Ambassador Hovenier’s Interview with Adriatik Kelmendi, Klan Kosova

Ambassador Hovenier’s Interview with Adriatik Kelmendi, Klan Kosova, June 29, 2023

Adriatik Kelmendi (AK): What is the current cooperation of The United States of America with Kosovo? Does it expect implementation of points put in front about the situation in the north of Kosovo soon? How to return the parties – Kosovo and Serbia – to the table of talks to eye reaching of the final agreement on the normalization of relations? What about sanctions that are being mentioned increasingly by USA and the EU if the parties do not reach agreement? About these, and many other issues, ahead of the USA National Day, July 4, tonight we have – exclusively in Rubikon – the American Ambassador in Kosovo, Mr. Jeffrey Hovenier. Pleasure to have you here in this important moment.

Ambassador Jeffrey Hovenier (JH): Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here as always.

AK: And we are just days away from the Independence Day of the U.S., so Happy 4th of July.

JH: Thank you.

AK: Will the 4th of July be celebrated in the spirit of good relations between Kosovan and American people?

JH: So, my impression is the 4th of July is always celebrated in Kosovo, reflecting kind of the unique partnership and relationship the United States has and the American people have with the people of Kosovo. We’re looking for a good Independence Day celebration here as well.

AK: And did the list of invitees change?

JH: No, we have invited our usual guests and we look forward to hosting them. I should say it’s important to note that while we will celebrate together and we look forward to that, we are in a more difficult moment right now, government to government, the United States government with the current government of Kosovo, we do have some differences, and I shouldn’t sugarcoat those or ignore those. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t share the same strategic objectives, and it doesn’t mean that we can’t come together to recognize the 247th anniversary of the signing of the American Declaration of Independence, which we will happily do.

AK: And this week eight American senators addressed the U.S. president Joe Biden with a letter to express their concern about the tense situation in the north of Kosovo. In this letter, the senators say that the U.S. efforts to de-escalate tensions have not been reciprocal, especially from Kosovo, and because of this approach they are willing to change the support of Congress. Is this letter cause of concern for us? Can Kosovo be subject to U.S. sanctions?

JH: So, the letter ought to be a cause of concern for all of us and I think it reflects not just the views of eight senators, but it also reflects the views of a number of American officials, including within the Biden administration.

We are concerned. We are Kosovo’s closest partner and the commitment of the American people to Kosovo itself and to the people of Kosovo remains as steadfast as ever. But, we have, and not just the United States, but we have asked the government of Kosovo to take some specific actions to help de-escalate the situation in the north to help move forward in a way to the benefit of Kosovo and to regional stability. And we are concerned that the government of Kosovo has not responded positively to those requests. I also want to make the point that it isn’t just the United States that is asking, you know, what’s happened just in this week is reasonably extraordinary.

Since Monday, Prime Minister Kirti has met with the British Foreign Secretary, has spoken with Secretary of State Blinken, has spoken with the President of the European Council, Ursula von der Leyen, there’s been public statements by the Secretary General of NATO. So basically, the configuration of the institutions to which Kosovo seeks to join someday, which we wholeheartedly support. And, the friends of Kosovo, the countries and institutions that have most played a role in supporting Kosovo on this trajectory are all asking Kosovo, this government, to take some specific actions to implement this three-point plan from the EU. We’re puzzled. It’s hard for us to understand why that isn’t being responded to in a positive way, and it doesn’t seem to be.

AK: “Puzzled” is the word to describe it?

JH: Well, that’s the word I just use. I’m puzzled. I’m trying to figure out why. It’s fairly unique for a government of Kosovo not be responsive to this constellation of actors, all of whom have Kosovo’s best interests at heart. So yeah, I’m puzzled, concerned, I want to avoid a situation, you know – at the tail end of this letter from the Senate, and I brought a copy, let me read a sentence to you that I think is really important on the screen as well. Okay, it’s near the end. So, the second page, if you go back, “we do not see this recent episode of tensions as a temporary aberration in the bilateral relationship. We see this as a defining moment in the trajectory of our relations with both countries.”

So, this is a moment for the government of Kosovo to show the extent to which it is prepared to be responsive to the very countries and institutions that it is most aligned with. I believe strongly that the people of Kosovo want to become members of the European Union and polling suggests that to be the case. I believe strongly that people of Kosovo want Kosovo to someday be a member of NATO and to join Partnership for Peace and public polling suggests that’s the case. The United States completely supports those objectives, and we’ve put in a lot of effort to achieve it. But if you want that, you also have to be responsive to those institutions and the key decision-makers in them. And that goes back to why we’re puzzled why we’re concerned why we want to see the government be responsive to the recommendations and requests from us, from the UK, from the European Union and others, to take these difficult steps to implement the three-point plan.

We are also asking Serbia to implement this three-point plan. This isn’t a focus just on Kosovo, we’re asking both sides to do things that de-escalate, that reset, that help us move past the current crisis which is deeply disconcerting, and get us to a place where we are focused on where we were a few months ago – the full implementation, by both sides, of the Ohrid agreement, which creates the right pathway for this trajectory towards European and Euro-Atlantic institutions for Kosovo.

AK: And what if we still won’t see a response from Kosovo government, and also from the Serbian side, for the request that was done.

JH: Well, as you saw in the letter from the senators, “if the fundamental building blocks of the relationship are not reciprocated, we urge you” – and there’s a letter to the president – “to consider further steps to limit those relationships, as we’ve outlined above.” So, I don’t want to get into specifics of what would come next, and I don’t want to go there. I was so disappointed when we were in a situation where the U.S. Commander of the European Command, four-star general, General Cavoli, made the decision to suspend Kosovo’s participation in Defender Europe 23. Nobody wants that, but he made that decision, because he assessed that a choice made by Prime Minister Kurti heightened the level of risk for NATO soldiers and American soldiers in Kosovo. Now, I will not say that Kosovo is solely responsible for the situation in the north. It is not- we know that. But, Kosovo has contributed to the situation. And so, he made this decision. I don’t want to see another decision like this again, I want to see us return to this close cooperation and partnership that is in the government’s control, and we hope it will take these choices.

AK: Or what?

JH: Well, as I said, I don’t want to get into specifics, I will say that it’s clear that there would be some additional consequences if we continue down the path of the government of Kosovo not being responsive to the requests from all of its friends, from all of the countries that have, and have shown over more than a decade or two, our commitment to seeing Kosovo take its place within Europe and within European and Euro-Atlantic structures.

AK: Prime Minister Kurti is complaining that the international community is not really understanding the issue and I will go back and quote what he said concerning U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, when Mr. Blinken said that the decision to use force to access municipal buildings in the north has been taken against the advice of the U.S. and – Kurti replied by expressing displeasure that this statement called the appeasement of Vucic, he said that this statement is, and I quote, “unfair, wrong and harmful, but at the same time very naive. Perhaps Secretary Blinken will explain this further one day, but definitely it was not helpful.” What is your comment?

JH: My comment is at that moment in time passions were high [chuckles]. And, I think it’s important to acknowledge that as well. I don’t believe that the American foreign policy apparatus, or myself or others, are misinformed or naive. I think we have a reasonable understanding of the motivations and activities and actions of the various actors here.

But our goal is clear: We want to see Kosovo advance on its European and Euro-Atlantic trajectory. We want to see Kosovo take its place in the family of Europe. The pathway to do that has been through the European facilitated dialogue. The European facilitated dialogue has been harmed or impeded by flashpoints, and the most recent one being a particularly worrisome, one of the situation in the north.

We want to get past flashpoints, we want to get to the hard work of implementing a good agreement that was reached and concluded in February with an implementation annex concluded in Ohrid in March. We expect both sides to implement it fully, we want to work on that together, there’s hard work to do. And I should add on that point that does mean for Kosovo doing hard work on the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities. That does mean for Serbia, as well, implementing provisions it has agreed to in the agreement, but we’re spending a lot of time dealing with the flashpoints in the north. We want to get past that, we don’t think that’s a naive view, we think that is a statesman-like view.

AK: Is the three-point plan the only option?

JH: It’s what the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom – and other friends of Kosovo have asked it to do. So, I don’t see a lot of interest in other options. And what we’re asking will de-escalate and move us forward. We’re asking Kosovo for mayors to temporarily work in other locations. That was included in the readout of the phone call Secretary Blinken issued after his call with Prime Minister Kurti on Monday, it was also I recall, in the readout of the meeting that the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom had with Prime Minister Kurti that same day. We do want specialized police out because we think that is part of what is creating the current environment. We want demonstrators away and that is something we’re talking to the Government of Serbia about. We want a de-escalation on this issue. Then we want to see a movement towards new elections, we fully expect the Serbs to participate in those elections, that is a condition for all of this. And then we want to move back to – or get to working towards full implementation by all sides of the agreement on a path to normalization.

AK: How can we get guarantees that the Serbs will participate in the new elections?

JH: That’s a hard question. All I can tell you is what we see is the pathway forward. And just as we’re having conversations here about the things Kosovo needs to do, we are having conversations both with Kosovan Serbs and with Belgrade about what needs to happen on that side. And those conversations are also fairly direct and fairly clear.

AK: And we’ve seen Kosovo Police officers were captured by the Serbian authorities. They were released a couple of days ago, but after 12 days that they have been held there. Did Serbia violate Resolution 1244 with this act?

JH: You know, the United States was, I think the first country to make a public statement about this situation. And we made clear that we believed that their arrest was exacerbating already, was on specious charges and exacerbating already tense situation, and they needed, and that these three needed to be released immediately and without conditions. And that was the right message. And we’re glad that that finally happened, that they are now home with their families. I will say we need to start looking forward, we need to start looking at how do we get out of this tit-for-tat, or this escalation of tensions in the north, and get to a place where our focus can be on moving forward the full implementation by both sides of the agreement on normalization.

AK: And there are many analysis [saying] if the situation will continue like this in the north of Kosovo, KFOR can take more control in the north. And how can it be seen if this happens? So will the Resolution 1244 again be brought into place and serve as some kind of protectorate only for the northern part of Kosovo.

JH: That feels like a hypothetical question, which I don’t like answering because we can spin lots of scenarios. The United States right now does not see that an appropriate response to the situation the north is for KFOR to take on law enforcement functions, which is what I think you were alluding to. Nor is KFOR interested in that, as far as I can tell. There is a way forward.

I mean, you know, we’ve been clear, the north is part of Kosovo, you know, and Kosovo is a sovereign, independent country. We support the Kosovo Police fulfilling its functions in the north, but it needs to be done in the right way. And it needs to has [inaudible] some patience with how the international community works with all the parties to see that realized. The best way forward right now is through full implementation by both sides of the agreement reached at Ohrid. And while we’re on this, I’d like to raise one more thing about policing more generally, in the north.

We have been concerned and we have discussed this with the government on several occasions, about some of the ways in which policing has been done. The United States is proud to have supported the Kosovo Police over many, many years. And I think most who are familiar with Kosovo Police and their doctrine and training and even the initial standing up for police academy know that we played a significant role in support of that. And we did that, because we understood that in the former Yugoslavia in particular, the way the police interacts with society and with the community was a very significant thing, and played a huge role whether a community, particularly with minority community, felt secure or not. We believe strongly that there is a need for specialized police units with specialized equipment doing specialized tasks as part of Kosovo’s toolbox for law enforcement.

But we also believe that specialized units with specialized equipment should be reserved for specialized tasks that require that training and equipment. And that day-to-day policing, provision of the rule of law ought to be done by regular law and order Police. We’ve been hearing from ethnic Serbs, the Serbian community in Kosovo, in the north in particular, that they are concerned by some of the deployment and some of the ways in which specialized units have been deployed, and we share that concern, we believe that the government would benefit from taking a look at how we’ve asked it to take a look at how it’s using this police, and to try to have a police force that is engaged in community policing, that actually the residents and the citizens feel is playing a role in bringing security to them. Right now, my sense from talking to civil society leaders and others in the north is they’re afraid of some of these police units and what they are doing. That is not a recipe for stability.

AK: Kosovo Police was attacked from different groups and they were really violent. Also, the KFOR soldiers were attacked, so they are not regular citizens probably of the north.

JH: So again, there are circumstances that require specialized units with specialized equipment doing specialized things. I’m not going to object to that. And I agree, we condemn attacks on KFOR. We condemn attacks on Kosovo Police. We condemn attacks on journalists. And you know, if you read the readout of Secretary Blinken’s phone call with President Vucic on Monday, he also made the point that those who attack KFOR should be held accountable. I would say the same about the police and journalists, of course, but that doesn’t mean you need specialized police doing routine functions.

AK: And we’ve mentioned, Ambassador, earlier, Defender Europe 23. Has the military cooperation between Kosovo and USA or KFOR changed after this, should I call it incident or episode?

JH: Well, I mean, the clearest manifestation that changed somewhat was the extent to which the KSF – who have been a good partner – were suddenly excluded from defender Europe 23, as  result of the direct decision by the senior most American military commander for all of Europe.

We don’t ever want to see that again. But we would like to be in a different place than that. But that does mean that the government of Kosovo, this government of Kosovo, does need to work with us, be more responsive to our requests of how we want to resolve the situation in the north. And I think the reason why our military authorities reacted so strongly and expressed such concern is, as I said, these choices, the situation in the north, right now, heightens the level of risk to U.S. and NATO soldiers. You know, people were injured, and I know that they were attacked by a mob. And I know that mob was not a mob inspired by the government of Kosovo, but they were there because of a choice by the government that then resulted in the demonstrations. We want it all to go away. We want to get back to a status quo.

We want to avoid a circumstance where there is heightened risk intention to U.S. soldiers, to NATO soldiers. And we think our friends, because we are friends, our friends in Kosovo should understand that we’ve taken a lot of risk over many years in support of the people of Kosovo, we’re prepared to do it. For heaven’s sake, you know, we stopped a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against the people of Kosovo. I think no one should doubt our commitment to this. But we also don’t want a level of risk that we think is unnecessary, particularly when we have a path forward that we want to do together.

AK: Do you see there are people doubting what you did for Kosovo?

JH: No, I…

AK: …talks about are we seeing some individual having anti-American views.

JH: You know, passions are high right now. So no, I have not sensed that in the community and in Kosovo community more broadly, people are not grateful for the role of the United States in the last 20 years of Kosovo. I do think there’s some surprise by some quarters, that we are not just agreeing to what the government of Kosovo wants to do right now. And that’s unfortunate.

But our support for Kosovo, as an idea, as a country, as a trajectory, which is unwavering and unyielding, doesn’t mean we’re going to support every choice made by any government of Kosovo. And right now, we’ve been as clear as we can, that we look to this government of Kosovo to start implementing the three-point plan as laid out by the EU. That’s our expectation and hope because we see this as the best way forward. Again, and it isn’t just the United States saying this – it is all of Kosovo’s friends. So, I’ve seen the commentary, I occasionally read the comments on my social media profiles. Not everybody’s welcoming our policy position for sure, and I understand that, but I do believe what we’re doing is what is best to help Kosovo achieve its ultimate objectives that we all share.

AK: The actions of one individual will not affect the relationship between the U.S. and Kosovo. I’m trying to quote Mr. Gabriel Escobar, referring to Prime Minister Kurti, and Prime Minister Kurti says he enjoys the support of 51% of the voters of Kosovo so, he has a right to govern.

JH: Well, he absolutely has a right to govern. He is the democratically elected – under the Kosovan Constitution – Prime Minister, and we respect him as such. I don’t challenge his authority to make decisions and to lead the country as he sees fit. But as a diplomat, it is my job, among other things, to give him both messages and best advice, which is what we’ve been doing both in public and in private.

AK: Many people say the U.S. is tougher towards Kosovo than is towards Serbia. Ambassador Hill said that it is questionable whether the U.S. can come to Kosovo Prime Minister as a partner. Do you consider Mr. Kurti as a U.S. partner?

JH: Well, I think my colleague Mr. Escobar already responded to that question as well, and of course we consider him to be a partner. And, you know, I have a frequent amount of interaction with Prime Minister Kurti, we’ve done some important things together. I look forward to, together as well, finding a way forward through the situation in the north, which for us very clearly means going forward with the three-point plan as laid out by the EU.

AK: Klan Kosova, the television where you’re giving this interview, had its business certificate suspended after the documents were fixed, the Business Registration Agency suspended it again. We are really afraid that we will not be able to broadcast normally in the near future if, what is called by many other media and international institutions is the attack from the government. What is your comment?

JH: Well, thank you for raising that. This is an important issue. And you know, the U.S. Embassy has also already been on record on this. For the United States, just taking our history for a minute. The question of a free and unrestricted media is very, very important. In 1787, I’m going to go back to history for a minute, when our constitution was negotiated, and it was sent out to the states for ratification, it became clear that there was some concern that there wasn’t sufficient attention paid to some specific rights. One of those was freedom of the media and as a condition for a number of states to ratify our Constitution, they had to pass a set of amendments called the Bill of Rights, which included media freedom.

That’s part of the founding set of ideals of the United States as the United States of America. Thomas Jefferson, our first Secretary of State, third President, drafter of the Declaration of Independence, whose 247th anniversary we will celebrate next week, referred to the media as the fourth estate. And what he meant by that is you’ve got the executive branch, the legislative branch, the judicial branch, and then the media – and the role that the media needs to play to ensure transparency and accountability. So, we take very seriously any efforts to restrict the role of the media in providing that service to society of transparency, of accountability. So, we’re watching this closely. We believe any effort to affect operations, business registration, broadcasting of independent media requires very, very careful review and thorough review. And these sorts of actions should not be taken lightly or for less than truly, truly significant reasons.

AK: Do you believe that we will have a chance to do another interview in the studio in the near future?

JH: I’m quite confident you and I will have the opportunity to do other interviews in the future. Yes.

AK: Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, proposed a draft status for the Association of Serb Municipalities. What is your opinion? And also, another question linked to Prime Minister Rama; his proposal for a Dayton style conference to have Mr. Vucic and Mr. Kurti there to get an agreement – final agreement.

JH: Yeah, the first thing I’d say is I did have a chance to read, but not in depth the proposal that Prime Minister Rama put forward for an Association of Serb-majority Municipalities. It’s serious, it’s thoughtful. But there’s a lot of ideas out there. And there’s a lot of ways you can do this. There was a proposal made by the Friedrich Ebert foundation as well, that was also serious and carefully done. So, what I would say is there’s no shortage of good ideas of how to do this, and let me repeat something I’ve said many times on the record: the United States does not ask Kosovo to put into place an Association of Serb-majority Municipalities that violates its current Constitution, that’s inconsistent with the Constitutional Court decision, or that goes beyond what we tried to lay out in a newspaper op-ed published by Deputy Assistant Secretary Escobar and Counselor of the State Department Derek Chollet, which makes very clear – no executive authority, no third level of government, no Republika Srpska-like model here. We will not support that.

But there’s ways to do that respond to the concerns of the community. And we, of course, welcome other people’s ideas on how to do this. At the end of the day though, the government of Kosovo needs to put its ideas forward. It needs to work with Miroslav Lajcak and the international community to move forward with this. That is the thing that the government of Kosovo most needs to do with regard to implementing Ohrid. Serbia also has responsibilities that it must fulfill to implement Ohrid. We know that too, and we’re asking that of them as well. On the question of the next steps in the Dialogue that you raised, you know, we’re not going to opine on the next step and the best way to do it, whether it’s, you know, locking people into a room until they come to agreement, negotiating in different ways. This is an EU-facilitated process, and the EU has named someone that we have confidence in, Miroslav Lajcak, to be the Special Representative and High Representative Borrel, clearly playing an important role in all this. They have to determine what the next step is, we will be supportive of that next step.

AK: And we mentioned Prime Minister of Albania, let’s go back to Kosovo, and how do you see the involvement, or do you see enough involvement of Kosovo president, Vjosa Osmani, in the situation that we have on the ground?

JH: You know, I’m not sure if it’s appropriate for me to pass judgment on performance of the president of a sovereign country. I will say that I’ve seen President Osmani’s public statements, and we’ve had private conversations in which she has steadfastly defended Kosovo’s sovereignty and its rights, but also talked about the importance of full coordination with the international community. That’s an important message. And it’s also my message today, I’m looking for the government of Kosovo to also take action in response to, and in cooperation with all of its friends and partners.

AK: And if we make an assessment of Kurti’s government so far, what would you call the biggest success and maybe the biggest failure of the government?

JH: And again, I’m not sure it’s appropriate for an ambassador from another country to pass judgment on the successes and failures of a prime minister. That’s for voters to do it at an appropriate time. I can tell you what I want Prime Minister Kurti’s largest success to be. And that is to see Kosovo move significantly closer to its vision of full integration into the EU, and into NATO, to become a member of Partnership for Peace, to see its Council of Europe application move forward. All of that can be done. The path though, is through the full implementation of the Ohrid agreement. That’s the way, and to get there we got to get past the flashpoint, that crisis in the north right now.

AK: And the last question, we saw that President Biden blacklist was reinstated again a few days ago. Can it include people from Kosovo as well?

JH: I’m not sure what you mean by blacklist. Are you talking about the sanctions designations?

AK: Yes.

JH: Okay. So, this isn’t President Biden’s list. We’ve been designating people, the Treasury does it in a number of administrations. And, I think going back to President Clinton, we can come up with a number of designations of people here in the Balkans, including in Kosovo. And we have authorities right now, the authorities for the Treasury to designate people so that they are either individually or collectively, or organizations, are subject to sanctions. There’s two big ones right now. One is if you are involved in transnational organized crime, that was the basis for the designation of Mr. Radoicic. The other is if you are involved in doing things that create destabilization in the region, and we have designated a number of people, including in Kosovo, under those authorities as well, we still have those authorities. And so, if people are involved in destabilizing the region, or if they’re involved in transnational organized crime, we would certainly reserve the right for the Treasury to designate them and then they will be subject to U.S. sanctions.

AK: Mr. Ambassador, as always a pleasure to have you on my show. Thank you.

JH: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.