Ambassador Kosnett’s Interview with Jeta Xharra

Ambassador Kosnett’s Interview with Jeta Xharra, December 6, 2019

Jeta Xharra: Mr. Kosnett, thanks for being on Jeta ne Kosove. Is partition dead?

Ambassador Kosnett:  Jeta, it’s a great pleasure to be here, and let me start by explaining the American position on border adjustment between Kosovo and Serbia, because I think that our position has frequently been misunderstood. U.S. administration’s view is that the governments of Kosovo and Serbia should negotiate without preconditions, that they should be free to talk about whatever they want to talk about at the negotiating table.  We have said that if Kosovo and Serbia negotiate a comprehensive settlement that includes an adjustment to borders – we would not reject that out of hand. But it’s important for your viewers to know the U.S. Government has never actively encouraged an adjustment of borders, partition as some have called it. We’ve also said that any agreement between Kosovo and Serbia has to be acceptable not just to a few politicians, but to the people of both countries.  It is pretty clear to me that there is very little appetite in Kosovo in any community, for partition as you refer to it. Even in the minority communities I don’t see strong support for it, and certainly in the majority community there’s almost no support for it. So, in that sense, I think, under current conditions, speaking of partition is – that’s old news, that’s history.

Jeta Xharra:  I know, and it’s an old news question, but I wanted to hear you and to be clear about it, because there’s been so many, let’s say misinterpretations, or different interpretations. So, let’s go to the next question, why does the U.S. have two envoys for this part of the world? Can you explain that to the people?

Ambassador Kosnett:  Yes, the fact that the White House and the State Department both have a special envoy for this region is a sign of this administration’s strong commitment, strong desire to encourage peace, justice and prosperity for Kosovo and its neighbors. The fact is it’s not that unusual for the White House and the State Department both to have people who are working on an issue. Matt Palmer is the State Department’s Special Representative for the Western Balkans, he has a rather broad mandate.  Ambassador Rick Grenell, Ambassador to Germany, has been named as the Special Presidential Envoy for Kosovo-Serbia Negotiations – a very specific task.  The two of them work together very closely, just as they work together with the teams of the U.S. Embassy here and in Belgrade.

Jeta Xharra: OK, I have a very basic question, can you define, summarize, what is the national interest of foreign policy of the U.S. in Kosovo? How would you define it?

Ambassador Kosnett:  We have three strategic goals for Kosovo. These are American goals, but I think these are goals that are shared by the people of Kosovo. Peace – justice – prosperity. Let me explain what I mean by that: when we talk about Peace, we are talking about better relations between Kosovo and Serbia but also Kosovo and all of its neighbors. But we’re also talking, Jeta, about better relations among the communities here in Kosovo—that’s peace.  Justice, naturally a big part of that is anti-corruption, which was so central in the election in October. But we have a broader definition of justice that means Kosovo should become a country where every citizen feels that they have a stake in country’s future. Everyone is equal under the law and respected, regardless of their community affiliation, their gender, their sexual orientation – this should be a country where everybody is equal, and where the legal system works for everybody.

Finally, prosperity – when I – this is my second tour in Kosovo. I was here in 2003 and when I came back there were many things I saw that were different, that were better, and there are other things that hadn’t changed that much. One thing that really impressed me was the new generation of young entrepreneurs, highly educated, energetic, multi-lingual, who could be successful anywhere in the world. And they are trying to create an entrepreneurial economy here in Kosovo. So, when we talk about prosperity, we are talking about economic development that relies on unleashing the abilities of the people of Kosovo and also attracting foreign investment. We think both of those dimensions are important.

Jeta Xharra:  You mentioned justice and I’ve seen your statements on anti-corruption but now I want to know how – basically, how harsh will you be on this and is there a red line.  I want to pose a specific questions: one of the most controversial deals right now is the financial transaction of about 30 million euros, to Bechtel-Enka, in the name of a debt that supposedly Kosova owed to this company – I know this contract has not been inaugurated under your watch, but I want your opinion.  What if the criminal investigation, which is currently open by our prosecution, reveals that the outgoing governments were in collusion with the contractor to siphon funds from Kosovo budget to individuals. My question is: will you stay silent or will you pick up the phone and say don’t go that far?

Ambassador Kosnett:  This is probably not the first time in this interview that I am going to say Jeta, that’s hypothetical question and it’s difficult for me to answer hypothetical questions. But let me say this, I think that the American Embassy, the American Government has been quite frank and quite open in the past year in calling out corruption when we see it. Sometimes that means naming names, sometimes it means talking about the problems of corruption in institutions or in procedures.  I can guarantee you this – that when you see a tweet, a social media posting from our Embassy laying down our position on a matter of justice—you can assume that there have been some private discussions first. As much as possible I am happy to try to resolve issues privately with people in government, with other stakeholders, before we start calling out publicly about it.

Jeta Xharra: But, in many ways it is your job as Ambassador to vouch for American business – on this occasion, an American business is being investigated – American-Turkish company, and I want to know sometimes tweets – your tweets—are very helpful but there are times like these that maybe you should hold back. My question is: will you just stand back?

Ambassador Kosnett: Again, hypothetical. I will say this, it is any Ambassador’s job to encourage trade and investment opportunities for companies from their countries. So a big part of my job here is to support American investment, to work with American companies to identify opportunities in Kosovo, to the benefit of both sides. I think that people in Kosovo want to see more foreign investment. So, foreign investment, American business activity in Kosovo is a positive thing.

Jeta Xharra: This is our investment. Our taxpayers’ money is paying this contractor. And if this contractor says, well they own me money for my machines not working, is it your job to go and get the money from the taxpayers.

Ambassador Kosnett:  First, let’s define investment. Investment can also mean expertise—ability.  Infrastructure projects are meant to be helpful to the country to spur economic development, that’s speaking broadly. On the specifics of the Bechtel-Enka contract, I mean I’ll come back to my earlier point, I am not going to address hypotheticals about the possible outcome of court cases…..

Jeta Xharra:  ….you’re not but we are getting the most expensive highways built in this country. This is not me saying it, it’s experts saying it. It was an article in Foreign Policy saying that we have the most expensive highways built by these experts.

Ambassador Kosnett:  They are expensive but there is a reason for that. It was an extraordinary engineering feat to be able to build the highway to Skopje. I am sure you’ve driven on it by now—it’s very impressive. So there are reasons why it’s more expensive to build a highway through mountains than in the desert, for example.

Jeta Xharra:   We found out recently that in Serbia, they built the same road – same company is building but much cheaper. What would you say to Kosovars who have seen the prices in Serbia and here?

Ambassador Kosnett:  First of all, I’d say that every project is different. So, I think you can’t make these assumptions without knowing the details. Second, I think you should talk to Bechtel and talk to the ministries here. Talk to the ministries and find out what happened.

Jeta Xharra: Oh, because we’ve been talking, they are under investigation over this debt.  We’ll go on to next topic, the next government.  I am interested to know about the relations with the next government. This government will form at any time, presumably, but I want to ask whether you expect disagreements with Kurti’s government and I’m actually interested in if there are disagreements, we expect, like people, you may have disagreements in the future. How will you act when these disagreements appear?

Ambassador Kosnett:  Disagreements with the next government?

Jeta Xharra:  Yes.

Ambassador Kosnett:  I think it’s natural to expect disagreements between governments—I think that’s the point you’re making.  The United States has very close relations with Kosovo. I expect that to continue far into the future.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be policy disagreements between the two governments. That’s natural, right? So, we’ll do what we do with all of our friends. We’ll talk about these differences, we’ll try to narrow the gaps, we’ll try to make clear why we think it’s necessary or desirable for Kosovo to do certain things and I expect the Government of Kosovo will have its counterarguments, and most of the time we’ll agree. I say that because I think that the key goals that the United States has for Kosovo are the same goals that the people of Kosovo have. I think that the election on October 6 was very exciting, it is a very exciting moment for Kosovo.  It showed that people want change, that they want an economic future for their country and they are not satisfied with the progress in that direction. They care about corruption, they want to build a future. Of course, we want the same thing.

Jeta Xharra: I agree in general terms that you want the same things, but it’s about priority and since you opened this – you mentioned peace is the first priority of the United States. For us it’s justice, actually.  For the majority of people watching you tonight it’s justice because we are twenty years since the end of the war. So, what would you say to those people who think, well, rather than dialogue, getting my health in order, my rule of law, my school in order, is something that Kurti government should have as first priority rather than pleasing the internationals with the peace deal?

Ambassador Kosnett:  First of all, I don’t think that these three goals, peace, justice, prosperity, are prioritized…one, two and three.  I think that the government has to work on all three fronts. When Bill Clinton became President of the United States, there is a famous story that his staff said in our first four years in office we are going to fix all America’s problems at home, and then on our second term we’ll worry about the world.  It doesn’t work that way. We completely understand the election in most people’s minds was primarily about economic opportunity and about justice. We respect that and those things are of critical importance for Kosovo. But, we don’t think that you can just delay international relations. So, we believe, and I am sure we’ll talk about this more, that improving relations with the neighbors is going to create economic opportunities for the people of Kosovo.

Jeta Xharra:  If there was one advice, hypothetically, as you said I have hypothetical questions, if you were advisor to Albin Kurti, hypothetically, what would your one advice be?

Ambassador Kosnett:  I think that Albin Kurti knows that he has to convince the people of Kosovo that he intends to be the Prime Minister of all the people of Kosovo. I have said this before, he knows that people didn’t vote for him to become Prime Minister of the “Republic of North Albania.”  I’ve met many times with Mr. Kurti, I think that he fully intends to be the sort of leader who thinks about the needs of everybody in the country. I think it’s time for him to start showing that. He needs to get out there. I mean, Mr. Kurti if you are watching, you need to start travelling around the country and meeting with people from all sorts of communities and not just political leaders.

Jeta Xharra: He would say I walk all the time, I walked throughout elections. I am with people all the time. Wouldn’t he say this to you’?

Ambassador Kosnett: I’d say, keep it up. But, don’t just talk to political leaders. Talk to ordinary citizens. You know Jeta, last night I was watching the interview you did with Greg Delawie, a year ago, right before he left – I did my homework.  And you asked Greg what advice he would give his successor. And the most important thing that Greg said was get out of Pristina, talk to ordinary people around the country, understand their concerns.  I think that’s important for diplomats, it’s also important for political leaders.

Jeta Xharra:  Now, I want to also ask you about – when I asked you about disagreements – how would you resolve disagreements? We except you will not agree with the future government but, even – funny thing is that governments we expect you to agree on, like the former ones, ended up being punished by you, because of hundred percent tax, the tariff, that U.S.A. put on Kosovo government officials.  So I want to now ask and probe this question, will you lift the tariff, depends, the tariff will be lifted by Kosovo government, will U.S.A. lift the conditions to Kosovo government officials, now with the next government?

Ambassador Kosnett: First of all, I disagree with the premise of your question, that we have punished Kosovo in some way. Let’s take a moment to remind everybody about the fundamentals of the relationship between the United States and Kosovo. The United States intervened along with our NATO allies here, twenty years ago to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. And, I think most citizens of Kosovo would say that the United States has continued to play a critical role in building Kosovo’s security. (Jeta Xharra: Nobody disputes that.) Nobody disputes that.  Our role in supporting the development of the Kosovo Security Force is very important.

Jeta Xharra:  Agreed, but some – I was in the United States and I found out that some officials–were disinvited in conferences, in trainings, because of the hundred percent tax. My question to you is – just because a leader does something crazy, for example: if Trump does something crazy, does it mean that the rest of the world should punish the American people because he did something crazy? Why should the people be punished with visas, with access, with training, for the decision of the leader?

Ambassador Kosnett: Because the people are not being punished. Have we restricted visas to the citizens of Kosovo? No, we have not. In fact, one of most exciting moments for me this last year, was on July 4th when we dedicated our new Embassy, which I think is an important symbol—a physical symbol of America’s commitment to Kosovo.  One result of that is people don’t have to go to Skopje anymore to apply for visas, we are open for business every day, accepting visa applications in Kosovo.

Jeta Xharra: Kosovo officials have not been disinvited, you say, because of this tax?

Ambassador Kosnett: There are – I am saying that they may have been individuals who were disinvited to this or that conference, because there were people that we thought – there were people from other countries that had more to contribute to that particular conference. Let me make this point: we’ve also said, and I think this is something that is important for your viewers to understand, that when we look at visa applications from government officials, we look very hard now at information about corruption, about illegal activity.  People in government who engage in illegal activity, who are under indictment, should not assume that we will not take that into account when we look at their visa applications. We are looking at that, case by case, at individuals. Last point, I think this is important: the United States continues to provide a great deal of economic assistance to Kosovo—that has not changed in the past year. The economic assistance that American agencies provide—USAID, the State Department, the Justice Department, the Defense Department, the Millennium Challenge Corporation—it’s not just packets of money to friends. These are all programs aimed at helping Kosovo build a more self-reliant, self-sufficient economy.

Jeta Xharra: I must say, the standard you just gave that you look at politicians whether they are involved into something is not the standard you are applying with Hashim Thaci, the President. Because, he was mentioned in Dick Marty’s report, there is a special court investigating that. It’s not like you are not considering him as a key player, despite the fact that our Constitution—the Prime Minister leads the dialogue. You are still dealing with the President, far more than with the former President Atifete Jahjaga. She was not the leader of the dialogue while with Hashim Thaci, you are sort of – is the player that is being put forward by the United States, as well.

Ambassador Kosnett: Once again, I don’t really accept the premise of your question that we are somehow only paying attention to President Thaci or putting him forward.  I think that it is certainly true that President Thaci has taken on a role vis-à-vis President Vucic in trying to find a way forward in the relationship between two countries. I think that it will be very important for the new government to play its appropriate role. You remember when the Haradinaj government created a negotiating team drawing on people from a number of parties. That effort kind of fizzled out (Jeta Xharra:…we saw how it didn’t work….), but I think it was important that they made the effort to listen to voices from different parties, also from stakeholders outside of government. And when they did that, Jeta, I said it would be very important for them not just to throw away whatever constructive work President Thaci might have done. They should build on it, that he should be part of the process, or…

Jeta Xharra: …or the destructive role, opening the partition debate. Constructive and destructive, should that be followed?

Ambassador Kosnett: I think that there is no…and not everyone is going to agree on this…but I think that there are no issues that are too dangerous to talk about.  I think that we can see that today where there are people, because of the developments in last twenty-four hours, saying we can’t trust those people, how can we talk to them, how can we have a dialogue with those people.

Jeta Xharra: One thing our viewers would ask when you said you look at what politicians are saying and what’s their background. They would say how come you are not stopping visas for officials in Serbia that have – that dispute the facts on what happened during the war. Recently Mr. Vucic said that there was a fake massacre of Racak, that never happened. So, many people — he said these are fabricated facts. So, many people think you go harsh on Kosovars when they make a mistake, you don’t dare do the same to Vucic.

Ambassador Kosnett: Well, I don’t see us cancelling visas or withholding visas to people in this country because of things that they say. But, let’s talk about this because this is a very important issue and it has many dimensions. First of all, the Racak massacre is a historic fact. There is no doubt in my mind. There were many independent observers, – journalists, William Walker – who have demonstrated that it was a horrific massacre.  And it’s true. So, for anyone to deny it—simply the wrong thing to do.  It’s historical revisionism, it’s unhelpful. I could use other adjectives, but I’ll stop there.

Jeta Xharra: Let’s say Bytyqi brothers, is a case United States has so much pushed with the institutions in Serbia. Have any visas been denied because they didn’t catch the killers of Bytyqi brothers.

Ambassador Kosnett:  I don’t know the answer to that. I am not the Ambassador to Serbia, so I honestly don’t know. But can we talk about this some more, because it’s important.  Historical revisionism is wrong, it’s dangerous. But, as an American, I have to say that we also are very cautious about criminalizing speech. Under American law, we give great leeway to people to speak. Even if it’s wrong, even if it’s offensive, even if it’s insulting.  We think that there should be a very high – under American law, I am talking about United States now—there should be a very high threshold to criminalize speech. The classic example is creating imminent danger by yelling fire, when there is no fire, in a crowded theater.  I think it is fair to ask, and people are asking, if the courts in Kosovo, if the judicial system in Kosovo, is going to be systematic and fair in what sort of speech is criminalized. Because, there are a lot of people from the majority community who have made inflammatory statements over the year, who didn’t find themselves charged with crimes. So, I think it is a legitimate question to ask.

Jeta Xharra:  Over the years but recently when you want this peace deal Kosovars are not going around and saying Serbs were never killed in the war, either. Kosovars are not going there and saying things like Mr. Vucic said even a year ago here, that Milosevic’s policy was good but just unsuccessful. If you want the peace deal how do you tell Kosovars, go and make a peace deal with the leader that denies facts?

Ambassador Kosnett: If you want a peace deal, you sit down and you talk to your adversaries. Jeta, I have seen in the past day or so, people saying I am not going to talk to those guys – they’re unreasonable, they’re this and that.

Jeta Xharra: Oh yeah, we are talking to them. Mr. Thaci is talking to Mr. Vucic. So, it’s not like it’s not happening.

Ambassador Kosnett: It is important, I really think it’s important for your listeners to hear this, whether they all are going to agree or not, you don’t make progress by talking just to your friends. You make progress by talking to your adversaries, you counter lies with the truth.

Jeta Xharra: Mr. Kosnett, Kosovars are talking since 2011, not only talking—signing agreements with Serbia which are not being implemented. So, you cannot tell Kosovars, you are not talking. Kosovars are talking but not getting anywhere.  We’ve got very little time left. I want to go for final questions. As we speak today, this week, and last week there was a climate change conference taking place in Spain, it’s a post-Paris climate change agreement.  U.S. President has boycotted this conference, but Nancy Pelosi, the head of Congress, is attending with a delegation to show U.S. commitment to Paris agreement.  Now, I can see that U.S. policy is divided on this.  I’m interested more in Philip Kosnett’s opinion—where your heart lies on climate change debate.  Basically, do you think like the rest of the world, that we have a challenge ahead of us, or do you think that these scientific arguments are really fake news?

Ambassador Kosnett: I think that we have a real challenge ahead of us.  There are a lot of legitimate questions about what are the best steps—what are the next steps ahead.  One area where this is relevant to Kosovo—climate change is relevant to every country because the climate doesn’t respect borders—is energy policy for Kosovo.

Jeta Xharra: You support the coal plant and coal is bad for the environment.

Ambassador Kosnett:  Let me give you more than a yes or no answer to that, because that’s a great question that deserves a serious answer.  I live in Pristina like everybody else. I live near Obliq.  I wake up every morning and eat this air with a fork, like everybody else.  I think we all know that the current state of Kosovo’s energy infrastructure is unacceptable.  There need to be solutions. Now, it’s the position of the U.S. government that Kosovo needs affordable, sustainable energy that also will address the public health problem that we have now. Renewables certainly have to be an important part of that.  Particularly, I think, solar and wind power, and there are American companies that have been involved in that and can be involved in that in the future.  I also think that it is worthwhile to look at increasing the use of natural gas in Kosovo. Now that’s a complicated question because Kosovo would have to….

Jeta Xharra: But this is new to U.S. policy because until now you’ve only pushed Kosovo to do coal because you said this is your affordable option. You know now there are more affordable options than just coal.  Will there be repercussions for Kosovo politics if the agreement with Contour Global doesn’t end up happening?

Ambassador Kosnett: Let me finish.  I think that looking at natural gas as an element is perfectly reasonable. It’s not going to be cheap, there are infrastructure problems. Someone would have to build a pipeline between Kosovo and a port, for example.  These are things that are worth looking at—the role of renewables, the role of gas.  Up until now, I have not seen a plan that can produce—again—affordable, reliable energy, which business needs also in order to do manufacturing, that does not involve modernizing, replacing, the existing coal infrastructure.  If somebody comes up with a plan that is going to work, that is going to address all of these different elements, of course we’re going to look at it. I look forward to discussing that with the new government as well as with other stakeholders.

Jeta Xharra: And finally, I’ve recently seen that there is a common denominator between Kosovo and the U.S.  I’ve seen that politicians in the U.S. also intimidate witnesses, even if they are a public servant testifying in front of Congress.  Do you think this is what we have in common?  We’ve seen both politicians in both countries, basically, intimidate people….

Ambassador Kosnett:  I don’t think that’s what we have in common.  Here’s what I think the United States and Kosovo have in common.  I think that we have impressive young people who have a global vision, who want to build a future for themselves and their families. I think we have people who are fighting every day for justice, and by that, I don’t just mean anti-corruption.  For example, in the past year I’ve had the honor of meeting with people who work on missing persons issues, with survivors of war-time sexual violence who are really, at great personal sacrifice and personal risk, courageously trying to bring these issues to the forefront.  I think we have people who are willing to take personal risks to build a better political future for the country—one where everybody feels a stake in the future.  I think the United States and Kosovo are natural friends—that friendship is going to continue into the future indefinitely.  To get back to a point you made earlier, it doesn’t mean we’re always going to agree. And when we disagree, both governments are going to be free to take steps along those lines. But up until now, and I think into the future, the United States is going to be committed to helping Kosovo build that future—a self-sufficient future where Kosovars don’t have to rely so much on American foreign aid, European aid, remittances. Where Kosovars can wake up in the morning, breathe clean air, and know that they have an economy that stands on its own two feet.

Jeta Xharra:  Mr. Kosnett, it has taken you a year to come to Jeta ne Kosove after being in Kosova, I hope to see you more often here in our studio. Thanks for being here.

Ambassador Kosnett: It’s been a great pleasure Jeta; thank you very much.