Ambassador Hovenier’s Interview with Isak Vorgucic

Ambassador Hovenier’s Interview with Isak Vorgucic, February 6, 2024

Q: Mr. Ambassador, last week was marked by several events which had a negative impact on the Serbian community in Kosovo. Serbs see this attitude of the Kosovo authorities as pressure and an intention to expel the remaining Serbian population. How do you see the latest actions of the Kosovo government? What kind of messages are being sent to the Serbs in Kosovo?
A: In the past week, I have spoken out publicly many times regarding the Central Bank of Kosovo’s (CBK) amended Regulations on Cash Operations. We have also had numerous conversations with the Government of Kosovo at all levels – including phone calls between the Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia Affairs, Jim O’Brien, and Prime Minister Kurti.

Our request remains that Kosovo postpone enforcement of the CBK’s Regulations until satisfactory procedures in line with European standards are in place and until there is a clear way for people to receive their benefits and payments, and until the population has been sufficiently informed about how the delivery of their benefits will proceed.

We do respect the right of the Central Bank and the Government to regulate the financial sector, but this is such a sensitive issue, with direct impact on how Kosovan citizens receive financial support from Serbia. We therefore want to see the Government and the Central Bank exercise great sensitivity and caution in how they carry this out, taking into account the impact this change will have on some of Kosovo’s most vulnerable citizens.
o Q: In your statement over the weekend, you expressed your concern about a series of moves by the Kosovo government, aware of how such moves can have negative effects on the Kosovo Serbs. Are you worried about the possible escalation of the situation, and can the increased presence of KFOR, mainly in the north, contribute to preventing it from happening?

A: As I said in my statement over the weekend, we are deeply concerned about those actions that have a direct and negative effect on Kosovan Serbs, but also on other minority communities. The seizure of dinars on February 3 intended for social benefit payments from Serbia is one example of these actions. For these payments specifically, we expect Kosovan authorities to ensure that the intended recipients of those benefits receive these payments without delay.

You know, I’m a parent, and I’ve raised four children. If my government started doing things that made it harder for my children to go to school and be educated, or for our family to have access to a pediatrician, I’d be quite unhappy. I would feel that my government wasn’t necessarily paying attention to things that directly affect me and my family. So, I’m just talking as a human being. Most of us want our families to live in conditions of dignity and security, to have good education, to have good health care, to have predictability. I want my grandpa to receive his pension every month. And I’d be less concerned about the bank he goes to and more concerned that he has money to buy bread.

I want to emphasize that on a broader level, we think it is important to focus on actions that enhance calm and peace and a renewed focus to advance a full and complete implementation of the Basic Agreement and its implementation annex. This will enhance regional stability and advance Kosovo’s European and Euro-Atlantic trajectory. To this end, we appreciate KFOR’s robust presence in the north of Kosovo because we see a peaceful, secure Kosovo as key to making political progress.

Q: Do you expect a successful and quick completion of the process of ending the mandate of four Albanian mayors in municipalities with a Serbian majority in the north? In the current situation, is there room for fair and democratic elections for mayors in North Mitrovica, Zvecan, Leposavic and Zubin Potok?

A: The United States and our international community partners have been following this situation closely. We were happy to see the Kosovan government institute the Administrative Instruction. We think it’s important that citizens have the ability to exercise their right to recall elected officials, should they choose to do so. And with regard to the four mayors in the north, let’s be honest, the United States Government absolutely acknowledged the outcome of those elections as legal, consistent with Kosovan law. But I don’t think any of us can be satisfied with an elected official who had no more than 4% of registered voters come and cast ballots on election day. That is not a mandate for sweeping political change, or even to be able to claim that you fully represent the constituency that elected you. So, we do look to the Government of Kosovo to fulfill the commitments it made to us and to the European Union to facilitate this process.

My understanding is that citizens in the north are following the steps laid out in the Administrative Instruction. If the Central Election Commission confirms that a sufficient number of eligible voters have signed petitions for a recall, it is our expectation that all Kosovan officials, at all levels, will do everything possible to move quickly to the next step – which is scheduling and holding a recall vote – and facilitating the full implementation of this instruction without any delay. And we will not be very patient with circumstances that would result in delays. The reality is, the next step should happen within the expected timeframe, which I think is 45 days, and we will be looking to all authorities of Kosovo, including the opposition parties that are represented on the Central Election Commission, or the government, the Office of the President and other state institutions to do everything possible to move this process forward. After that, we hope to see fair and democratic elections, with all those affected participating.

Q: The Serbian List, as well as representatives of the authorities in Serbia, warn of a possible exodus of Serbs. How to prevent Serbs from leaving Kosovo after a series of recent actions by Kosovo institutions? The fact is that they are already leaving…

A: Our vision for Kosovo has always been as a multiethnic society in which all citizens enjoy equal rights and protections without regard to ethnicity or other differentiating characteristics. The U.S. Embassy prioritizes programs and efforts to advance this vision. One of our Embassy’s primary goals is to bolster Kosovo’s economic prosperity, so that citizens of all backgrounds and ethnicities have the economic opportunities to expand their livelihoods here.

Our expectation is that the Government of Kosovo will do its absolute utmost to ensure that all of its citizens, without regard to ethnicity, can live in conditions of dignity and security.

This is why we have asked the Government to postpone enforcement of the Central Bank regulation, as the way in which it is enforced directly affects vulnerable citizens. People – and particularly in this case, the ethnic Serb community – are concerned that they may not have access to their social benefits or livelihoods or to institutions that they have relied on for decades to provide them with basic services, including healthcare and education.

Q: Can the USA, as a traditional friend of Kosovo, influence Prime Minister Albin Kurti to change his approach towards the Serbian community, which does not seem benevolent? Kosovo is still under EU measures due to its insistence on unilateral moves that contributed to the escalation of the situation at the end of spring last year.

A: For many years U.S. officials have engaged with Kosovan officials on the sensitive and important issue of the rights and situation of minority communities in Kosovo, including the Kosovan Serb community. For us, this is a fundamental question. How Kosovan authorities respond has a direct effect on the quality of our partnership. We value our longstanding partnership and friendship with Kosovo. We want to continue that partnership, and even deepen it. But this partnership depends on our Kosovan counterparts.

Good partnership means listening to your friends and considering their point of view. It means sometimes making sacrifices or compromises. The quality of our partnership will ultimately suffer if we find that our requests and recommendations are discounted or dismissed.

I’ve been pretty clear about the United States position in this regard. I – and my team – consistently encourage the Government of Kosovo to actively reach out and listen to its ethnic Serb community, including in those places in Kosovo where individuals have left Kosovan institutions, to try to address the concerns that they’ve identified.

Q: Representatives of Kosovo institutions say that the Provisional Bodies are illegal, parallel institutions. However, those institutions in Kosovo have been functioning for 25 years after the war, and this has not bothered anyone until now. Those institutions, including education and health, employ the largest number of Serbs in Kosovo. What can the Kosovo government offer to the Serbs who will lose their jobs due to the possible closure of temporary authorities?

A: Let me refer to my statement from Saturday: we are deeply concerned about recent actions by authorities of the Government of Kosovo that have a direct and negative effect on members of the ethnic Serb and other minority communities in Kosovo. We look to the Government of Kosovo to suspend enforcement of the Central Bank regulation until there are satisfactory procedures in line with European standards in place, including plans for how Serbia can continue to provide support – as it has the right to do under the Ahtisaari plan – for healthcare and educational services for the Kosovan Serb community.

I certainly can say that we are watching this situation very closely, and we are doing our utmost to highlight these concerns to our counterparts in the Government of Kosovo.

And let me point out that this kind of situation is exactly why we think that it is urgent for the Government of Kosovo to move forward on the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities (ASM). We have always seen the ASM as the mechanism through which Serbia can continue to provide this support in a manner that conforms with Kosovan requirements and is transparent to the Government of Kosovo.

Q: It seems that Kosovo sometimes respects its own laws very selectively, especially if you also take into account the case of Visoki Decani monastery, but also the situation with a number of Orthodox churches in Kosovo lately, which are burdened with the past, which, to put it mildly, is not appropriate?

A: We’ve been very clear and consistent in our position on Decan Monastery land: this case is about the rule of law—not ethnicity, politics, or religion.

We continue to call on Kosovan authorities to implement immediately the 2016 Constitutional Court decision and register the land. Respecting court decisions is not a matter of choice, and it is certainly not a matter of negotiations, politicking, or deal-making. Continued delays in upholding the law call into question Kosovo’s commitment to equal justice, accountability, transparency, and respect for property rights.

As for other religious heritage sites, we always advocate, and constantly call for, protection of those sites. Kosovan authorities are responsible for their protection, no matter which ethnicity they belong to. I have had frequent conversations both with Serbian Orthodox Church officials and Government of Kosovo officials on these important issues.

Q: How can we expect the Serbs to accept Kosovo as their state if those who are at the head of the institutions behave like this towards their citizens? You yourself often talk about the safe and dignified life that Serbs in Kosovo have the right to. Are we irreversibly moving away from that?
o A: As you point out, I do believe that all citizens in Kosovo should be able to live their lives in conditions of dignity and security, regardless of ethnicity. And I believe that any citizen has the right of return to their home, and they should be able to do so, without bearing any threat or intimidation for trying to exercise that right.

We also have advocated for Kosovan Serbs who left Kosovan institutions in November 2022 to return where possible. I also encourage Kosovan Serbs to take advantage of the opportunities that Kosovo’s Constitution and laws offer them, including through participation in political processes such as elections and active representation in elected bodies. A fundamental part of democracy is citizen participation. It only works when you participate. So, I hope we will see in the upcoming months new mayoral elections in the northern municipalities that produce political leaders who enjoy a broad mandate from their constituents. And I hope we’ll see greater political and social participation at all levels of society, to highlight areas where the system is not working and to address these challenges that communities are facing.

Q: Mr. Ambassador, there are opinions among certain Kosovo analysts that this (closure of the Provisional Bodies of the Government of the Republic of Serbia) is the way to establish a Community/Association of Municipalities with a Serbian majority. Could this be the way? Where are we at the moment, when it comes to the establishment of ASM?

A: While I am not going to comment on opinions of analysts, we do have a way forward already: the agreements that Kosovo and Serbia reached in Brussels and Ohrid last year. We have a good agreement and implementation annex and now we look to both Kosovo and Serbia to move forward to implement fully all of their obligations. For Kosovo, this means that we are looking for immediate progress on the ASM. The United States will remain actively engaged, in coordination with our EU partners, to support Serbia and Kosovo in making implementation work in pursuit of a predictable and peaceful relationship. The ASM is not only an existing obligation into which the Government of Kosovo has already entered. We believe an ASM will help Kosovo be more successful in addressing the concerns of its ethnic Serb community. The ASM should be established in a way that respects the Constitution of Kosovo and does not negatively affect the constitutional order or functioning of government.

On the question of the institutions supported by Serbia, I would say that this has been on the agenda of the EU-facilitated Dialogue for many years. It is an important issue. Questions related to their function and integration into the Kosovan system are sensitive and require careful handling. This is why these issues should be taken up and addressed in the Dialogue, rather than through any unilateral action.

Q: How much will this global election year (elections for about two billion people in over 60 countries) slow down the arrival of the much-desired solution when it comes to relations between Kosovo and Serbia?
o A: I would not want to downplay the importance of such a process as elections in any given country, and you are right in noting the importance of elections that will be held in many countries this year, including in the EU and the U.S. But I would say that there is still time, and thus, that is even more reason to move with urgency now on the agreements that have already been reached.

Q: Finally, let me remind you of Secretary Blinken’s recently repeated views on the dangers posed by disinformation to national security. The U.S. is working on a diplomatic framework to combat fake news and disinformation. On the other hand, in Kosovo, we have a new draft law by the Independent Media Commission, according to which this institution would be responsible for video material published by online portals and could prescribe very high penalties for those who violate it. How can we find a fine line that successfully separates the systemic control of media and content from the irresponsible posting of unverified information?

A: You’re right, we do see the dangers of information manipulation and disinformation as a threat, and it’s a key priority for the U.S. Government. I want to acknowledge that your outlet has been a key partner in this fight here in Kosovo, along with your independent media coalition. On the new draft law you’re referring to, I understand it has not reached the Parliament yet, but hope that it will in no way harm media freedom and that of expression.

But, in an age where social media has made it possible to spread mis and disinformation quickly, it is important to look closely at how the digital information space should be regulated. You may know that I’ve been the subject of these “deepfakes” – faked recordings of someone that is pretending to me, having a phone conversation I never had. This type of thing is dangerous, and we have to be careful about how we obtain our news and what we believe. My best advice to anyone who is a news reader is that they find a couple of reliable sources of information and check them regularly. And I definitely do NOT rely on social media or WhatsApp groups for my news – I check verified news websites that I know are reliable.