Ambassador Hovenier’s interview with RTV21 Arber Vllahiu

Ambassador Hovenier’s interview with RTV21 Arber Vllahiu, February 6, 2024

RTV21: Ambassador Hovenier, thank you very much for sharing your time with me today.

Ambassador Hovenier: Happy to be here.

RTV21: Ambassador, for days you have been engaged with your Quint colleagues to clarify the position on the issue of Central Bank regulation and the actions of the Kosovo Police in some parts of the country. You’re asking for the postponement of the implementation of the Central Bank regulation. But the last word remains on with the government of Kosovo and prime minister Kurti, who gave you in the meeting, as it is published, some evidence. Was he pressured to change his mind?

Ambassador Hovenier: So, I think all I can do is talk about the request of the United States government. And first, let me clarify a couple of things. Our request is really quite clear, we are asking the government, and this is not just me, it came out of Washington as well, my Quint colleagues share this view, that the government should postpone the enforcement of the Central Bank regulation at this time. We are asking for this because we believe that the necessary preparatory work for this to successfully be implemented in a way that doesn’t unduly affect a vulnerable community.

And we’re talking about minority communities, and we’re talking about, among other things, the ethnic Serb community in Kosovo, that the work that needs to be done, that needed to be done to avoid negative impact on it, has not been done. Let me be really quite clear about this. We do not dispute the constitution of Kosovo. We acknowledged and respected we, for heaven’s sake, we supported the process and its development. We do not dispute the authorities of the Central Bank of Kosovo to regulate the financial sector.

In fact, again, the United States government is proud of the role we play in support of developing the Central Bank, Ministry of Finance, other institutions. We welcome efforts by Kosovo, like any other country around the world, to put into place regulation, law, procedure that reduces the space for financial crimes to be committed, money laundering, terrorist financing, things like that. So, we do not have a philosophical problem with the Central Bank putting into place a regulation that would achieve these aims.

We are concerned that the manner in which this regulation is being implemented or plan to be implemented, does not adequately take into account some realities. And these realities that we believe are not adequately taken into account affect directly one of the most sensitive issues in the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue that we support, and that is actions that affect minority communities in Kosovo, particularly the Serb community. That’s why we’re making the request we’re making.

RTV21: But this is an issue that has to do with single currency use of the single currency in one territory, as it is Kosovo today. As, for example, the other Europe countries have regulated, why is the matter, why you are so much pushing Kosovo to give some more time?

Ambassador Hovenier: Well, I don’t think that is a fair characterization of what the issue is. The issue isn’t the use of the Euro. The issue is not having in place provisions, ahead of time, to deal with the implications of the decisions. Let’s be very, very honest about specific cases.

So, I think we have two concerns. And let me maybe lay them out by describing theoretical cases. First concern: let’s say you have someone who’s been receiving a social benefit from Serbia, someone, it’s either a pension or payment to a single mother, something like that. As I understand it, the way that that benefit has been paid, and under the Ahtisaari provisions, under the Kosovo’s acceptance of that, there was recognition that Serbia absolutely has the right to provide financial support to the ethnic Serb community in Kosovo. The way that has been done for a very long time, as I understand it is, dinars were brought in, or cash was brought in, and this individual went to some kind of a postal office, or bank, or something and received their benefit. These new regulations make it impossible for that to happen. And, there was no work done in advance to identify alternative means for that social benefit payment to still be provided. That’s what we’re concerned about, a pensioner, a single mother, someone who is vulnerable, who is reliant on this. And it’s surprising to us that there weren’t efforts made in advance, people think this through and have strategies to mitigate.

The other concern we have, just using the practicalities: It’s not a secret that Serbia is supporting a healthcare system and educational system in Kosovo, and in fact, we worked really hard, and we believe strongly that, over time, those systems need to be integrated into the Kosovo system under Kosovo law. But of course, Serbia will continue to have the right to continue to fund and support that. We do believe it needs to be done in a manner consistent with Kosovo’s laws, the framework, and transparently the authorities in Kosovo. That’s precisely why we’ve worked so hard in the Dialogue on the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities, because that is, in our mind, the mechanism by which this will be continued, services will continue to be provided, but in a manner that conforms with Kosovo law, regulation, and is transparent.

Well, how is this going to work, because right now they have been funded by Serbia? So, what happens to these hospitals and schools?

We’re concerned that it may be a matter of just a week or two before there is no longer money to support their operations. And again, we don’t believe adequate plans are in place now for those necessary funds that provide education for children, kindergartens, for those funds that ensure that someone who is sick has access to a doctor and medicine. We don’t believe those arrangements are in place.

And so, what we’ve asked in our public statements is postponement of the enforcement to allow time to actually develop the appropriate plans that, hopefully are mutually acceptable both Kosovo and Serbia, which is why we believe this conversation should take place in the context of the EU-facilitated Dialogue. And as well, that there’s an effective public information campaign.

Going back to my theoretical 70-year-old who has been receiving a pension. This person doesn’t know what to do, as far as I can tell, how will they get that payment? Do they need to register some bank account with some entity? How will that work? There’s a lot of questions. And it doesn’t seem that sufficient care has been taken to put in place provisions to address those concerns, which is why we are so focused on this.

RTV21: So, it took you by surprise, this decision? The international community was surprised with this decision?

Ambassador Hovenier: This decision was taken on the 27th of December. As I understand it, I don’t believe we had advance notice of it. We would have been happy to have a conversation with the Government of Kosovo, about the challenges they face if they are concerned about armored vehicles bringing in large amounts of cash and wanting to find alternative ways to do this in a manner that is less vulnerable. We would have been happy to have that conversation. I don’t believe that conversation happened. But since they took that decision, we have consistently signaled to authorities of the Government of Kosovo about our concerns. And again, we make clear, we’re not disputing the authorities of the government, the authorities of the Central Bank, we are concerned about the manner in which Kosovo intends to implement this in a way that we don’t think is sufficiently responsive to, or sympathetic to the impact that it will have on the vulnerable communities.

RTV21: Ambassador, there were reactions to your statements, especially from German and British parliamentarians. They called them unbalanced in relation to the behavior of Serbia. Why is an action of the government to extend the constitutionality to the entire territory, and in respect of the 2013 agreement, as the government of Kosovo said, considered so contradictory?

Ambassador Hovenier: I really am glad you raised that question. So first, let me say I have the highest respect for elected representatives in any legislature, and I welcome concern by parliamentarians across the globe, who share our interest in seeing Kosovo advance to European and Euro Atlantic trajectory. That’s a shared goal we all share.

But that support for Kosovo’s trajectories, for Kosovo’s progress towards Europe, the Euro-Atlantic institutions, was always conditioned, and remains conditioned on the commitments Kosovo made at the time of its Declaration of Independence – that it would be a multiethnic, democratic state. That remains the vision we share.

So, I will just say that I’m not sure that balance is the right way to think about this issue. There’s a lot of other issues where balance is, perhaps, an appropriate means to think it through. But I don’t know what balance means when I’m asking the Government of Kosovo to be more deliberate in considering how policy choices that would affect vulnerable populations, particularly the very sensitive issue of the ethnic Serb community in Kosovo, and to be very deliberate in how it executes it in a way that doesn’t deprive them of needed funds for education, healthcare, or just – life.

One last point on the balance point. I think I understand the point, I’ll just say that I’m the American Ambassador to Kosovo. My job is to communicate about things we look to Kosovo to do, because our goal is to see it advance and our goal among other things, is to see a full and complete implementation of the commitments Kosovo has made, and I worked hard at advancing that vision. But the U.S. government has not been shy. It’s not my job to talk about Serbia. But we’ve not been shy about talking about our expectation that Serbia also implement fully all the obligations it’s entered into. That remains our position. So, you didn’t raise it, but since some people have complained about messaging related to Banjska, let me just remind, I think I was probably one of the most outspoken officials about that event, and the U.S. government expectation that those responsible for this horrendous – criminal act would be held accountable. And that was restated by a senior U.S. government official, Jim O’Brien, our Assistant Secretary of State, as recently as last week.

That remains our position: those who committed this crime should be held accountable. But that does not in any way, shape or form, obviate the government of Kosovo’s responsibility in implementing a Central Bank decision, to do so in a way that mitigates the challenges and the problems the current implementation plans with regard to affecting vulnerable populations.

RTV21: Ambassador, in a statement over the weekend, you stated that the actions of the Police and the Government are unnecessarily increasing the ethnic tensions. It seems to me like the issue of license plates, more than a year ago, and the call to postpone the implementation of the decision. Can you share with us the additional information you have, that the situation can escalate?

Ambassador Hovenier: I don’t know that I have additional information that I haven’t shared. I think anybody looking at this problem set would say, if a community previously had access to funds for pensions and elderly people, for schools, so that their children are educated, for hospitals and health clinics, so that they can receive medical care and medicine when they are sick; if suddenly, the government puts into place policies and actions that restricts or inhibit that, that you’re going to generate a reaction from the community.

I’m a parent, 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 me to have access to a pediatrician, I’d be pretty angry. And I would feel that my government wasn’t necessarily paying attention to things that directly affect me and my family. So, I don’t have special insights here. 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 healthcare, to have predictability. I want my grandpa to receive his pension every month. And I’m less concerned about the bank account that he goes to and more concerned that he has money to buy bread. That’s what we’re trying to talk about here, and that’s why we’re so concerned.

RTV21: Did Mr. Kurti understand what you said?

Ambassador Hovenier: I’m going to let Mr. Kurti speak for Mr. Kurti. I can only speak to the extent to which I have done my best to communicate the concerns of my government on this choice, on this policy and our hope that the government of Kosovo will hear what we’re saying and adjust, as I said, how it intends to implement it. Our request is clear, of postponement and enforcement until a good strategy is in place to mitigate the effects on vulnerable populations. And I am talking about, among others, the ethnic Serb population of Kosovo and a good public information plan. And optimally, this is done in a way that’s mutually acceptable, which is why we want this done in the Dialogue. That is the mechanism to have these conversations and define common ways forward.

RTV21: And what if Mr. Kurti does not hear what you say, what are the consequences that you warn Kurti – that Kosovo would face, new measures or what?

Ambassador Hovenier: I don’t want to get into specifics. I can just say something I said as recently as yesterday; we take this issue very seriously. The Prime Minister’s heard from me. He’s heard from Jim O’Brien on this directly on more than one occasion. I don’t think anybody has any doubt of the concerns of the United States or of our partner because again, there was a Quint statement. We’re not alone in this concern.

To the extent the government is responsive to this concern on such a sensitive issue, of how minority communities in Kosovo feel that they are being treated, and the extent to which the government is being responsive to concerns they raise that we believe to be legitimate, to the extent the government is our partner in addressing that, has positive impacts on our partnership. To the extent that government chooses not to take our advice or listen to us, it obviously has an effect on the quality of our partnership. As I noted in my statement, and as we said out of Washington, it is affecting our ability to be effective advocates for Kosovo in the international arena.

RTV21: So, you want to stop it?

Ambassador Hovenier: We don’t want that. I want to be a very effective advocate for Kosovo. I have put years of my life into supporting Kosovo’s trajectory towards European and Euro-Atlantic structures. I believe in that. But I believe in that under the basis of the understanding we all had of this country – a democratic, multiethnic, sovereign state. So, all I can say is to the extent to which the government does not partner with all this, it will affect the quality of our partnership.

RTV21: Okay. Kosovo asked the U.S. to arm it with modern weapons. The request comes after developments in Banjska, and the possibility of escalation. However, the recent criticism of the government in Pristina were or are very strong. Do they affect Kosovo’s request to arm itself from the U.S.?

Ambassador Hovenier: I want to lay out what our policy position is, along with other ways in which we have wanted to support the people of Kosovo as they increasingly move towards European and Euro-Atlantic structures, and as they increasingly consolidate their state. We have supported the transition of the Kosovo Security Force, with the ultimate goal, under a tenure plan, to have a NATO interoperable, multiethnic territorial defense force. That’s what we support. And we’ve been prepared to support that because we believe that as Kosovo develops and maintains a NATO interoperable, multiethnic force with this territory defense mission, it enhances regional stability. So, we think about our defense cooperation, the training adequately we do, we see it through that rubric.

So, we will continue to support that effort with regard to the KSF. But I can only say again, those issues are also affected by how strong our partnership is. I’m looking to the Government of Kosovo to work with us to enhance and strengthen our partnership.

RTV21: Ambassador, why is the U.S. and EU in this matter, asking for an internal problem of Kosovo to be addressed in the facilitated dialogue in Brussels? “The issue of the use of currency is not a matter of dialogue,” said Kosovo government officials.

Ambassador Hovenier: Well, I think the answer is we’re not talking about the use of currency. We’re talking about the implications of policy choices on minority communities in Kosovo and particularly the ethnic Serb community in Kosovo, and the questions associated with the treatment and privileges and status of the ethnic Serb community in Kosovo has always been, from the beginning of the dialogue, something we discussed in the Dialogue.

I’ll say again, we’re not disputing the authorities, we’re not disputing the Constitution, we’re not disputing the competencies and authorities of the Central Bank. We are asking the government to be thoughtful and work with us, and hopefully find a mutually acceptable way forward. For Serbia, to continue to exercise the rights that it has to provide financial support to the ethnic Serb community in Kosovo. And that strikes me as very clearly something that has to be taken up in the Dialogue.

RTV21: Ambassador, as far as I understand, you’re concerned that multiethnic state or society is in danger?

Ambassador Hovenier: That is not what I said. But I do want to say that is important to the United States that the multiethnic character of this society be preserved and valued and treasured and supported. And so, we look to the government to do things to make sure that all of its communities, without regard to ethnicity, feel that they are living in conditions of dignity and security.

RTV21: It has been said that there is an urgency of the implementation of the agreement for the Association of the Municipalities with a Serbian majority. Currently what we have seen as a recent tensions over Serb dinar. Do you believe that Mr. Kurti understood well the urgency of implementing this agreement.

Ambassador Hovenier: I would hesitate to declare what it is that Prime Minister Kurti understands or does not understand. I can again only say what the United States government has told him publicly and privately because there’s no variation in our message here.

We believe this is a matter of urgency and importance that, as part of Kosovo fulfilling its obligations under the basic agreement and the Ohrid implementation annex, and as a result of prior dialogue agreements going back as far as 2013, Kosovo has a responsibility to establish the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities.

We made an effort to move that forward through provision of a draft statute that came from Miroslav Lajcak, presented together with senior officials from Germany, France, Italy and the United States. I can only repeat what we said about this: we believe the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities should not have executive authorities, should be fully consistent with Kosovo’s current constitution, should not be an additional layer of government, but have an important role in responding to addressing and advancing the interests of the ethnic Serb community in Kosovo.

I do think that this recent issue highlights again, just how urgent this is because some of this has to do with questions related to the Serbia-supported healthcare system, and education system, and those issues of how we integrate it into Kosovo Law structures how their operations to be transparent to the government of Kosovo, will be addressed in the Association. So, it is taken on even more urgency and my government’s request to the government, of course, was to move it forward. We believe this government should somehow adopt the draft statute has provided any move it to the Constitutional Court in a manner the court agrees, gives it jurisdiction. So the court can then carry out its review of its constitutionality, which is an important step in this process.

RTV21: But Ambassador, will Kosovo face new consequences if there is no implementation of the Association Agreement? Don’t you think that the government in Pristina is playing with the time factor, bearing in mind that there are elections in the EU, and bearing in mind that there are elections later this year in the U.S.?

Ambassador Hovenier: I can’t speak to their calculations, I can only speak to the urgency of this, I think and as the current situation shows, this is quite urgent, and we would like to see it go forward. And I don’t know that I have more to say about consequences other than what I’ve said, to the extent the government is responsive to things we believe are important, and that we believe advanced Kosovo’s European and Euro Atlantic trajectory. It enhances our partnership. To the extent that government is not responsive, it affects the quality of our partnership.

RTV21: But what if not–

Ambassador Hovenier: You know, we will take those decisions when we come to it. But it’s not a mistake to say that we’re concerned. And we would like to see greater responsiveness to our requests than what we are seeing at this time.

RTV21: You have been having difficulties with this government and have different issues.

Ambassador Hovenier: I’m going to leave my words the way I said them.

RTV21: Okay. So the leaders of the Government of Kosovo say that they have managed to change the situation on the ground in the north by intervening and implementing the law. Now, there is another moment in this part elections for mayors of the municipalities. So process after process. Do you believe it will be completed now?

Ambassador Hovenier: I hope so. So again, we think it’s important that – well, 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. The elections happen consistent with Kosovo’s law. But I don’t think any of us can be very satisfied with an elected official, who had no more than 4% of the registered voters come and cast ballots on election day. That is not a mandate for sweeping political change, or even to be able to profess that you fully represent the constituency that elected you.

We are pleased that citizens of Kosovo decided to use an administrative procedure that was put into place, so they can begin the process of if they choose to do so recalling these elected officials. I’ve got nothing against any of them personally. But I think those communities would probably benefit from elected officials who have a stronger mandate from their electorate.

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. I know we’re about to end one very important step, which is petitions have been signed. Indications seem to be that more than 20% of the registered eligible voters have signed those petitions, but only the Central Election Commission can confirm that. But once that happens, it is quite important that the authorities do everything possible to ensure that the next step happens without delay. And we will not be very patient with people that want to get into big debates over who is responsible for what. The reality is that the next step should happen within the expected timeframe, which I think is 45 days, and we will be looking to all authorities in Kosovo, be they opposition parties who have members on the Central Election Commission or the government, or other state institutions to do everything possible to move this process forward.

RTV21: So may I ask you, let me say last question, even though I don’t like very much to say last question because it’s a good conversation. But officials of the Kosovo Government recently said that the Dialogue process led by Lajcak has failed and has no vision and no strategy. If read correctly, does the dialogue appear to be in the difficulty?

Ambassador Hovenier: The first thing I want to say about that is, this feels a little bit like a couple that’s getting a divorce, who blamed the priest who married them. If there is something going on and the Dialogue is not being fully successful, I believe it has much more to do with the political will of the parties themselves than any facilitator or country making an effort to support the facilitator, which in this case is Miroslav Lajcak and the European Union. I believe there is a vision and I believe there is a way forward.

It’s actually quite clear, from my perspective. We have a very good agreement reached last February, and a very good implementation annex reached last March. The emphasis needs to be for both governments to do everything possible to implement fully all of their obligations under these agreements, and to not spend so much time worrying about what the other one is doing. And in so doing, they will each advance their European and Euro Atlantic futures, which is what we want to see.

RTV21: Ambassador Hovenier, thank you very much. I appreciate your time to join us.

Ambassador Hovenier: Thank you very much.