Special Representative for the Western Balkans Matthew Palmer – Speech in Pristina, November 1, 2019
I am pleased to be back in Pristina. It is such a vibrant city – with talented young people starting new enterprises, not waiting, but investing in their future. This is a place of new growth and new construction, building on a legacy of tradition and history. As a… younger… Foreign Service officer, based in Belgrade a quarter-century ago, I was a regular visitor to Pristina, meeting with Doctor Rugova and other leading thinkers – brave people in the Kosovo-Albanian community that were resisting the Slobodan Milosevic regimes’ persecutions, risking their own and their families’ wellbeing to secure a better future.
Amidst the enormous challenges, hardships, and suffering I saw hope and promise. Today, it is remarkable – invigorating – to see all that you have accomplished, what the country is becoming, the results of your struggles. Kosovo’s dynamism reflects a population still working hard for its future: for improvements in their lives; for a democracy that truly works for its citizens; for a society that can secure the social, political, and economic opportunities for which they yearn and indeed have the right to demand.
The United States has stood by the people here, supported their aspirations, a friend and partner in pursuit of progress. It has been the bedrock of U.S. policy toward this vital region for many years that the solution for long-term stability in the Western Balkans must include Kosovo. Our goal for this region was and remains its full integration into a Europe, whole and free. My appointment as the Secretary of State’s Special Representative for the Western Balkans and President Trump’s appointment of Ambassador Grenell as Special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Dialogue underscores – if there was any doubt – the United States is present, focused, and ready to help.
That is why I am here again today. Kosovo cannot be left out of a durable solution for the region. Equally: Kosovo cannot achieve a better future for itself in isolation. Kosovo must acknowledge that cooperation and compromise between neighbors are the currency of progress in an intertwined, interdependent Balkans, on a globe where the distances have shrunk.
Resolving once and for all the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia through full normalization remains a U.S. strategic priority, one that will have an enormous impact on the people and the broader region. It will free both Serbia and Kosovo from the legacy of hostility that drains their focus and energies, and it will open up economic opportunities. It will enable the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia to devote their full attention to improving the lives of their people, paving the way to a peaceful and prosperous future.
Kosovo demonstrated great democratic strength with its elections in early October, which affirmed the relevance of electoral contest and the importance of people’s voices. As the vote count is finalized, it is clear that the Kosovo public voted for change and it appears voters chose parties that enunciated firm principles of anti-corruption and greater and more focused economic development. The United States also embraces these goals. And we encourage the new government to see the opportunity of normalization as reinforcing this agenda – not competing with it. The eyes of the world are watching what Kosovo’s new government will do. Can it tackle pressing domestic priorities demanded by the people, even as it tackles the international challenges Kosovo must resolve in order to prosper? Kosovo needs a governing coalition that represents its people with a coherent voice – one with realistic objectives and a plan for how to get there.
The United States has been clear: we hope to see a government prepared to address external challenges as well as domestic issues. Rather than seeing the Dialogue as a detour from these issues—see normalization as paving the path for prosperity and justice. Each mile traveled after normalization will be that much easier on a road paved with peace. Improved relations and progress in talks with Serbia open potentially lucrative and job-creating investments all of Kosovo’s citizens can benefit from. Armed with a new mandate from voters, the government, once formed, can and should breathe new life into Dialogue negotiations. The United States will always stand behind Kosovo’s sovereignty and independence, but we cannot see a path forward to the full integration of your country into the international system that does not include reconciliation with Serbia.
I would be the first to admit that negotiations with Serbia have been complicated and that pressing ahead for an agreement on full normalization of relations will be a challenge that demands wide consensus and public support. But Kosovo’s relatively short history is one of facing and overcoming significant challenges and making sacrifices when necessary to achieve progress. In the liberation struggle. At Rambouillet. In the Ahtisaari talks. With your declaration of independence, which the International Court of Justice affirmed, Kosovo again showed its unwavering vision of where it wanted to go and took a stand. Kosovo can do so once more. Your statehood is irreversible, and now you need normalization to fully unlock this country’s great potential.
The United States’ support for a sovereign, democratic, and independent Kosovo is rock solid. This is the foundation of our bilateral partnership. But Kosovo citizens deserve more than just a strong partnership with the United States. You deserve the world. You deserve the EU and NATO and the UN. You deserve full international integration and recognition of Kosovo’s independence. You deserve to stand not behind the United States, but shoulder-to-shoulder alongside us as partners. The only way to secure that future is through the Dialogue with Serbia. The status quo is not enough.
I know that many people here are skeptical about the Dialogue and see it at best as a glass half full. But I want to underscore all that Kosovo has already won:
- From its outset, the very foundation of the Dialogue has been that Kosovo negotiated as its own state, as an equal across the table, representing itself and its own best interests.
- The Dialogue made it possible to put flesh on the bones of the EU’s 2003 Thessaloniki declaration with a real, structured, contractual arrangement with the EU, despite five EU non-recognizers that muddle the Union’s stance on Kosovo.
- The Dialogue paved the way for the Western Balkans Five to become the Western Balkans Six, with Kosovo as an equal participant, including in the Berlin Process.
- The 2013 “First Agreement” dismantled key parallel organizations on your territory. Kosovo institutions are the only acceptable ones on your territory by agreement with Serbia – no separate police, no separate courts.
- The Dialogue reaffirmed Kosovo law is the rule of law throughout the country. Hundreds of former Serbian public servants pledged allegiance to Kosovo institutions, and on a daily basis apply the Constitution and the laws of Kosovo in their work. Kosovo’s judges and Kosovo law have the final say.
- Since 2013 Serbs throughout Kosovo have participated in elections under Kosovo law. Belgrade no longer calls for boycotting them and only Kosovo documents and Kosovo law are in use for elections.
- Integrated border management has smoothed the flow of persons between Kosovo and Serbia, who may cross the border with their own IDs, with full recognition in Europe of their vehicle insurance and driving licenses, an end to the costly regime of border insurances, and the use of Kosovo documents to exit Serbia to third states.
- Kosovo has its own, recognized customs space and collects customs duties at all crossing points, to the benefit of its budget.
- Kosovo’s civil registry has been fully reconstructed.
- Kosovo has its own international dialing code.
- Diplomats from your Foreign Ministry are accredited in Belgrade.
The asterisk compromise secured Kosovo an equal seat at the table at major regional organizations. Indeed, your country holds the Southeast Europe Cooperation Process chairmanship even as we speak.
There are more gains I could cite. The bottom line is, Kosovo has peacefully and successfully negotiated difficult agreements, even in light of the very serious conflict, the human tragedies, and the pervading, emotional divergence of views with Belgrade.
Today you have the opportunity to build on these successes and focus on a better future for your children, or your children to come. Kosovo has such energy, ideas, entrepreneurial spirit, a capable population – all the ingredients it needs. An agreement on full normalization of relations with Serbia based on mutual recognition is what Kosovo is missing.
In today’s interconnected world, being a recognized member of multilateral, international institutions means better functioning institutions at home. For instance, an effective domestic police also needs to be a member of Interpol, and Kosovo’s significant cultural treasures should be protected as part of the UNESCO system. I believe Kosovo is ready to contribute to, and uphold your commitments to, these and other multilateral endeavors.
Normalizing relations with Serbia also expands economic opportunities for Kosovo’s companies and workers, a level playing field for Kosovo to compete commercially, for its entrepreneurial spirit to shine. This is essential for economic development and prosperity for all of Kosovo’s citizens. Kosovo needs to convince businesses that this is the right place to invest. Businesses avoid investing here not because they think there is a lack of opportunity, or shortage of talented workers. The perception in the business community is that the ongoing conflict remains, that it’s not safe, that there is too much risk. If businesses see progress, and see an operating environment characterized by rule of law and good governance—they will want to get in here, and get in early. The world is filled with countries that have political disagreements with their neighbors, but when businesses are able to engage freely, when people and goods are able to move unencumbered, there is prosperity—and prosperity helps secure peace.
Talks have lacked transparency at times, and people are rightly hungry for change, rightly concerned with bread and butter issues like corruption and jobs. It is also true that negotiators of any difficult, groundbreaking, international accord must have space in the negotiations to explore ideas, potential compromises, and the art of the possible. They need to be able to do this without any penalty for trying. The concern of some – and perhaps desire of some others – was that the United States would try to impose a solution on Kosovo and Serbia. We cannot and will not do so. Remember: there is no final agreement until both Kosovo and Serbia agree to it and their Parliaments ratify it, per their constitutions.
Securing this should be a priority for all citizens, all parties, and for your new government. Kosovo’s leaders must prepare to reengage on this most pressing international issue and organize themselves to reengage effectively with Serbia. Because can you envision the day when incomplete workarounds are over and Kosovo is fully connected to the network of all the services and advantages of Europe? Can you imagine – as I can – the benefits for you and your children of a region at peace, marked not by perhaps feel-good, retributive trade barriers, but free movement of people, goods, and services?
On the other hand, can you imagine Kosovo prospering as a frozen conflict drags on, preventing Kosovo’s integration with neighbors and the international system? Can you expect greater opportunities for Kosovo’s businesses if this situation endures?
Serbia too must refocus on its overarching strategic interests. It has been aggressive in its efforts to delegitimize Kosovo. Its campaign to incentivize countries to withdraw recognition of Kosovo and to block Kosovo’s membership in international organizations must cease. Its harassment at the border of Kosovo-Serb members of Kosovo institutions must cease. The incessant rhetoric of confrontation – frankly, on both sides – must cease. These measures only soured the atmosphere for a compromise agreement Serbia needs in order to reach its own full potential and open up its own European path. President Vucic and most of Serbia know that Serbia will never accede to the EU if it does not solve its long-standing dispute with Kosovo. As long as other leading voices in Serbia refuse to accept Kosovo as a neighbor and not a possession, there will be a stalemate, from which Serbia loses, politically and economically.
So, let us redouble our efforts, together. We stand ready to work with the leaders of both countries to explore options that will build support among their publics for the normalization of relations. For both Kosovo and Serbia this is an inflection point, a moment of tremendous opportunity, a decision point: do you press ahead in pursuit of a historic deal that could change the face of this region, or do you allow your countries to slip backwards? Look at the high-level attention the United States is devoting to help you overcome this obstacle once and for all and move forward on your respective paths, free of historic shackles that are dragging you down. The stars are aligned. I urge you to seize this opportunity.
Kosovo is not an island, it is an integral part of this region. Kosovo’s future will be shaped in no small part by events and developments in its neighborhood and I’d like to take a few moments to speak about those issues as well.
The integration of the Western Balkans into the West must be completed. For us, this means membership in the European Union for all, and NATO for those who aspire to join. This is not simply “unfinished business” for the United States. This vision is central to U.S. strategic interests as well – and, we would assert, European strategic interests – because it will fortify the transatlantic partnership to address the mounting geopolitical challenges we all face today. Without the integration of the whole Balkans, Europe, our partner, is weaker. This is U.S. policy—it’s EU policy. But most importantly, these are the vision and values the countries of the region have articulated for themselves.
I say “most importantly” because we cannot want this future more for our partners than they want it for themselves. Resolving longstanding conflicts, fighting corruption, increasing government transparency, protecting independent media, and building an engaged citizenry are essential way stones on this Western path. Achieving and sustaining those demands real leadership, creative decisions, and a readiness to take political risks.
This is why the European Council’s failure to reach consensus on opening accession negotiations with candidate countries North Macedonia and Albania was so disappointing. Both countries qualified after undertaking tremendous reform efforts. EU leaders acknowledged the aspirants did everything they were asked to do, and the “pause” to bring along all Member States is frustrating. The EU must do its own homework, and it very quickly we hope. We urge the Member States to reach a positive decision for both countries well in advance of the EU-Western Balkans Summit next May.
At the same time, countries of the region should keep pressing forward on transformation, because the opening of accession negotiations is not the end of state reforms, but the first step in a long, complex, and demanding process. I do not deny that the process of EU accession has become more difficult in comparison to prior rounds of enlargement. We see the bar has been raised. But do not lose sight of the fact that this process, ultimately, is driven by quite self-centered goals: the work of qualifying for NATO and EU membership helps to guide the development of strength, purpose, and integrity as a state better equipped to provide for its citizens’ security and welfare. So: it’s ok to be disappointed, but not to lose heart. Continue your work building a transparent, rules-based, democratic society responsive to citizen needs.
The Prespa Agreement is an example of the kind of transformation I am talking about. It remains an extraordinary, diplomatic achievement by future-thinking leaders who refused to give up on an incredibly difficult process they knew was in the long-term interests of their people and country. Prespa stands as a testament to Western principles, to working with neighbors and Western partners to address shared, transnational challenges, side by side. The benefits of this breakthrough will continue to accrue to the people of both countries. North Macedonia and Greece are expanding bilateral cooperation across a range of areas, both officially and on the part of private businesses and organizations. Continued implementation of this historic accord will advance stability, security, and prosperity throughout the region. In recognition of North Macedonia’s reforms and the conviction that guided them, NATO is about to welcome North Macedonia as its 30th Ally.
We are pleased meanwhile, that all parties have affirmed they will pursue the country’s strategic goal of full-fledged EU membership and continue on their Western trajectory. They must stay the course.
Our NATO Ally Albania too must stay the course. Its EU integration is a matter sustained focus and political will. Look what Tirana has accomplished thus far:
- Unprecedented judicial reforms to root out corruption endemic to the old system;
- Deep reforms requiring the vetting of all 800 judges and prosecutors for any unexplained wealth, for organized-crime ties, and for incompetence. The fact that less that 50 percent of the more than 160 jurists vetted so far passed this test confirms the old system’s deep corruption and its links to organized crime;
- The creation of two new judicial oversight bodies – the High Judicial Council and High Prosecutorial Council – to appoint, govern and discipline judges and prosecutors;
- Hard work that has brought Albania to the cusp of establishing a new independent special anticorruption prosecution office and court (SPAK) as well as a National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), whose job will be to investigate corruption, organized crime, and crimes of high officials.
The beginning of the end of impunity in Albania has come, as evidenced by the beginning of a crackdown on notorious, previously untouchable organized crime bosses like Klement Balili. Press ahead. This means continued progress on judicial reforms; re-establishment of a quorum of vetted judges in the constitutional court; and the adoption of long overdue electoral reforms. The people of Albania demand serious and lasting progress against corruption and organized crime and political and judicial institutions that function properly, fairly, effectively, and transparently. They have a right to this.
This is why political and party leaders must, under their own power, resolve the manufactured political impasse that threatens to hinder Albania’s path forward.
A brief word to Albania’s out-of-parliament opposition: a role for you exists. Take it! Boycott has not brought you greater political power. It did not and cannot force early elections. So seize the opportunity to advocate and negotiate in good faith for the electoral reforms you seek. The international community is prepared to facilitate a serious effort. Then you can take what could be real accomplishments to the people to decide democratically, through a fair electoral process, the direction they want their country to go.
We also want to see a peaceful, stable, prosperous Bosnia and Herzegovina moving forward. Nearly 24 years after Dayton, the United States remains committed to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and to helping it advance reforms necessary to reach its Euro-Atlantic goal, including of election laws. This does not mean abandoning the Dayton Accords. It does mean reforming Bosnia and Herzegovina’s institutions so they work for the people. It does mean ensuring integrity of the judicial system, stronger rule of law, and transparent governance.
In line with this evolution, we encourage Bosnia and Herzegovina to strengthen its cooperation with NATO. The submission of a Reform Program document to NATO does not prejudge a decision on membership. Membership can be considered – if desired – at a later date, and upon the invitation by Allies to join.
However, in a pattern all too familiar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, infighting among leaders diverts energies from real progress that actually benefits the people. Bosnia and Herzegovina needs political and party heads prepared to make hard choices and reach compromises on matters of national interest. The United States is disappointed with the leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina on all sides, at the state and entity levels. They are parochial, nationalist, and focused first and foremost on feathering their own nest.
I hold out hope, nevertheless. There is an emerging generation of political leaders at the municipal and cantonal level – including in Sarajevo canton – who appear committed to cooperation between and among the parties and to developing creative solutions to problems faced by everyday people. With their attitude, Bosnia and Herzegovina can succeed. We are ready to work with them.
While the path to Western integration is steep and rocky, one need look no further than to Montenegro to see that great strides taken over the past thirteen years have paid off. Despite the malicious interference of Russia and its abortive attempt to instigate a coup in 2016 to overturn the democratic will of Montenegro’s people, Montenegro acceded to NATO in June 2017 has and the country has become a net contributor to global security. Its soldiers serve side by side with ours in Afghanistan, Latvia, and here in Kosovo, and we welcome Montenegro’s commitment to send troops to Iraq by year’s end. As a result of this focus and hard work, Montenegro is stronger; NATO is stronger; and the transatlantic Alliance is stronger.
As a frontrunner to join the EU, Montenegro has moved far along in the accession process, but it cannot afford to slacken its pace. It must accelerate efforts to strengthen rule of law and media freedom and tackle organized crime and corruption. Its efforts in the area of media freedom, in particular, are falling short, notably with the partisan stacking of the Board of Directors of the State media outlets. The government must do more to demonstrate that Montenegro values and protects journalists, including refraining from incendiary language that encourages hostility towards journalists and imposing meaningful sentences for those who commit attacks on journalists and their media outlets.
Montenegro is also a cautionary tale of the tremendous challenges malign actors are imposing on this region. In May, a Montenegrin court found two Russian GRU officers guilty of attempted terrorism during the 2016 coup attempt, laying bare Moscow’s blatant attempt to destabilize an independent European country. The open and transparent trial was an important step forward for the rule of law and an example of Montenegro’s resiliency in the face of Russian, broad-scale, hybrid attacks against the country that are continuing on a daily basis.
Moscow’s actions in Montenegro are emblematic of the stark differences we have with Russia in how we see the future for the Western Balkans. While Moscow actively opposes the region’s Western integration, sowing turmoil, doubt, and disinformation wherever it can, the United States holds firm that our collective interests are best served by cementing democratic norms, rule of law, and cooperation based on shared values.
We recognize that some in the region seek to balance their relationship with the West and with not just Russia, but increasingly China as well. But, if you want to hold firm to your stated goal of European integration, your policy choices should reflect that. Even as Russia seeks to sow chaos politically, China seeks to purchase loyalty and obedience. Through loans and investments, China is working to insinuate itself into the infrastructure fabric of the region, targeting strategic industries like telecommunications, energy, mining, steel production, and heavy manufacturing. Balkan leaders must weigh Chinese offers with their eyes wide open. Do Chinese offers reinforce your rules or really serve China’s interests? Do they ensure a reciprocal relationship with China, where your companies and intellectual property are afforded the same opportunities and protections in China that Chinese companies want in the Western Balkans?
The United States is present, engaged, and competes here in the Western Balkans, because Russia, China, other actors would happily leap to fill any vacuum of leadership, of vision, in this important region. The Western partnership must stay forward-leaning, vigilant, innovative, because its adversaries remain so.
In closing, and a mentor of mine once told me that there are no words in the English language more beautiful than ‘in closing,’ let me reaffirm that the United States’ vision is a Western Balkans thriving, prospering, based on the rule of law, with strong democratic institutions, responsive to, and supportive of, the real needs of its people. This also means fully integrating into Western institutions. This demands political courage and conviction. In Kosovo, this means setting conditions conducive to reaching an agreement with Serbia on normalizing relations to unleash the potential of all its citizens, especially the talented and enterprising young people who want Kosovo to be their future. I hope that Kosovo is a willing partner for us in this. We are ready to assist, because it is in our interests as well. A stronger Western Balkans is a stronger Europe and a stronger transatlantic partnership. Let’s work on achieving this together.
Thank you for your attention today.