Ambassador Hovenier’s Press Roundtable

Ambassador Hovenier’s Press Roundtable, May 30, 2023

Ambassador Hovenier:  Thanks for joining me. I know there’s a lot of interest in how the United States is seeing the current situation in the North, and I wanted to speak to that. So we are deeply concerned about the situation in the north right now. We believe this to be a crisis that was unnecessary. This was a crisis that from our perspective, was unnecessary. The operation that took place on Friday to obtain access to municipal buildings through forcible means was not coordinated with the United States. When we became aware of it, we advised strongly against it, because we anticipated consequences that we are now seeing.

We believe it has been a reputational…it’s had negative reputational impacts for Kosovo. It has set back our efforts to advance the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. And as Secretary Blinken said in his statement, and as we said in our statement from the State Department, it is affecting our bilateral relationship.

The first indication of that was the decision that was taken last night by the commander of the U.S. European Command General Cavoli to cancel Kosovo’s participation in Defender Europe 23, which happened overnight. And as you will note, there were no activities related to Defender Europe 23 today and there won’t be anymore. For Kosovo that exercise is over. We’re thinking through other implications as well.

I have to say that at this moment of time, we have asked Prime Minister Kurti very directly to take immediate steps to achieve a de-escalation in the North. He has not been responsive to those requests. So we are considering what our other actions will be.

I would have to say that this moment in time you won’t find a lot of enthusiasm on the part of the United States to respond to some of Kosovo’s other interests, such as engaging with non-recognizers or working actively to advance Kosovo’s European or Euro-Atlantic trajectory. We regret very much this is where the situation is, but I have to be honest that this is where the situation is. So our hope would be that Prime Minister Kurti will take our advice and immediately take some actions to achieve a de-escalation in the north and let us get on with the priority issue of seeing full implementation of the agreement on a pathway to normalization. Rather than the distraction of an unnecessary conflict in the north.

And with that, I will take questions.

Question: OK. Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. So, you mentioned that its negative impact here and the cancellation of Defender Europe. You started, after strong statements started taking actions. How much will there be time to wait for Prime Minister Kurti to respond to your requests?

Ambassador Hovenier: We think this is a really urgent situation. A comparison I was making is, it’s like having a house on fire. You need to put out the fire. So I don’t think you’re going to see an awful lot of patience on the part of the United States with regard to our expectations that the government take action now to de-escalate the situation in the north. Let me be clear. There’s two things we’re asking the Government to do to de-escalate. I’m happy to be specific. We believe the Government should not insist that the mayors work from the municipal buildings. The Government was able to identify alternative locations for them to take their oaths. We cannot understand why it cannot use those same alternative locations or other public buildings for them to carry out their functions, which are administrative functions. We are on the record that these mayors have an important role to play with regard to administration. But this is not a normal arrangement and they do not have a strong mandate from their electorate to do a large initiative. So, we don’t understand why there’s an insistence on them working from municipal buildings and then we believe that the presence of the Kosovo Police, which was obtained through force, is incredibly challenging. And so we have asked the Government to withdraw the Kosovo Police from the three municipal buildings. We think that would de-escalate.

Question: If KFOR takes over, if KFOR troops and armored vehicles are deployed, is there a scenario of a martial law or some pre-2008 scenario to take over controlling the field?

Ambassador Hovenier:  I don’t usually like to answer hypothetical questions. So what you’re describing isn’t happening right now. KFOR has an important role to play, but its mission is freedom of movement and safe and secure environment, and that’s what General Ristuccia and his team are focused on. And let me take this opportunity to express to you what I expressed in a tweet yesterday, which is our condolences to the injured KFOR personnel, but also our deep frustration with what happened there. This attack on peacekeepers who are there to maintain the peace. So we are looking to KFOR to fulfill its mission to ensure a safe and secure environment and facilitate freedom of movement. That’s what we’re looking for them to do. We’re looking to the Government of Kosovo to take immediate actions to deescalate the situation in the north.

Question: So does Serbia’s decision to pose forces on the border to, in full state of combat readiness, pose a threat to Kosovo?

Ambassador Hovenier: Well, it’s never a good sign when neighboring countries that have a tense relationship mobilize their forces. But I would say at this moment in time, what we are concerned about are the actions taken by the Government of Kosovo that have created this crisis atmosphere in the north, and that’s what we’re asking to be addressed.

Question: Prime Minister said yesterday, just yesterday, that he has a good cooperation, and I’m quoting him, “Good cooperation with you regarding over the north.” Is this a fair statement by him?

Ambassador Hovenier: I’m going to let my opening statement speak for itself and what I said. I think I addressed that fairly clearly.

Question: Can I amend? Just shortly, because you met President Osmani also. Is she part of the policy of the Government? Are they working as, like, as a team? I mean, you met her.

Ambassador Hovenier: So, I don’t know if it’s appropriate for me to talk about the dynamics within the institutions of the Government of Kosovo. What I would note is that President Osmani has emphasized consistently the importance that she attaches to full and close coordination and cooperation with the international community, with particular focus on the United States. I believe that to be something she takes very seriously.

Question: Well, Sir, you said that you will ask Government to  withdraw, withdraw special police forces from the municipalities.

Ambassador Hovenier: Can I correct that? I didn’t say that. What I said is to withdraw the Kosovo Police from the three municipal buildings. That’s what I said.

Question: OK, sorry. So is there, since there is also U.S. KFOR negotiating with the Police in the municipalities, are there any signs that the Police will withdraw? Are there any indications?

Ambassador Hovenier: I am not aware right now of a decision made at the political level for withdrawal of the Kosovo Police from the three municipal buildings.

Question: 25 soldiers were wounded yesterday. We’ve had KFOR soldiers that died as well in the past. Neither of these deaths or injuries in the past have had any accountability. Nobody was ever found. Nobody was ever jailed. Are you going to allow the wounding of the soldiers last night, including U.S. soldiers, to go on unaccounted for? Are you investigating the wounding of U.S. soldiers?

Ambassador Hovenier: Are you making a question or are you making a statement?

Question: Are you going to investigate the wounding of U.S. soldiers that happened?

Ambassador Hovenier: So first of all, your facts are incorrect. There were no U.S. soldiers wounded yesterday that I’m aware of. We take very seriously when peacekeepers – and really there should be no distinction between U.S. soldiers and any other type of soldiers. NATO soldiers are NATO soldiers. We as an Alliance treasure and value each of them without regard to nationality. We are deeply distraught and concerned by the actions that took place that resulted in the wounding, and in some cases, serious wounding of these soldiers. I condemned it yesterday, as did all my Quint colleagues, I believe. But that does not negate the fact that the reason the soldiers were there, needing to keep the peace in that scenario, was because of the decision taken by Prime Minister Kurti to seek to obtain access to these three municipal buildings through forceful means. And that’s the thing that needs to be addressed with regard to a de-escalation, which is what we are asking take place.

Question: Ambassador, do we have a concrete road map how to normalize the situation in the north, and also having into consideration not only the latest events, but also the people that left their jobs after…in autumn, police, judiciary…and why are we seeing only putting the blame only to the Kosovo side?

Ambassador Hovenier: Again, as I said, using the analogy, if the house is on fire, you need to put out the fire before you can work on, you know, renovating the kitchen or whatever else you need to do. So, right now the urgent thing is to de-escalate the situation in the north. Longer term, we do have a road map. It’s called the agreement…the agreement on the pathway to normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. And the United States Government has been, I think, quite explicit in our expectation that both parties implement fully all of the commitments they have made in that agreement. That does resolve the situation in the north as well. And that’s one of the reasons why, as well, we look to the Government of Kosovo to move urgently forward with the process of negotiating the Association, which would be the means to help address many of the issues that have come up in the north.

Question: You mentioned already the Defender Europe and also a lack of enthusiasm toward the non-recognizers, but I’d ask you if you could be more specific on some other aspects, regarding what was labeled as a potential consequence for bilateral relations between Kosovo and U.S. What other consequences might there be short term if situation does not change?

Ambassador Hovenier: I don’t know that there’s much point in my being more specific right now. We’re obviously still reflecting ourselves and our hope is that the Government of Kosovo is going to respond to our requests and take the steps to de-escalate the situation. What’s already happened is extraordinary. You saw Secretary Blinken’s tweet. That is rare to have that level of language. General Cavoli, you know, the commander of all U.S. Forces Europe, on behalf of the United States, made the decision to cancel Kosovo’s participation in Defender Europe 23. That’s already a fairly significant action as well. This gives a sense of how seriously we’re taking this, and our hope is the Government of Kosovo will as well.

Question: Are they really realizing how serious the situation is after the tweet of Secretary Blinken, after the calls that we had from Quint? And yet yesterday, we could see what we saw the…the situation isn’t changing on the ground.

Ambassador Hovenier: So that’s an excellent question that I’m obviously not equipped to answer, but I would encourage you to ask the Government of Kosovo officials. Do they understand how serious it is? We are sitting here together right now for me to make the point of just how serious this is. And I have certainly told the Prime Minister how serious this is.

Question: Last fall, I remember U.S. Embassy informed a couple of ministers of Kosovo not to visit United States because of the barricades. Are they allowed now to go? Can the Government of Kosovo cooperate with the U.S. Government as if now, if the situation continues like this?

Ambassador Hovenier: I would be surprised if under the current circumstances, the circumstances we are in right now, there was again much readiness for high-level visits, either from the United States here or from Kosovo to the United States.

Question: Even for Prime Minister Kurti?

Ambassador Hovenier: As I said, I would be very surprised if there was a readiness in the situation we are in right now, for high-level visits.

Question: Are new local elections considered as one of the options to solve the crisis in the north?

Ambassador Hovenier: I can’t speak to what options the Government of Kosovo is considering right now. My point is we need a de-escalation. And I’ve laid out the two things we think need to happen right now to see an immediate de-escalation in the north.

Question: What do you think? Would that be a possible part?

Ambassador Hovenier: I can’t speak to what would work or what wouldn’t with that regard. I mean, do you think it would help? Would the ethnic Serb community participate in the elections this time? I can’t answer these questions.

I can’t say that in the circumstances we’re in, where there are people who’ve been elected through means that were required by Kosovan law, but that no one can be happy with when less than 4% of your registered voters show up to vote. There’s a need for those elected officials to proceed very carefully, right, to accept that they do not have a large political mandate to affect change and to focus on, as we’ve said publicly a number of times, kind of the technical or administrative work of administering, while we seek to establish conditions for a different political environment, which would result in different political representation.

Part of what we’ve been talking to the Government about was even how they start their jobs. That’s why we had such a careful conversation about the manner in which they would take the oath and try to do it in a way that was reassuring to the communities that they serve, rather than not. And that’s part of the reason why our reaction was so strong to what happened on Friday. Because that is certainly not how any of these mayors should begin their mandate, by getting access to municipal office only through the police using forceful means to obtain entry. That is not what we had envisioned or recommended.

Question: My question is not concerning this crisis in particular, but wider than this. We are doing a study on disinformation in the Western Balkans where we are finding that Kremlin disinformation campaigns and narratives are reaching Albanian media in Kosovo, Serbian media in Kosovo, social media here, influencing the public opinion in Kosovo, Are you finding any such, basically, information, or do your findings show towards that in the last months?

Ambassador Hovenier: I’m not sure I’m in a position to answer that question with a lot of specificity. What I would say is, I think, throughout the region, we are concerned about the phenomenon of disinformation. That concern is not limited to the Western Balkans. This happens elsewhere as well. But it is no secret that Russia under Putin engages in disinformation operations and activities, and that they are sophisticated and capable. And it is not surprising that some of these false narratives that Russia has put out to advance its strategic interests gets some resonance in parts of the Western Balkans. But I don’t have much more beyond that with regard to specifics.

We do have at the Department of State a Global Engagement Center, now headed by Jamie Rubin, who is likely known to all of you, that takes very seriously this set of issues. And you know, I know that he and the Global Engagement Center are looking very carefully at the question of disinformation both in this region and others. So with that, I think I have exhausted the time I was able to allot. Thank you very much.