Media Roundtable on South Central Europe

Press Availability
Thomas Countryman
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
March 7, 2011

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Thank you, and good afternoon to all of you. I’m happy to take questions on anything related to South Central Europe.

The main news, of course, is the beginning of a dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia to be mediated by the European Union. This begins tomorrow in Brussels. The EU has invited the United States government as a guest of the dialogue so I will be there representing Washington.

Just three quick points about the dialogue that define our view.

First, we have full confidence in the European Union to set the agenda and to manage the dialogue in order to meet the goal of making real improvements in the daily life of citizens of both Kosovo and Serbia.

Secondly, while the dialogue is important, in my view both politicians and the media in both Belgrade and Pristina are exaggerating the importance of the dialogue. It is an important means for these two states to talk to each other about very practical initiatives that will make life better for everybody in Kosovo. It is a dialogue, and not a negotiation. It is possible for any side to raise any topic, although of course as I said before we trust the EU and Mr. Cooper to keep the agenda focused on areas where we can make practical progress.

But for either side to see it as a negotiation in which both sides must fight fiercely for their respective positions is to defeat the purpose of the dialogue. It is one where we expect to see practical, non-political issues discussed in a cooperative way. We appreciate the assurances that we’ve received from both governments that this is indeed their approach to the dialogue.

The third point I will make is about the question of status. There have been efforts by the negotiators for both sides to define that the dialogue is or is not about status. In our view, the question of status is already decided. Kosovo’s independence is an established fact. The International Court of Justice has made its ruling which affirms for us that the status of Kosovo cannot and will not be changed by the dialogue. This is not to say that in a dialogue such issues can’t be raised, and we of course recognize that the practical solutions to some issues will touch upon the definition of status. But for us, Kosovo’s status is an established fact that can always be discussed but that cannot be changed.

With that, I’ll be happy to take your questions about the dialogue or about any other issue.

QUESTION: Mr. Countryman, although the main news is as you said Kosovo, however you just returned from Sarajevo with Under Secretary Steinberg. Can you tell us if we have somehow the delay of formation of the government for five months, and as some say Bosnia is not Belgium. How encouraged or discouraged you and Under Secretary Steinberg are after this visit of Sarajevo? What is new? What is better? What is worse?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Thank you. Of course it is a great disappointment to the United States that the parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina have not been capable of forming a government as you say five months after elections. This does not serve the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina well.

We are also disappointed that negotiations have largely been carried out in public through competing press statements and with increasingly divisive rhetoric. This does not serve the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

It’s clear which parties need to reconcile with each other in order to form a functional government. And escalating the rhetoric to the point of making threats or insulting each other does not serve that purpose. In the end these parties will have to work together if they are to serve the people who voted for them.

We discussed this today, including Deputy Secretary Steinberg with Mr. Lajcak of the European Union, and we’ll see if we can make a statement later today that lays out our clear expectations that the parties lower the rhetoric, negotiate seriously with the assistance of the international community if that’s needed, and that they avoid taking or continuing actions that call into question the constitutional basis of the government.

QUESTION: May I just have one quick follow-up? Mr. Countryman, the Under Secretary was with Secretary Hillary Clinton there also in September, I believe. If you may follow up on that, how different? Is better or worse the situation in Bosnia since this delay of the government is going on? And what would be the role for sort of intervention from the United States as many people are requiring or hoping for in that regard?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: When Secretary Clinton visited Sarajevo in October it was immediately after the elections, and there was a great air of optimism that the governments could be formed quickly and could begin to deliver on the promises that they made to the people and that the people accepted in the elections. Five months later, it’s hard to feel the same optimism. It’s not as though the failure to form the government has led to a crisis, but it is true that the promise that so many citizens felt in October has not been delivered. For this we hold responsible the parties that still are unable to bring themselves to a compromise on formation of the government.

The U.S. does not seek to intervene. We seek to assist. And where we can, offer the assistance in helping the parties to talk to each other in a more productive, more private way, we will continue to do so.

QUESTION: The parliament in Pristina has just failed to come out with a joint document in support of the talks. The parliament appears to be delaying the debate on the talks until Thursday, and this has put Mr. Thaci, Prime Minister Thaci, in a very awkward position. What do you think? Are they going to go ahead with the talks?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: I think first of all that democracy is awkward. It requires people to explain their goals and to reach compromise with others.

The parliament of Kosovo I am sure will do the job of debating what Kosovo can achieve in the dialogue. I don’t mean to interfere in that debate. But I do strongly believe that the dialogue needs to go forward and it needs to go forward in order to attain Kosovo’s goals of establishing unambiguously its full sovereignty over the territory of Kosovo, and of gaining greater international recognition including membership in the United Nations and in beginning the process of working towards membership of the European Union.

The dialogue is key to all three of those goals. There is not a path that anyone has suggested that leads to those goals without the assistance and cooperation of the international community. So I leave the parliament to debate taking into account both the political situation at home and also the stated goals of the dialogue as the EU has set them. But it needs to go forward and it needs to be a realistic discussion of what the dialogue is and is not.

QUESTION: My question is what would be the exact role of the United States, of the American side, just a guest or something else? Thank you.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: We will be a guest. If the European Union asks us to assist, we will do so. As is common in such diplomacy, we will be available to talk to both sides, to assist them in finding creative solutions to issues, but we are there at the invitation of the European Union and we respect that role.

QUESTION: Mr. Countryman, how do you see the outcome of the Brussels talk in practical terms? Some document will be signed at the end? What is your assessment on how long the talks will last?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: I think the talks will last as long as both parties continue to demonstrate the political will to work through difficult issues and achieve solutions. As I said before, I’m satisfied with the assurances from both governments that they have such a political will to be practical and creative in their discussions.

I would expect that the dialogue will result in a series of agreements, each dealing with one practical area that could be implemented as soon as each is agreed in Brussels. But this depends upon the parties and it depends upon the mediator, and the United States is neither the mediator nor one of the parties.

QUESTION: I just wanted to ask about the European Council resolution issue. Is it going to affect in any way, and of course the Serbian request that independent investigation be open which the U.S. is clearly opposed to. So is this issue could in any way affect the dialogue, or maybe be part of it? Thank you.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: You’re referring to Dick Marty’s report on --


DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Let’s be clear about the United States position. One, the U.S. takes the allegations seriously. Two, they need to be investigated. Three, we are clearly in favor of the kind of investigation that Mr. Marty proposed and which Belgrade opposes, and that is an investigation by EULEX. It’s in the recommendations adopted by the Council of Europe which says EULEX, does not say United Nations. That’s the correct route to go.

Fourth, EULEX has authority under United Nations mandate to conduct such an investigation, so we support them. Finally, it should not have an effect on the dialogue.

QUESTION: Mr. Countryman, since establishment the UN Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia has been supported mainly if not chiefly by United States as the chief supporter. Recently in the past the tribunal cleared some of the persons who were under accusation under the investigation such as Mr. Ejup Ganic, member of the War Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina and General Jovan Divjak. General Jovan Divjak, the last one was apprehended and arrested in Vienna a few days ago. Under the arrest warrant from Serbia do you use it as somehow impediment of the improvement of the regional process of reconciliation since Serbia somehow did not respect the clearance from ICTY and still proceeded with the request with an arrest warrant for General Divjak?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: First as a point of law, and I am not a lawyer but my understanding is that the International Tribunal does not clear people. It decides whether or not there is sufficient evidence to prosecute and convict people.

Second, of course I’ve followed the arrest of General Divjak. I have confidence that the government of Austria and the courts of Austria will process the request in accordance with the facts and with international law.

Third, the U.S. has certainly not been the only supporter of the tribunal. The European Union and most of the international community has given its full support.

The mission of the International Tribunal remains important to peace and reconciliation in the Balkans. We’ll continue to support that and we’ll continue to seek that each country in the region have the national will to work cooperatively towards the completion of the mandate to prosecute war crimes.

QUESTION: But as a follow-up, Mr. Countryman, do you see, as some do see and write even about it as an irony that Serbia did not apprehend Ratko Mladic who was accused of genocide in Srebrenica and still is moving forward with these arrest warrants like for General Divjak who was defending legitimate places in Sarajevo which was under attack in May 1992.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: I don’t do irony. I will leave that up to you whether or not it is ironic. It is of course the clear position of the United States and the European Union that the government of Serbia must make all possible efforts to apprehend Ratko Mladic, and we are impressed with the level of effort they have made. We wish to see them continue and step up that effort until they’ve succeeded in that goal.

Let me just mention one other topic on my mind. The state of Maryland is negotiating a business and investment conference for government and business leaders from South Central Europe in Baltimore later this month. All the countries of the region were invited. We’ve recently learned that Serbia has declined to participate because Kosovo was also invited to this conference.

I have to say this disappoints us not as a political matter, but as an economic matter at a time when the U.S. is seeking, consistent with what Vice President Biden said on his trip to Belgrade two years ago, to build economic and business ties with Serbia. To see Serbia boycotting the conference and discouraging Serbian businessmen from participating with several hundred other investors and business men from the U.S. and the region sends the wrong message. It puts politics above economics, and undermines what has been a sincere effort by both Belgrade and Washington to build a better economic relationship between the two of us.

If there are no more questions, I think we can wrap up.

Thank you all very much.