MODERATOR: We are very honored to be joined by Deputy Assistant Secretary Gabriel Escobar from the Department of State.
We will try to get to as many questions as possible in the 30 minutes that we have allotted today. So please show your support and like the questions you’d most like us to cover. You can notify us of any technical difficulties at TheBrusselsHub – one word – @state.gov.
With that, let’s get started. DAS Escobar, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
MR ESCOBAR: Thank you very much, John. So thank you, everybody, for joining us today. I just want to say a few words at the top, and then we’ll get right into questions.
I want to start by saying that for the United States, the Western Balkans remain a very high priority, and it is our intention to do everything that we can to use our positive relationship with every one of the countries of the Western Balkans to create better relationships between all of them. And in this regard, we fully support and strongly support the EU-facilitated dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo.
And I do want to clarify that while we are very, very supportive of it, we are not a part of it. It is an EU-facilitated process, and it should be an EU-facilitated process. But we are lending our full support to it politically, financially, through capacity-building and every other way.
And I do want to say a couple of words about the meetings yesterday. Now, it is true that, in consultation with our European partners, the governments of Serbia and Kosovo, the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo, agreed to move forward on an EU-produced proposal for normalization between the two parties. We support that, but it – while it was an important step, the hard work of implementation, of agreeing to an implementation annex still remains, and we still want to see the two parties move forward on that on an expedited basis.
So with that, we can go straight to questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, DAS Escobar. We will now turn to the Q&A portion of today’s briefing.
Let’s go to our first question, which was pre-submitted by Linda Karadaku from ABC News Albania. She asks, “What would be done if one of the sides is obstructive in the implementation plan, after the agreement between Pristina and Belgrade is signed?”
MR ESCOBAR: Well, that – the important part is we are going to start from the point of view that the two parties are entering into these discussions with goodwill. And so our expectation is that we won’t have to use sticks, that we’ll use carrots to encourage them to move further along the process. And those carrots are quite clear as they move forward. Not only do they bring the two sides closer to a peaceful and predictable relationship, but it opens more and more doors for the two sides to integrate more into European and transatlantic structures. So we’re going to start from there and hope that both sides are prepared to meet their obligations, should they come to an agreement.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Let’s go to a live question. Ekrem Krasniqi, you have the mike.
QUESTION: Do you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes, we hear you.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you, Mr. Escobar. I – my question relates to the wording that was used in the letter of President Biden 10 days ago and the statement of Secretary Blinken. When I compare the 12-months-ago letters and the recent ones, I could – President Biden used the words “eventual goal of mutual recognition,” and also the same connotations, Blinken used the words “eventual mutual recognition.” Can you please explain to us why – and what’s the meaning of adding this word and not last year? Where we are going to move to with?
MR ESCOBAR: Well, look, what we wanted to make sure is we wanted to make sure that there was no confusion about our position on the European proposal on normalization. Now, this – the European proposal is not about mutual recognition; it’s about normalization. And we wanted to make it clear that that’s as far as this agreement goes. But just because we support this agreement at this particular time does not mean that we don’t believe that in order for the region to be healthy and to finally and fully emerge from the events of the ’90s – that we believe that all the countries of the region should recognize each other and have full relations, full and positive relations between each other.
So that is the reason that we put the word in, that we encouraged the word “eventual” to be added to the letters, so that people understand that we are not looking to change the draft of the European proposal, but that we are – we haven’t lost sight of what ultimately we’d like to happen in the Western Balkans.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go to another pre-submitted question from Christian Wehrschuetz from ORF, Austria. He asks, “Has the conflict in Ukraine forced Serbia to change its political attitude towards Russia and could this have an impact on its relations with Kosovo?”
MR ESCOBAR: Well, first of all, the crisis in Ukraine has absolutely focused people on the threats to European stability, and by extension on transatlantic security. So yes, I think a lot of people, not just Serbia, are looking at how we resolve the internal threats to stability inside of the European continent so that we can better deal with the threats coming from outside of the European community.
So with regard to how this has affected Serbia, I would have to say that Serbia has simply reaffirmed that their ultimate aspiration is to be a part of the European community, a part of the European Union. And I think that the crisis really helps focus people on doing the hard work that’s necessary for that to happen.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go to another live question. Antonia Vulevic (ph), you have the mike? Antonia, can you hear us?
QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?
QUESTION: Actually, it’s not Antonia Vulevic. It’s my colleague’s account. This is Nemanja Vlačo, foreign desk editor at Serbian daily Srpski Telegraf.
QUESTION: Well, my question: Will the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities in Kosovo be established?
MR ESCOBAR: Well, look, it’s our position that is a legally binding international obligation that must be implemented. That implementation – that requirement appears in the Brussels agreement; it appears in this agreement. It was in the European Council conclusions, and it is part of the American policy. So I – there is an expectation that it will be formed. And in order for all of this to move forward as written, it should be established. So our position is that it should be established in a way that makes it a win for both sides, that helps both sides find channels of cooperation to best serve the population that has dual citizenship of Serbia and Kosovo. So it is fully our expectation that it will be implemented.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Let’s go to another live question. Hekuran Sokoli, you have the mike.
Let’s go to —
QUESTION: Yeah, can you hear me? Hello?
MODERATOR: Yes, we hear you. Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: My name is Hekuran Sokoli. I am a journalist at Klan Kosova Television. I’ve just been listening to Escobar saying that the implementations – the association should be implemented. And recently I have been reading news that also, for example, the Albanian community living in Serbia, they also want to have a similar association. And would you support something like that, or does this association – should be formed only in Kosovo and not in other regions? Thank you.
MR ESCOBAR: Well, look, part of the reason that we support it in Kosovo right now is because it’s a legally binding obligation. Now, to bring other parties and other structures into the dialogue would depend on the European Union and the European-facilitated process. So I personally believe that the best way forward for that community is to insist that its rights and its – the health of its community be addressed through its relationship with the government that represents them.
Now, that said, I don’t speak for the European Union as to whether this should be included in the dialogue or not. All I can say is that currently it is not part of it.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We can go to another live question. Let’s go to Boris Kamchev from the Macedonian Information Service. Boris, please go ahead.
Boris, can you hear us? Okay, let’s move on. Let’s go to Jelena Pronic from KURIR. Jelena, you have the mike.
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
MR ESCOBAR: Yes.
QUESTION: Yes? Okay. Mr. Escobar, does Kosovo have a specific deadline to form the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities? And what will be the consequences if they do not do so? Recently you said that the association will be formed with or without Albin Kurti. Do you see any other partner in Kosovo Government for the job?
MR ESCOBAR: Well, look, I want to clarify why I said that. This is, as I said, an obligation. It is part of the Brussels agreement. It is part of this new basic agreement. It is part of the policy of every country of the Quint, and it is in the conclusions of the council. So that is a reality. That is an objective fact that that is what is required of Kosovo for it to move forward on its European integration process.
So the question is: How soon will it happen, and how soon will the Government of Kosovo accept that and acknowledge that obligation? Now, I’m confident that with this basic agreement, with the agreement that we have yesterday, there is an understanding from the Kosovo side that it has to be done. So I don’t want to put deadlines and specifications on what is essentially an EU-facilitated process and a domestic political process. But I do want to say that it should be – that the discussions about the implementation should begin immediately.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Let’s go back to Boris Kamchev and see if – Boris, can you hear us now?
QUESTION: Yes, I can hear you well. Do you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yeah, we hear you now. Thank you.
QUESTION: Okay, so great. I had problems with this application. Secretary Escobar, thank you very much for doing this. My question is regarding the Macedonian – North Macedonian and Bulgarian relationships. So could you please give us an assessment on the Skopje-Sofia relations? How do you view these relations? What is the current progress in achieving normalization between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, keeping in mind the recent threats by Sofia to renew its veto regarding the EU-Macedonian negotiation talks?
MR ESCOBAR: Well, look, I want to start by saying I don’t deal directly with Bulgaria. The only thing I can say is that both are valued NATO partners, and we would like to see them have a peaceful and productive relationship.
Now, I will say from the North Macedonia side that we are strongly supportive of North Macedonia’s integration into the European Union as quickly as possible. And so we will support anything that gets them there quickly and anything that gets them there peacefully. So we’ll continue to work with the Government in North Macedonia to help them meet their aspirations. They are an extremely good NATO Ally, and I can assure the European Union that that is what they will be as members of the European Union. They will be productive, reliable, and solid members of the European Union once they get in.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go to another submitted question, this time from Llazar Semini from the Associated Press. “Do you believe that Belgrade and Pristina are serious enough this time and will make serious efforts to apply last evening’s still-not-signed agreement? Both leaders blamed each other for failing to sign it Monday evening using the normal rhetoric that they have used before. The agreement mentions the idea of Kosovo’s independence, which is not accepted by Serbia, and the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities for which Kosovo has some conditions. Are you hopeful that Pristina and Belgrade will implement the agreement?”
MR ESCOBAR: I am very hopeful, and our expectations are very high for this agreement. And I think what’s new is not only the seriousness of both governments but the seriousness of our European partners to make this happen in the shadow of one of the biggest crises Europe has seen since the Second World War. So I do believe that we have all of the stars in alignment to make this happen. And when it does happen, it will unlock benefits for both Serbia and Kosovo, and the transatlantic community in terms of stability, in a way that we haven’t seen in nearly 30 years.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go to another live question. Augustin Palokaj, you have the mike. Augustin, go ahead. Can you hear us?
Let’s move on to Arber Vllahiu. Arber, can you – you have the mike now. Arber, can you hear us? Actually —
QUESTION: Hello? Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you hear me now?
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you very much. Mr. Escobar, thank you very much indeed for sharing your time with us today. I would like to ask you, how do you comment the statements that the agreement foresee a sort of level of autonomy for the Serbs in Kosovo, and specifically for the Serbian Orthodox Church? And the second one is, if there is any – if there is no mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia, would this mean that we will see another period of time of the dialogue, as we have seen for a couple of years until now? Thank you very much.
MR ESCOBAR: Can you – sorry. Can you clarify that? When you say you’ll see another period of time in the dialogue, as we’ve seen in the couple of years, what are you referring to?
QUESTION: I’m referring to this dialogue that was conducted from 2011 until 2023, until today. So I would —
MR ESCOBAR: I see.
QUESTION: — just like to ask if there is another period of time until when both countries will recognize each other?
MR ESCOBAR: Well, look, I’ll start with the beginning. So when we talk about the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities, we’re talking about a level of self-management that would not interfere with the constitutional order of Kosovo, the legal structure of Kosovo, or the functionality of Kosovo. But we do want to make sure that those communities can join together and work together to find economies of scale on things that municipalities already do, and to do them for their community and Serbian language. I don’t think that there’s anything scary about that, and I think that there is a lot of validity to the requirement to do that.
And with regard to the Serbian Orthodox Church, there are – there is some discussion of it in both the Brussels dialogue and in this current agreement. So I think the parties can expect a European-like consideration for minority groups and for the church.
In terms of the continued engagement of the dialogue, I do foresee that the United States and the European Union will continue to be present in the region until such point as we get – as the countries enter the European Union, at which point it won’t be necessary. But in the meantime, we do want to partner with the countries of the region. We do want to support them in their democratic and economic development. So I do envision that there will be a role for the international community in both countries for a while.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go to another live question. Ivan Mijanovic from TV Montenegro. Ivan, please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I hope that you can hear me.
QUESTION: After Montenegro restored fully operational constitutional court yesterday by appointing three judges, now all conditions are set to organize the presidential and maybe the parliamentary elections. So Montenegro is just about to start the presidential election campaign. Do you expect foreign interference in the election process? And how to counter this phenomenon? Thank you very much.
MR ESCOBAR: Well, look, I definitely do think, quite honestly, that Russia will try to inject some unhelpful narratives to try to create some tension between ethnic groups in Montenegro in this campaign. And I do believe that they’ll try to do it through their normal channels of media disinformation and potentially through some proxies. But I also believe that the people of Montenegro are wise enough to understand and recognize that. I do believe that the institutions of Montenegro that have the ability to demand transparency in electoral campaigns and other protections are strong enough to help withstand that. And at the end of it, the United States still sees Montenegro – will still see Montenegro as an important and valued NATO Ally. And we hope that the next government will continue to be focused on European integration, committed to NATO membership, and committed to the fight against corruption.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go to another live question. Ermal Qori, you have the mike now. Ermal, can you hear us? Ermal, can you hear us? Let’s go to another question – live question from Sitel TV. I’m assuming it’s the outlet.
QUESTION: Hello, sir.
MODERATOR: Yes, please go ahead.
MR ESCOBAR: Hello.
QUESTION: Hello, sir, it’s – okay. Greetings from Sitel Television. Well, I’m interested about U.S. support regarding the fighting corruption here in Macedonia. Can you expect some new names on the blacklist of United States regarding this issue?
MR ESCOBAR: Well, look, by policy we can’t preview our sanctions actions, but I can tell you two things: one is that it is our intent to use the sanctions authorities as they were intended, which is to fight corruption not just in the region but throughout the world. That said, I really do believe that the best way to fight corruption is not through American sanctions but through domestic prosecutions, through the strengthening of rule of law. Our sanctions are not a substitute for domestic processes, for domestic institutions that are there to promote the rule of law.
So I would encourage the Government of North Macedonia and the government – governments of all the countries of the Western Balkans to really commit to fighting corruption, which is the one overriding problem throughout the entire region. It is the one thing that all six countries of the Western Balkans share in common, and the one thing that is really detrimental to their democratic and economic development.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go to another live question, Aurora Golemi from News 24. Aurora, you have the mike. Aurora, can you hear us? Let’s go to VOA then. VOA, can you hear us?
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
QUESTION: I can hear you now. Okay.
MODERATOR: Yeah, go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. So I would just go back to what Mr. Escobar was talking about in the beginning, and that is this future implementation plan. According to your meetings yesterday in talking to the leaders, what could be the future sticking points in this roadmap, in this implementation? Thank you.
MR ESCOBAR: Well, look, there’s a lot there, and there’s – some of it is political and some of it is administrative. And I would say that I don’t want to comment in advance on future discussions, but the basic agreement that both sides agreed to yesterday sets out the conditions for the implementation of normalization. And I think, quite honestly, there are obstacles but there’s opportunities in all of it. And I do hope that we can find a mechanism to implement all of it, and that includes the association and that includes the – some of the previous disagreements on license plates and ID cards and diplomas and other things. So it is a very detailed and a very technical process that we will continue to support.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. I think we have time for one last question. I’ll go back to Aurora first to see if —
MODERATOR: Yes, please go ahead.
QUESTION: Well, according to U.S. prosecutors, former FBI agent Charles McGonigal opened an investigation file against the Democratic Party here in Albania. Do you think that he was affected by the relationship he created with our Prime Minister Edi Rama? And how much are the U.S. and Albania relations affected by this suspicious report by Prime Minister Rama and Charles McGonigal? Thank you.
MR ESCOBAR: Yeah, well, I’ll start by saying that the State Department is not a party to that investigation. So on the question that you asked about what the allegations are against the former FBI agent McGonigal, I would have to refer you to the FBI. I will say that from the State Department perspective, in fact from the perspective of the entire U.S. Government, Albania is a solid NATO Ally, a good bilateral partner – one that has been very instrumental in helping us in the United Nations Security Council and one that’s been very forward-leaning in NATO. So it has not had an effect on the great relationship that we have between the United States and Albania.
MODERATOR: Thank you, DAS Escobar, for that. Unfortunately that is all the time we have today. Thank you for your questions and thank you again for joining us, Deputy Assistant Secretary Escobar. Before we close the call, I’d like to see if you have any additional comments or final remarks for the group?
MR ESCOBAR: No, I don’t, but I do – except to note that this process will continue. And as we move forward, I’m happy to share updates as I get them.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Shortly, we will send the —
MR ESCOBAR: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Shortly, we will send the audio recording of the briefing to all participating journalists 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@state.gov. Thank you again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another press briefing soon. This ends today’s briefing.