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  • Gabriel Escobar, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs and Special Representative to the Western Balkans, discusses recent events in Serbia and Kosovo.

MODERATOR:  Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub.  I would like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual press briefing.  We are very honored to be joined again by Deputy Assistant Secretary Gabriel Escobar from the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. 

With that, let’s get started.  DAS Escobar, over to you for opening remarks. 

DAS ESCOBAR:  Thank you very much.  Okay.  Well, I’ll start with an update as to where we are on the current crisis.  We have, unfortunately, an escalation on top of a previous escalation, which is really creating some very difficult conditions for the region – not just for Serbia and Kosovo but for the region.   

We have been following the case of the three arrested police officers in Serbia very carefully.  Now, one thing – we are withholding a statement, a full statement, until we have all of the facts, although at the current time there are two likely scenarios.  One is either that they were abducted inside of Kosovo territory and taken to Serbia, or they inadvertently crossed the boundary, in which case they found themselves inside of Serbian territory.  In either case it’s very clear that these police officers had no intention to be in Serbia and they should be released.  We’re calling on all of the parties to work with international authorities inside of Kosovo to make sure that we understand what the facts are, and once the facts are established then we’ll make a statement. 

At the same time, we don’t want the current crisis and the current state of relations between Serbia and Kosovo to be dictated by this current flareup.  We still are working on a three-point European plan to de-escalate the crisis caused by the inauguration of the mayors and the installation of the mayors inside of municipal buildings and the associated protests.   

Now, our position is very much aligned with the European Union, and it has been very clear.  We believe that the mayors should work from alternate locations.  We believe that special police should be withdrawn from around the buildings.  We believe that the protesters should depart the streets.  We believe that anyone who has committed violent acts against KFOR or Kosovo police should be held to account.  We believe that early elections with the participation – the unconditional participation – of Serbs should take place as soon as possible, and we should immediately re-engage on the dialogue to make sure that the Ohrid Agreement, which holds enormous promise for stabilizing the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo, to be immediately – that the two parties immediately engage on those talks.  

So those are our expectations right now.  And with that, I will open up for questions.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  Well, let’s go to a live question first.  Jovana Djurovic from VOA Serbia.  Jovana, you have the microphone.  Jovana, can you hear us?  

QUESTION:  Hello, yes, I can hear you.  Can you hear me now?  

MODERATOR:  Yes, go ahead, please.  

QUESTION:  Thank you so much for this opportunity.  Mr. Escobar, thank you for talking to us in this, it seems, very important and really tense moment.  First of all, I want to ask you:  Do you have any feedback from Belgrade regarding your request to release Kosovo policemen?  And the second question would be – and you can just relate to the first one – since, as you said, we got escalation on escalation, and it seems that the crises are just piling up and no urge – verbal urge from the Western allies neither to Kosovo or Serbia is working, are United States considering some type of measures?  Like, are sanctions on the table?  Thank you so much.  

DAS ESCOBAR:  Well, look, I think that the use of the word “sanctions” is inappropriate right now.  Our ambassador in Kosovo and our ambassador in Serbia have never used the word “sanctions.”  They’ve used the word “consequences.”  But absolutely.  Look, we have – we are asking both countries to take a stake in regional stability, and those who want to be partners with us will work closely with the Europeans and with the Americans on the points that we have proposed – in fact, that we are insisting on – to move forward.  And because this is a regional issue.  So one country and one leader will not determine the course of regional and European stability.  So those who reject the partnership will see consequences.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  Let’s go to a submitted question from Reuters, Jonathan Landay.  He states:  “The U.S. has accused Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti of provoking the unrest in northern Kosovo.  But doesn’t all of this come down to the fact that Serbian Prime Minister Vucic has for years refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence and rallied other countries to do the same, giving Russia the space to fuel instability?” 

DAS ESCOBAR:  Well, I want to be very, very clear that people the Russian influence around far too much.  This is really a failure of inter-ethnic reconciliation on the ground.  These are longstanding disputes between the two countries.   

Now, Russia does take advantage of that, and it’s a cheap win for Russia, but it is not about Russia; it is about the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo.  While it is true – very true – that part of the issue is that Serbia has not progressed to the point that we want it on its path to peaceful, normal relations with Kosovo, I would say that a lot of what is happening starting in November has been about unilateral actions from the Government of Kosovo to impose solutions that are not – that are not coordinated with the international community that have an effect on the lives of the people of northern Kosovo.  And that includes the license plate issue, which we had asked them to coordinate with us; the ID card issue; the expropriation issue; and the failure of the implementation of other required international commitments, including the association.   

So I would say that both sides have a role to play in de-escalating this and for moving toward a more sustainable relationship between – not only between countries but between ethnic groups.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  Let’s go to another live question, Suzanne Lynch.  Suzanne, can you hear us?  Go ahead, Suzanne.  You have the mike, if you can hear us.     

QUESTION:  Hi there.  You can hear me now, yeah?   

MODERATOR:  Yeah, please go ahead.    

QUESTION:  Yeah, hi.  I just have a question about more, I suppose, the practical logistics side of this.  The EU, the high representative has now invited the prime ministers to Brussels for a meeting next week.  Is that something you would attend, Secretary Escobar, or do you have any more plans in terms of actually going to these capitals again anytime soon?  And maybe just explain a bit about your involvement on a practical level there.    

DAS ESCOBAR:  Well, look, in – first of all, this is an EU process, and it should be an EU process.  The countries are in Europe.  Their common aspiration is to join the European Union.  And it is our hope that through the EU process we can eventually convince other EU countries to recognize Kosovo through the Ohrid Agreement.  So we’d like to keep it in EU channels, but with strong American support. 

Now, the request for the leaders to go to Brussels, it’s still in the works, and based on the preparation for that we will have to decide whether I will fly to Brussels or not.  But the – without a doubt, that effort will get the full American support.  

QUESTION:  Thank you.  

MODERATOR:  Great, thanks.  Let’s go now to Ekrem Krasniqi from  Ekrem?  Ekrem, can you hear us?  

QUESTION:  Can you hear me?   

MODERATOR:  Yeah, please go ahead.    

QUESTION:  Thank you, Mr. Escobar.  I have two questions in fact, if I may.  The first relates to the military drill that United States launched and coordinated yesterday with the Serbian army on the Serbian oil, and the one that started with (inaudible) and expelled (inaudible) pressure in terms of balanced approach of – well, you refuse to call them “sanctions,” but let’s call them “measures.”  And second, the wider picture seems to be that Serbia and the tensions in north Kosovo will continue until it gets what it wants, and that’s the – what we call the association.  Now, last month the institute – the International Republican Institute made an opinion survey which says that 80 percent of Kosovo citizens are against the association already proposed.  So last time we spoke with you in this kind of press conferences, you said to us that whatever association could be agreed by both sides should go to approval by the parliament and legal review, referring I guess to the constitutional court.   

Now, in this process, do you agree with the idea that Kosovo has a right to put the association at the referendum or not?  

DAS ESCOBAR:  Well, look, I will tell you that it is a legally binding obligation.  So I would say that the current prime minister is muddying the waters by saying that Kosovo can reject it.  So by rejecting its legal obligations, Kosovo is rejecting a European path because it has been – it is an obligation between Kosovo and Serbia, but it is also an obligation between Kosovo and the European Union.  So we’re not asking Kosovo to do something that it is already not required to do.  What we’re saying is that we will help them shape it in a way that is in – within the framework of European requirements, and that is a level of provision of municipal services in Serbian language to Kosovo citizens who happen to speak the Serbian language in line with European policies and the European charter.   

Now, within that context there is no European model where a neighboring country can reach into the borders of another one and affect its constitutionality and its legal structure and its functionality.  So that is our goal.  What we don’t understand is why the Government of Kosovo refuses to acknowledge its legal requirements.   

Now, we have heard a lot about the prime minister insisting that all he’s doing is implementing the rule of law.  But the rule of law also requires him to acknowledge his international obligations to implement court decisions on things like the Decani Monastery; to implement fully decisions – the constitutional and legal requirements of Kosovo on the use of languages, for example; to follow Venice Commission and European Commission recommendations on the expropriation of land.   

So if we want to talk about the rule of law, the association is part of it.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  We’ll go to a question submitted by Veljko Nestorović from kosovo-online.  “Will the U.S. ask Kosovo to lift the ban on Serbian goods that has now been introduced?”  And the second question is:  “Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti has criticized the international community as well as KFOR for being ‘silent’ about Serbia’s actions.  Do you think that Prime Minister Kurti is moving away from democratic values?” 

DAS ESCOBAR:  Well, look, I’ll start by saying that we do believe that they should lift the ban on Serbian goods and the closure of the border to certain border crossing – certain types of vehicles.  The European Union believes that not only is it anti-European in the form of blocking free movement of people and goods, but there is no legal basis for it either.  So we from the United States support that position, and we also believe that it is an unnecessary escalation of the current escalation on top of an escalation.   

So with regard to the prime minister’s criticism of KFOR, the United States and KFOR and others are going to wait for the facts.  So we are going to wait for the investigations to conclude, and I think it’s inappropriate to make – to make statements beforehand.  The one thing that we are asking, as I said before: it is very clear that these police were either taken to Serbia or ended up in Serbia without intending to be in Serbia, and therefore should be released without condition.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  We’ll go to another live question.  Artan Haraqija – I’m sorry, Artan, I can’t pronounce your last name – but you have the mike. 

QUESTION:  Hello.  I believe you can hear me, right?   

MODERATOR:  Yes, we can.   

QUESTION:  All right.  Thank you very much for the opportunity.  Mr. Escobar, speaking on the three Kosovo detained police officers, I actually have in front of me a video from Reuters: KFOR and Kosovo police patrolling in the village of Bare, which is inside Kosovo, where they found the car with which the officers already detained were traveling with.  Isn’t this a confirmation that – because we know the car doesn’t drive itself – if the car was found there, isn’t this a confirmation that actually they did not cross into Serbia, that this is where they were taken from?   

DAS ESCOBAR:  The only confirmation that is, is that the car did not cross into Serbia.  So we are still waiting for more information.   

QUESTION:  All right.  Thank you very much.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  We’ll go to – unfortunately they haven’t identified themselves or their – I mean, or at least their outlet – but there’s a question that says:  “You showed – you had an optimistic perspective two days before the Ohrid meeting that an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia could be reached within the year.  Do you share the same optimism or do you still have the same optimism, and how bad is the spirit of the agreement damaged?”  And then the last part of that question is:  “What is the main purpose of the so-called final agreement?  Critics say that Serbia is not being pushed as much as it needed towards Kosovo’s recognition.”  Yes, that’s the question, sir.   

DAS ESCOBAR:  Okay.  All right.  Look, yes, I am very optimistic that we can still achieve an agreement.  And it is true that these escalations have damaged the already poor relationship that the two countries had between each other, but the reality is that this agreement allows Kosovo to move faster and further in its efforts for European integration, Euro-Atlantic integration, than ever before.   

The agreement – now, for those who question that it doesn’t push Serbia far enough – it requires Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s territorial integrity, its administrative control over the whole country, its sovereignty, it’s flag, its national symbols, its government documents, and also not block Kosovo into the integration of any international structure.  So in other words, for Serbia, it makes Serbia accept the inevitability of Kosovo being a full member of the European – the Euro-Atlantic family.  At the same time, it also requires Kosovo to make strides in inter-ethnic reconciliation, including for the association, which we see as an opportunity for Kosovo to expand its authority over parallel structures.   

So for me, the agreement really goes a long way for creating a peaceful and stable relationship and predictable relationship between the two countries, and it will also help the region as a whole recover from the scars of the 1990s.   

Now, I do want to say a few things – that there is an awful lot of misinformation about this agreement moving forward.  The one is that people always say, well, Serbia didn’t sign.  Well, Kosovo didn’t sign.  Now, if you read the agreement, the agreement is really about changing the Chapter 35 requirements for both countries so that the agreement is really independent agreements with the European Union, with the beneficiary being the other, with each one having its own set of carrots and sticks.  So for Kosovo to insist on the implementation from the other side – the implementation has to be with the European Union, and therefore they must independently move on the association.  Serbia must also independently move forward with a plan on how they would accomplish its tasks as well.   

So we have to move forward on the implementation of that agreement as soon as possible. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  Let’s go to Xhezaie Dashi.  Xhezaie, please go ahead.  

QUESTION:  Yes, do you hear me?   

MODERATOR:  Yes, go ahead.   

QUESTION:  Well, in light of the recent high tensions in the northern part of Kosovo, does the U.S. consider that the conditions for establishing the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities have been broken up?  And don’t you have the impression that neither party really wants it established so that they can maintain this endless crisis mode, possibly because it might suit them?   

DAS ESCOBAR:  Well, I think that’s a very good question.  I can’t answer that, but it does appear that there are certain elements on both sides that really feed on the crisis.  I do believe, and I have made this very clear, that there are certain – that the prime minister and his party are excessively – they excessively define themselves by their relationship with Serbia and not by their relationship to the European – the European-Atlantic community, that they define themselves in their opposition to Serbia rather than their European values.  I’ve encouraged them to look at how they align with Europe as opposed to how they oppose Europe as a better way to move forward on a peaceful future for Kosovo.   

At the same time, it is very clear that there are elements – and we’ve always known this – that there are elements in the Serbian political spectrum that really want to continue the nationalist rhetoric with regard to Kosovo as well, and that is also extremely damaging not just for Serbia but for the region as a whole.   

MODERATOR:  I think we have time for one more question.  Veljko Nestorović.  Veljko, do you have a question? 

QUESTION:  Hello, can you hear me?   

MODERATOR:  Yes, please go ahead.   


MODERATOR:  We talked about escalation.  Let’s say today in Leposavic there was a new escalation; Minister Krasniqi went to the municipality of Leposavic to visit the new mayor.  He did it – this is the second time he did it, and both times there was incidents, there was some stuff among people who was throwing stuff, throwing some paint on the car from Minister Krasniqi.  Do Mr. Escobar think that this visit from Minister Krasniqi is unnecessary and it’s – tensions get higher every time he visits?   

DAS ESCOBAR:  I have to say I absolutely agree.  Look, I am – and I am also going to simultaneously answer a question that was submitted in advance from a freelance journalist in Austria, saying that it appears that the United States is doing much more to help Serbia than to help Kosovo.  So look, I will start by saying that absolutely everything that we have done in the last 60 days, 90 days, has gone in favor of supporting Kosovo.  Serbia did not want Kosovo’s application to the Council of Europe to move forward; we supported it.  Serbia wanted us to push Kosovo to cancel the elections; we supported them.  Kosovo – Serbia wanted us to declare that the elections were illegitimate because of the low turnout; we didn’t.  Kosovo didn’t want us to recognize the authority of the mayors; we didn’t – we didn’t do what Serbia wanted.   

In no case over the last 90 days – I challenge anyone to find anything that we have done that has not gone in favor of Kosovo.  Now, the one thing that we had cautioned Kosovo is with regard to the use of the buildings.  Now, the use of the buildings was an unnecessary – an unnecessary escalation in a time when emotions were running high.  I have been with the federal government since I was 19 years old, and I have seen the U.S. Government abandon buildings for fires, floods, hurricanes, COVID, and even protests.  Because we felt that there’s no need to escalate and create higher tensions.   

So the legitimacy of the United States was never questioned in those cases, and the legitimacy of the mayors would not have been questioned if they had worked from an alternate location.  They could have worked from the Moon and we would have considered their actions legitimate.  Instead, they insisted on moving into the offices by force, and what happened was predictable and preventable.   

So every time that they make a point of using those buildings as a symbol of their opposition to the European and American plan, it damages the relationship with – between ethnic groups and the relationship between Kosovo and the Euro-Atlantic community.   

So that was our only ask of Kosovo, and for whatever reason they continue to refuse it.  But we’re going to continue to insist on it.  And if you want to talk about consequences, I would say that there will be consequences if they continue to ignore our advice on this issue.   

MODERATOR:  Thanks very much, DAS Escobar.  Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for today.  Thank you all for your questions and your participation, and thank you, Deputy Assistant Secretary Escobar, for joining us.   

DAS ESCOBAR:  Thanks, everyone.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  Shortly we will send an audio recording of the briefing to all the participating journalist and provide a transcript as soon as it is available.  We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub – that’s one word –  Thanks again for your participation and we hope that you can join us again in the near future for another briefing.  This ends today’s session. 

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U.S. Department of State

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