFOR has been able to be reduced, but there is still a need for it. The first message I want to give is the international community is clearly committed to Kosovo’s security. Kosovo is not in danger of being invaded or attacked by another country. Kosovo is not in danger of some kind of major security risk that threatens its national security.

That said, I want to say as a second message that we support Kosovo’s right to have an army. Every country that is sovereign and has responsibility for national security for protection of its borders, for participating in international- either search and rescue, or disaster relief or other initiatives- needs to have some kind of army or armed force. But, our strong belief and what our message has been consistently now to the Government of Kosovo for some time, for a number of years, is that there is a process for the transformation of the security force to the army. A process which we understand we have agreed with the government. That process includes the adoption of a constitutional amendment to make clear that institutionally, legally, this transformation has occurred in a way that has been completely transparent, that has the support of all major stakeholders. We argue, and I believe the Government of Kosovo agrees with us, that the stakeholders includes all of the major political parties in Kosovo, including the minority Serb parties. The cleanest, the most appropriate way to legally transform the security force to an army would be through a constitutional amendment. All the partners, all the friends of Kosovo could see, and even encourage, all the parties that have an interest in the security of Kosovo could participate, could express their opinions, could debate in the Assembly. And by adopting this amendment it would be, I think, the best way to ensure the legitimacy of this process of transformation.

To say that we support the army, the transformation of the security force to the army, does not mean that we think it should happen arbitrarily or without the proper steps beforehand. We believe there has to be a constitutional amendment. By the same token, we don’t believe there should be a permanent, any kind of veto by a third party, a third country, or by any one party. There should be the understanding- our view is that if the government does everything possible to convince all stakeholders that they should support this transformation and even after this good-faith, sustained effort it is not possible, that other options besides a constitutional amendment need to be considered.

But we are not there yet, because we believe the government does need to do the necessary to demonstrate that it has reached out to all the parties, including the minority Serbs, to convince them that it is in their interest as well, that it is in the interest of the entire country and all parties to make this transformation.

VOA: The Special Court for war crimes in Kosovo has already been created. What is happening with it, do we expect indictments this year?

DAS Yee: We are strongly supportive of Kosovo’s full integration into the international community and for the closure of chapters in Kosovo’s past that still remain open. We believe that the Special Chambers are a way to close this chapter, this one painful chapter in Kosovo’s past. It is absolutely necessary and we salute those leaders in Kosovo who have been able to establish through law, through a constitutional amendment, the Specialist Chambers. We support very strongly the role of the Specialist Chambers. We and the European Union, particularly the European Union, are providing resources in order to help it do its work. We continue to support it. It is not for America, it is not for any European government to make a decision if there is an indictment this year or next year or whether there are any indictments. That is up to the prosecutors within the Special Chambers, for the justices to make that decision.

But what I can say is that we believe it is important for all the leaders in Kosovo to continue supporting the institution and the functioning of the institution, that it has the necessary environment in which to work, that it has the necessary political support so all of Kosovo’s citizens understand that this is something that everyone, inside Kosovo and outside, want to see succeed and conclude as soon as possible.

VOA: Before you came to Pristina, you were in Belgrade where you stated that Serbia cannot sit on two chairs, especially if those two chairs are too far apart. Is this a sign of change of U.S. foreign policy that it will apply more pressure on Serbia in the future to choose states?

DAS Yee: What I said in my imperfect Serbian language was, and it is an old Serbian proverb, that you cannot sit on two chairs at the same time. It is possible to sit on two chairs but it is very difficult. The point is that for a country, like Serbia, or any country, that is trying to join the European Union or NATO or another organization, it is important for the country to be completely committed to that goal. Not only in words to say we are committed but in deeds, in actions, investment of resources, investment of time. And Kosovo has, I think, similar decisions to make. Is Kosovo 100% committed to normalizing relations with Serbia, or 100% committed to joining the European Union? All governments face these kind of choices.

My message to Serbia was if it is working towards joining the European Union, then it must focus its attention on the necessary reforms, the necessary steps, in order to integrate with the European Union. It is tremendously difficult, as you know, from watching other countries make that step, whether it is Croatia, Slovenia, or earlier, the countries of Central Europe. Tremendously difficult, expensive, politically costly decisions and steps need to be taken. And if there are countries, parties or organizations which are opposed to that step- if there are countries that have a different vision for Serbia or other countries trying to join the European Union- then it is important not to be tied too hard to those countries. It is important not to try to satisfy both sides, because the consequence of doing that is that there is confusion in the public about whether it is one direction or the other. It slows down the process so if you are trying to sit in both chairs, trying to satisfy one country which is opposed to the accession and other countries that are in favor of it, it is going to make it much less efficient.

We are not opposed to Russia, for example, having ties with Serbia. Of course, Russia will always have relations with Serbia.  There are historical, cultural, religious connections, energy, economic ties.  We have no objection to that.  Just like the United States has ties with Russia. We have commercial ties, we have political cooperation.  Our view is that our interests are similar with Russia’s.  We will work with Russia.  Counterterrorism, maybe in Syria.  There are other areas where we do want to work with Russia.  We want Serbia also to be able to work with Russia, where their interests are the same.  But we also believe that where our interests are not aligned, where in fact we’re trying to do very different things, where our visions are very different, then we, the United States, we have to stand up for our interests, our values, our principles, and those of our allies.  Our recommendations, and of course it’s Serbia’s choice, this is Serbia’s – Serbia is a sovereign country, it makes its own decisions – but our advice to Serbia, just like it is to Kosovo, is that it should make very clear, Serbia or Kosovo, what its priorities are, what its policies are, so that those it is trying to join, whether it’s EU or NATO, understand that it’s the strategic choice of Serbia, or in Kosovo’s case Kosovo’s, to join, to integrate.  So there’s no dilemma, there’s no confusion.  That is the fastest way.  You can sit on two chairs and probably get to the same destination, but it’s much slower.

VOA:  Mr. Yee, a question for you for Albania.  The former Interior Minister is accused of connection with drug trafficking group.  What is your take on how his case has been handled?

DAS Yee:  Let me say, that for Albania we have been very pleased with the progress Albania has made, and we’re very happy that the United States has been able to contribute to the reforms in Albania, including the area of judicial reform. Together with the European Union, the United States has helped Albania pass legislation, pass amendments to its constitution, in order to strengthen the judiciary.  And that is because it’s not only important to Albania’s rule of law and the condition of its citizens, but it’s one of the elements necessary, one of the reforms necessary, for Albania to join the European Union.  It is in that spirit that we’ve continued to support Albania’s reform efforts in the rule of law area, also in the area of fighting crime, fighting organized crime, fighting corruption.  These are all ways to raise the living standards and conditions for citizens in Albania but also to assist progress by Albania towards joining the European Union.  So we are continuing to provide directly our assistance, our technical expertise, financial assistance to build the structures, to train judges, train prosecutors to help them do their job.

I obviously can’t speak on individual cases, but we do believe in a couple of principles.  One is that the law should apply equally to everyone.  No one should be held above the law.  No one can be immune from the law.  So we fully support prosecutors and judges, following investigations, and prosecutions, and convictions, wherever they lead, high or low in the administration.  We don’t believe individuals should be targeted because of one political party or another.  But the principle is that nobody should be above the law.  Secondly, we support the government setting the example.  The government should set the example, lead the way, and demonstrate to citizens that it is committed to fighting corruption, whether it is private citizens or people in government, foreigners or Albanians, that Albania is serious about prosecuting corruption.

VOA:  Mr. Yee, thank you very much.

DAS Yee:  Thank you very much.