Ambassador Hovenier’s Keynote Remarks for Kosovo Peace and Democracy Summit, September 20, 2023
Thank you, Milica, for your kind introduction.
I’m honored to be here this morning to share a few thoughts in advance of what I am confident will be a rich, engaging, and serious set of conversations.
As I looked at the agenda and reviewed the diverse group of participants, I saw a group of thought and influence leaders who are convening with no illusions about the urgency of the situation here in Kosovo.
Yet I know that in holding this Summit, you, like me, remain seized with the possibility of realizing a long-standing and enduring vision for Kosovo and the Western Balkans region: a vision of stability, security, democracy, and prosperity.
Keeping the conversations you will soon have in mind, I wanted to take a step back and share a few thoughts on where the region stands and on the U.S. goals for the Western Balkans more broadly.
I’ll also discuss a few ideas of where we go from here and how the U.S. is working with our partners to achieve our common goals for Kosovo and for the region.
I’ve spoken many times during my tenure as Ambassador to Kosovo about our vision of the Western Balkans as part of a Europe that is “whole, free, and at peace.”
Like many of my colleagues in the Biden Administration, I’ve worked on issues in this region across the span of my career.
And when I was thinking about what to share with you today, I couldn’t help but reflect on the progress I’ve seen since I first began working in this region in 1995 when I reported to our Embassy in Zagreb.
My interactions with people over the intervening years have left a deep impression on me.
The conversations I had and continue to have every day make it clear how important it is for us to be present, to listen and talk to people who are asking for our help, and ensure their experiences and perspectives are known to decision makers in Washington and understood by our allies and partners.
I have witnessed firsthand the power of the transatlantic alliances and partnerships we built when we mobilized our forces to put an end to the violence in Bosnia and in Kosovo.
And time and again, transatlantic alliances, diplomatic engagement, NATO actions, and EU actions, have proven the critical importance of diplomacy and security engagement in our pursuit of peace.
Throughout the region, things have changed immensely – for the better – in the intervening decades.
Of course, we couldn’t have predicted exactly the way things would turn out.
But generally, we’ve seen increasing peace, progress, and prosperity across the region.
For example: Croatia is now a member of the EU and NATO, and it joined the Schengen zone and adopted the Euro as its currency earlier this year. This would have been unthinkable in 1995.
Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia are NATO members.
And the formal EU membership process is underway for Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.
And while the main current challenge to achieving a Europe that is “whole, free, and at peace” is undoubtedly the brutal, all-out war that Putin is waging on Ukraine, the Western Balkans remains a critical element of this vision.
While geographically, this region is clearly part – even central to – Europe, I am more certain today than ever that the future of the Western Balkans remains in European and transatlantic institutions.
And as we all know, significant challenges remain.
Even though the security and political challenges are nowhere near as acute as they were during the Milosevic era, Bosnia and Herzegovina faces deep and significant challenges.
Years of dysfunction and division have plagued state and entity-level governments, undermining the country, its Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and the future of its citizens.
Ethnonationalist political leaders often pursue narrow personal and political gain rather than the public good.
Because of this, the United States is now engaged in an intensive effort to strengthen the international community’s work to uphold the Dayton Peace Agreement.
But Bosnia is not the only challenging situation in the Balkans. Kosovo and Serbia also seek stable and prosperous futures.
The U.S. vision for Kosovo remains one in which Kosovo is fully integrated into European and Euro-Atlantic structures.
We want to see Kosovo take its rightful place as a a small- to- medium-sized Western Balkan country –recognized by the entire international community as fully independent and sovereign.
And, by the way, we share the same vision for Serbia – to see it qualify for and be fully integrated into European institutions and structures.
While it may not be interested in joining NATO, Serbia has expressed concrete interest in joining the EU, and has made progress towards achieving that goal.
We want to support them on this path, as we believe that the reforms necessary for EU membership are manifestly in the interest of the Serbian people and the people of the region.
It is no secret that we see the EU-facilitated Dialogue as the best – the only – way to achieve this full European integration, and lasting peace and prosperity in the region.
As the EU High Representative’s September 19 statement makes clear “the European path of both Kosovo and Serbia goes through the EU-facilitated Dialogue and through the normalization of their relations.”
Failure to achieve normalized relations between Kosovo and Serbia remains a major hurdle to the advancement of the region into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions.
And of course, our ultimate goal remains mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia – as a condition for lasting peace.
We are supporting each country here in the Western Balkans to transform, to become a contributor to the region’s security rather than to be a source of problems and instability.
We believe that peace and prosperity is rooted in the progress Kosovo is making towards becoming a member of NATO and the EU, national efforts that will lead to a more stable, more prosperous, more peaceful region for all citizens.
And when we talk about this future, I also want to focus on our overarching support for diversity and multi-ethnicity in the Western Balkans.
We see multi-ethnicity, regional cooperation, political stability, and a secure environment as creating the conditions for and enhancing prosperity in the region.
Democracies are stronger when they leverage their diversity as strength.
I regret to say that this is a lesson we are still learning in the United States as well.
Too often, our history has seen majority communities discriminate against people who don’t look like them or exclude voices that don’t sound like them.
But we’ve also seen the powerful progress we can achieve when we tap into our diversity.
Uplifting diversity and prioritizing inclusion propels us forward with innovative solutions to problems and fresh perspectives that help us understand one another better and create new opportunities.
When we think back to the promise of America’s nearly 250-year-old declaration that everyone is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we find our greatest successes and accomplishments – from a rich cultural heritage, to a thriving economy, to a strong and secure nation.
And we also see this around the world:
Countries are prosperous when entrepreneurs can focus on improving their businesses, instead of worrying about political and security instabilities.
They are prosperous when citizens feel they are included and want to invest in their home.
They are prosperous when their democratic institutions deliver for all their citizens – and people feel empowered to hold those institutions to account.
And you – all of you in this room – are doing just that – for Kosovo, and for the region.
You represent and embody the ideals I’ve just outlined.
You’re here because you are open to ideas that may differ from your own – and you believe in the power of constructive dialogue to effect positive change.
I want to conclude by particularly recognizing the organizers of this summit: Jovana, Mentor, and Bardhi.
Thank you for taking the initiative to create the space for dialogue and inviting all of us to be a part of the conversation.
To all of you: I hope that your conversations provide opportunities for break-through thinking on some of the most difficult challenges we face.
I know that my team will remain engaged over the course of the summit.
We appreciate your initiative, and I look forward to your continued efforts to promote dialogue and forward-looking thinking.