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 by Gabriel Escobar, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs and Special Representative to the Western Balkans.
Finally, a reminder that today’s briefing is on the record. With that, let’s get started. Deputy Assistant Secretary Escobar, thanks so much for being here today. I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
MR ESCOBAR: Thank you very much, and thank you to everybody who is joining us on this call. I want to start today by expressing my deep condolences to the people of Serbia for the tragedy that happened in Belgrade today. No one should have to experience that kind of grief, and the United States stands ready to support in any way we can.
I also want to talk today about the events of yesterday and the progress that we are hoping to make on the agreement. So to reiterate, we have a legally binding agreement between Serbia and Kosovo on normalization, and the discussion yesterday was about the implementation of that agreement. And the implementation begins with the formation of the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities. That was really an intense focus of discussion within the context of the EU-facilitated dialogue. And the important elements were discussed, and now it is up to the chief negotiators to move forward and start coming up with a workable statute. Our expectation is that within the next two weeks, the chief negotiators will meet to discuss this process again.
Now, this process is very important, and it’s very important that the two sides, particularly Kosovo, take this process seriously and move in an expedited fashion to get this done, to have it agreed between the two sides, to put it through parliamentary review and legal review to make sure that it is irreversible and a central part to the normalization.
Additionally, we want to talk – we wanted to talk about some of the conditions of the relationship between minority communities in Kosovo and the central government; that was an important discussion. I am happy to note that the two sides did come to an endorsement of an agreement on humanitarian – on missing persons from a humanitarian standpoint. I think that was very important, and we continue to look for progress in other areas as well, including energy.
And with that, I will stop and take questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go first to a live question from Ksenija Pavlovic Mcateer. Ksenija, please, you have the mike.
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
MR ESCOBAR: Yes.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you very much for doing this. My first question: Albin Kurti keeps saying that the draft presented to him for the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities is the Republika Srpska model. Why is he claiming that if you said, as well as Borrell, publicly, numerous times, this is not the model you are looking to implement?
And my second question, if you will: The Serbian president said that he’s concerned that the talks have reached a dead end and that the agreement could collapse over Kurti’s refusal to implement the Serb-Majority Municipalities. What is the path forward if the agreement cannot be implemented under Kurti? Would it mean that implementation of the municipalities would only be possible with some newly elected government in the future or someone more interested in implementing legally binding Brussels Agreement of 2013? Thank you.
MR ESCOBAR: Well, look, the European Union and the United States are very focused on making sure that this agreement, which we worked very hard on, becomes a reality. And that reality comes through – begins with the association. That – the normalization is centered on the rights of minorities, particularly Serb minorities, in Kosovo. So it is absolutely critical. So it’s our expectation and I would say it’s our demand that we move forward on this.
Now, the important thing on this is that we have seen an evolution on both sides on the management team’s presentation of the discussion on Serbia’s clear statements that it needs the association, and on the Government of Kosovo presenting its principles on how the association would look.
So I would say that we have the beginnings of a discussion on this, and we just need to push forward continually until we reach a workable model.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go to a submitted question now from Márton Dunai of Financial Times from the UK. He asks: “What specific progress markers have you seen at the Brussels summit in the days since the boycotted April 23 elections in Kosovo?” And then he also notes: “People on the ground are disappointed with the Ohrid deal and pessimistic about the chances of it succeeding. What needs to be done so Serbs and Albanians alike accept this deal and implement it?”
MR ESCOBAR: Well, first of all, both governments did accept it. It was – it is, as Mr. Borrell said, legally binding on all the parties. So it’s only been a month, and we are discussing now the implementation. I would say that we had a small level of progress in the presentation of written proposals by both sides on how the association should look. So this is, I would say, one of the first times that we have heard directly from the Government of Kosovo on what their vision for the association is – and they have one, and Serbia of course has its own version. The answer now is for the two sides to meet within the next two weeks to present further refinements to their positions and for the European Union to continue to use its impressive leverage and its impressive capacity to bring the two parties together to start looking for compromise solutions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go live now to a question from Ekrem Krasniqi from dtt-net.com. Ekrem, you have the mike.
QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?
MR ESCOBAR: Yes.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Escobar. You just mentioned the word “seriously” addressing, a kind of call to the Kosovo authorities to address the issue of the association seriously, while at the same time we have been hearing you saying that the association, the model of association, should be consistent with the Kosovo constitution and Kosovo laws. But I’m a little bit confused while hearing you making and using the word “seriously.” Are you assuming that the proposal of Mr. Kurti made yesterday is not a serious one?
MR ESCOBAR: I do think it’s serious, but I also think the one presented by the management team is also serious. Now, it is not up to me to decide what is serious. It is not an American-facilitated process; it’s a European-facilitated process. And what’s important here is as the two sides normalize their relationship, they’re also harmonizing their structures with the European Union in preparation for eventual membership in the European Union. So we need to get to a middle ground on that that is consistent with European principles and European requirements under their accession process.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go to a submitted question now from Esmir Milavic, N1 Bosnia. “Mr. Escobar, there are constant efforts to link a dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina with a situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in particular with Republika Srpska. What is your comment on this and how do you see political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the moment?”
MR ESCOBAR: Well, I’ll start by saying that the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo is unique to Serbia and Kosovo. It does not involve any other parties. Now, other parties are interested because it creates opportunities for advancing regional stability. But we are not looking for – to recreate a model that we have in Bosnia. That was created for Bosnia.
The situation in Bosnia, I would say, is encouraging in the fact that we have had successful elections. Those elections produced governments on the state level and now on the federation level that were formed faster than they’ve ever been formed, that bring in new voices and another generation of leaders into the power structure, which is something that’s been very needed in Bosnia. So we look forward to working with the new state-level government and the new federation government to advance the goals of stability, economic prosperity, and Euro-Atlantic integration.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go to another question, submitted question, from Vladimir Lame from Tv Klan News in Albania. “How is the State Department preparing for Albanian local elections on the 14th of May?” And he also asks: “If Kosovo and Serbia do not find a final compromise until the end of the year, what sort of consequences will they face?”
MR ESCOBAR: Well, how the State Department is preparing for elections – the elections are happening in a NATO Ally within the context of free and fair processes that we’ve come to rely on in Albania. So I would say it’s not up to us to prepare; it’s up to the public to prepare on determining who they’re going to vote for and examining the programs of the candidates. And in the aftermath of the free and fair elections that we expect, we expect to have good relationships with all the new elected officials.
On your second question, which is about if Serbia and Kosovo don’t come to an agreement by the end of the year, I think that’s a premature question because we are seeing, even though it’s contentious, even though it’s divisive, we’re seeing leaders meet; we’re seeing that they are discussing the right questions. We’re not – we weren’t expecting them to agree on the statute yesterday, but we wanted them to present their visions. And we had – we did get that.
So I do hope and I do fully expect that by the end of the year, we will get there.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go to the Associated Press, Llazar Semini. I think you had covered some of this, sir, but there might be elements that you’d like also to cover. He asks: “The draft of the association was opposed by Pristina, fearing it would violate Kosovo’s constitution and likely create another Republika Srpska in northern Kosovo. Pristina is offering a new draft proposal, or ‘vision’ as Kurti called it, based on the Croatian-Serb agreement. Belgrade fears Serbs will be vulnerable without the association. Do you believe that the draft offered in Brussels will be able to reach an acceptable level to calm the fears of both sides? Or is it now only pressure on Kosovo to accept that draft?”
MR ESCOBAR: No, there’s not pressure on one side to unilaterally accept the other. This has to be a negotiated statute. It also has to be one that does protect the rights of minorities, particularly Serb minorities, in Kosovo. That is our goal, and our goal is to use the association as a platform for ethnic Serbs to participate in the civic and democratic life of Kosovo and to address some of the anxieties – and some of them, I would say, are quite justified – in their relationship with the central government in Kosovo.
So our expectations are very clear. Our aspirations are very high. And our support for both sides to come to a mutually, I would say, advantageous position is also clear.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go live to Report TV. Report TV, you have your hand up and you have the mike.
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
MR ESCOBAR: Yes.
QUESTION: Thank you. According to the (inaudible) the opposition for the local elections here in Albania for 14 May with Sali Berisha and Ilir Meta as the main opposition force. Mr. Escobar, are you ready to collaborate with Sali Berisha after the USA declared him non grata? Thank you.
MR ESCOBAR: I don’t want to comment on the – on the results of the elections. I do want to comment on the fact that Albania has made enormous progress over the last 30 years in moving toward Euro-Atlantic integration and creating a level of international credibility that it’s never had before. And there are a lot of new faces who are ready to promote that agenda. And for me, I don’t know why people would want to look to the past rather than to the future.
So we will have to analyze very closely the results of the elections.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Moving to a slightly different topic, Igor Tabak writes: “What is the view of the U.S. on the relations of individual Balkan countries with the Russian Federation? Are there incentives for streamlining – for a streamlining of the sanctions regime?”
MR ESCOBAR: Well, look, I would say that all of the countries have an obligation, particularly those that are candidates for the European Union, to align. The question of sanctions I think is very important in – as part of the alignment. But I would say that overwhelmingly, the countries of the region see the crisis the way that we do, that it is – that it is a threat to European security. It is a threat to European prosperity. And therefore, collectively, we have to answer that. And I would say again that every country in the region has responded politically the right way and has opened their doors to those fleeing the conflict in a humanitarian way.
So I think we just need to continue to work to align more closely together to address this threat.
MODERATOR: Thank you for that. We’ll go to another submitted question from Misha Savic, Bloomberg News. He notes: “There wasn’t much talk about – before about the so-called management team. We heard it was formed back in 2018. In your opinion, why was there no draft statute earlier? What was holding it back, if that was the case? And finally, in whose court is the ball now?”
MR ESCOBAR: Well, I would say, quite honestly, we did have difficulty in convincing the Government of Kosovo to accept its legally binding obligation to form the association, and that’s probably why you didn’t hear from the management team for a long time.
The ball is in the court of both sides right now to start to sharpen their proposals to make them more acceptable to the other side and to start looking for a workable model under European – in the European framework that would work to protect the rights of minority groups in Kosovo.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go again live to Lindita Karadaku. Lindita, your mike should be open.
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
MR ESCOBAR: Yes, I can.
QUESTION: Okay, good. So, Mr. Escobar, we have been following the meeting in (inaudible) following what happened in Brussels. And the main concern is if both sides are really serious about getting to reach a final agreement on the full normalization of their relations. Do you think that they are really serious about that? Because that’s the main concern we have.
MR ESCOBAR: I think they are really serious. I don’t think that they would have been in Ohrid if they weren’t serious. I don’t think that they would have agreed to a legally binding agreement if they weren’t serious. So yes, I do have every reason to believe that they’re serious. And believe me, the European Union and the United States are very, very serious on this.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Going to another submitted question from Gjerakina, who notes: “If the agreement is legally binding, as you confirmed again, does the U.S. consider that Serbia breached the Ohrid agreement by voting against application of Kosovo for membership in the Council of Europe?”
MR ESCOBAR: Well, look, I will – I’ll address two parts of that question. One, I’m not sure whether it was a violation; that is up to the European Union, which is essentially the guarantor of the agreement. Now, because the implementation process hadn’t been outlined by the time that vote happened, I’m not sure whether the sequencing required Serbia not to block.
That said, I do want to say something about the Council of Europe. Now, that – the Council of Europe is not a victory. It is an obligation. The Council of Europe has an obligation to ensure that on European space, within those who apply, that the standards of democracy and democratic freedoms are fully implemented. And so when I say it’s an obligation, I do think that there is space for the Council of Europe to examine the conditions and the status of the Serbian minority in Kosovo. That will be a major focus of the next step of the Council of Europe.
So it’s not necessarily a victory. I would say it is an obligation to improve the relationship, and within that context, I think we’ll have to see movement on the association. We’ll have to see movement on addressing some of the legitimate concerns that the Serb community in north Kosovo has about their treatment and about the lack of implementation of certain constitutional court decisions, including the decision protecting the monastery of Dečani.
So, as I said, the Council of Europe is an obligation, and it is an important one, particularly right now.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. I wanted to turn to a quick question from Montenegro from Marko Vešović, Portal RTCG. He asks: “DAS Escobar, what do you think about recent – the recent actions against corruption and organized crime in Montenegro?”
MR ESCOBAR: I definitely think that one of the biggest challenges in the entire Western Balkans is the deeply entrenched corruption. And we support all efforts to impose the rule of law, to make the reforms necessary to reach a higher standard of accountability, and we fully support actions to fight corruption in the entire region. And in this regard, we’re willing to partner with Montenegro in fighting crime, and we already do. We provide technical assistance. We provide information-sharing and capacity-building.
So I’d look forward to working with this government and the future government on continuing the fight against corruption.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go to another live question. Amra Zejneli, your mike should be open.
MR ESCOBAR: Amra, you’re muted.
MODERATOR: Amra, go ahead. I’m going to give you a couple more seconds, see if we can figure that out. And —
QUESTION: Can you hear me now?
MR ESCOBAR: Yes.
MODERATOR: Yeah, thank you.
MR ESCOBAR: Amra, go ahead. I guess not.
MODERATOR: No, I guess not. I apologize for that. Many of the questions have already been answered or are on similar topics, so unless there’s another person who’d like to raise their hand, DAS Escobar, I’d turn it over to you for any final thoughts.
MR ESCOBAR: Thank you, John, and thank you to everybody. I want to leave with a final thought, that the United States and the European Union are fully committed to making the normalization work for both sides. The stability of the region depends on it. The health of the communities depends on it. And the situation that Europe is facing right now demands it.
So we are going to make every effort to make sure that this agreement is fully implemented, but also that it is not a win-lose situation but a win for both sides in improving the lives of the people who are affected in this process. And hopefully, by doing so, we will advance the integration of Serbia and Kosovo both within the region, with their neighbors, but also with the European Union.
So I will continue to be very engaged in supporting this process. And I want to thank my colleagues in the European Union, who are working on this every single day, for their hard work as well. So thank you again.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for that, and thank you, DAS Escobar, for joining us today. Really appreciate it. Thanks also to all the journalists that joined. Shortly we will send an audio recording of the briefing to all the participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it is available. We’d love to hear your feedback and so you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub – that’s one word – @state.gov. Thanks again to everybody for participating, and we hope you can join us again in the near future for another press briefing at the Brussels Media Hub. This ends today’s briefing.
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