• Gabriel Escobar, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, discusses recent tensions between Kosovo and Serbia and general Western Balkans issues. 


MODERATOR:  Good afternoon to everyone here in Europe and good morning to Deputy Assistant Secretary Escobar.  I would like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s press briefing.  Today, we’re very pleased to be joined by Mr. Gabriel Escobar, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.   

With that, let’s go ahead and get started.  Deputy Assistant Secretary Escobar, I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.  Thank you.   

DAS ESCOBAR:  Thank you very much, and thank you to everybody who’s participating.  I want to start with a few comments about what’s happening in the region.  I want to reiterate that for the Government of the United States, the Western Balkans remains a place of tremendous opportunity, a dynamic and important part of the world, and one that we count on as a – where we are building important partnerships.  

The Russian aggression in Ukraine has actually created some tremendous opportunities.  The most important is that it has solidified NATO’s centrality to our foreign policy as a form of protecting European security.  And I’m happy to note that the three countries of the Western Balkans that are members of NATO have made tremendous contributions to that.   

Additionally, we have seen even greater U.S. and EU unity on these issues.  And in the Western Balkans, I would say that all of the countries have voted in coordination with the U.S. and the European Union in all international fora; all of the countries of the Western Balkans have contributed to the humanitarian situation in Ukraine in their own ways.  And what we’ve seen over the past few months is we’ve seen both of those organizations – that is, NATO and the European Union – strengthen, continue to strengthen through enlargement.  We’ll have two new members of NATO, and I want to congratulate Albania and North Macedonia for taking the important steps necessary to strengthen their candidacy for the European Union.  So enlargement is part of the response to this aggression.  And in that regard, I have to say that the Western Balkans has been tremendously resilient to the effects of that aggression.   

So I’ll stop with that and open it up to questions.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much, sir.  We have the – we’ll turn to the question and answer session.  We have some questions already in the chat box.  Looking for a couple folks to raise their hand first.  Why don’t we go ahead and start with Ivana.  Ivana, if you’d like to ask your question.  Ivana, are you able to – are you unmuted?  

QUESTION:  Yes, I think I am.   

MODERATOR:  Yes, please go ahead.  

QUESTION:  Okay, hello.  Yesterday we heard from the high representative of the European Union that Brussels can’t make Pristina fulfill its obligation when it comes to association of Serbian municipality in Kosovo.  Does the United States have a mechanism to make Pristina fulfill its obligation?  Thank you very much.  

DAS ESCOBAR:  Well, thank you very much for that question.  So the – from our perspective the long-term future for both Serbia and Kosovo is as members of the European Union.  And so in that regard, we support the EU efforts to facilitate a dialogue between the two countries.  And our position is that all prior agreements should be implemented, including the association of Serb municipalities.  So we would like to see that – a discussion on that when the parties meet later this month.   

The president and the prime minister of Kosovo recently met with the Secretary of State.  It was a great meeting.  The Secretary reiterated our support for Kosovo’s independence, their sovereignty, and their territorial integrity.  At the same time, he encouraged Kosovo to work to create opportunities for greater regional stability, and he also emphasized the need to implement all agreements that had been previously agreed to, including the association.   

So I’m hoping that there will be in Brussels next week, or in two weeks, an important discussion on that and a way forward on that as well.   

QUESTION:  Thank you.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  Could we please go to Leart Hoxha?  Apologies if I got your pronunciation wrong there.  From ATV.   

QUESTION:  Can you hear me now?  

DAS ESCOBAR:  We can.   

MODERATOR:  Please go ahead.  Let’s see, it appears we have lost him, so why don’t we go to one of the questions that we have in the chat box from Milana Pejic from Blic.  The first question is:  “Is the postponement of the decision on license plates and documents to September 1st only a postponement of the problem, not a solution?  What will change in that one month?” 

DAS ESCOBAR:  Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s simply a postponement; I would say that it’s an opportunity to create a durable solution that will contribute to regional integration and regional stability.  Now, it is true that the previous agreement was temporary, it was time-limited, and it required Serbia to provide a recommendation for a long-term solution.  So we’re still hoping for that, but at the same time we’re still hoping for a broader discussion on how the two countries can move forward in creating some opportunities for better relations, for freedom of movement, for greater integration into Europe.  So I do think that this month will give us some opportunities to make progress on the broader issues of the dialogue, not just the license plate issue.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  Actually, I’m going to go to one more question in the Q&A, from Yllnora Elshani from Klan Kosova.  “How does the U.S. see the Special Court?  Do you think it is unfair not to allow the detention of the accused in Kosovo and to postpone their trial by changing the indictments?” 

DAS ESCOBAR:  Well, look, I’m not going to comment on the workings of the Special Court.  We do support the Special Court.  We do support justice for the victims of the wars of the breakup of Yugoslavia.  But I would defer to the court for specific questions about specific defendants and indictments.  

But that said, the court has been phenomenally successful in bringing to justice many of the people who perpetrated war crimes around former Yugoslavia in the ‘90s, and we will continue to support that.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Why don’t we go to folks who have their hands raised now.  I have a Sitel TV.  Sitel TV, you’re live, if you have a question.  Please go ahead.  

QUESTION:  Okay.  Macedonia started the negotiation process with the EU based on the protocol reached with Bulgaria, but the work is not done yet.  Negotiations will start after the constitutional amendments, according to the agreement with Bulgaria.  The opposition is against such constitutional amendments and demands a referendum.  What is the U.S. position for this?  On the other hand, is there any guarantees that  Bulgaria will not use the veto and introduce the historical issues in the negotiation process?  Thank you.    

DAS ESCOBAR:  Well, first of all, North Macedonia is a tremendous bilateral partner and a tremendous NATO Ally, and we reiterated that message when we had the strategic bilateral dialogue with North Macedonia in June here in Washington.  So our position is that our experience with North Macedonia has been that it is a great partner, a loyal friend, and a strong contributor to the transatlantic community.  North Macedonians are Europeans.  They’re historically Europeans.  They’re culturally Europeans.  And economically, North Macedonia is well within Europe and an important – will be an important contributor to everything from transportation to IT to energy.   

And with regard to the movement toward Europe, I would say that North Macedonia earned the right to move forward in their process.  They have made tough reforms; they continue to make tough reforms.  For the United States, the question of North Macedonia’s language and cultural identity is not a question.  So we urge North Macedonia to continue constructive dialogue with its neighbors and to move as quickly as it possibly can in the accession process, and we will be a strong partner encouraging North Macedonia and supporting North Macedonia in that process.  And ultimately, North Macedonia will be successful in that process.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  The next question will go to Xhemajl Rexha from Kanal 10.  

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thanks.  So my question is Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani constantly brings Russia as a factor helping Serbia, which he names as Russia’s proxy in the region, to destabilize the region – mainly Kosovo, but Bosnia as well.  Do you share her concerns?  Do you have any indication whatsoever Russia is playing any part in recent events, mainly what happened with the barricades and gunfire in the north of Kosovo on July 31st?  

DAS ESCOBAR:  I would say that with very few exceptions, what is happening in the Balkans is a result of factors that are occurring in the Balkans.  I would say that the – what is happening in the north of Serbia really is a question between Serbia and Kosovo, and that’s why it’s urgent that the two leaders – the leaders of the two countries meet in Brussels under the auspices of the EU-facilitated dialogue and work out the differences in the north.  And that’ll include a durable, permanent solution to the license plate issue.  It will include the implementation of an energy roadmap, the conclusion of a missing persons agreement, and a discussion on the association of Serb municipalities.  And we should focus on the problems that can be solved in the Western Balkans with diplomacy and with constructive dialogue.   

Now, Russia does try to play a role, but that role is not as important as the destabilizing factor of some politicians and some actors that are operating to – within the Western Balkans itself.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you for that, sir.  The next question, we’re going to Tanjug.  I believe it’s Aleksandra.  Tanjug, please go ahead.   

QUESTION:  Good afternoon.  Thank you for the opportunity.  I would like to ask what kind of compromise related to the plates and the ID we can expect to be found by 1st of September?   

DAS ESCOBAR:  Well, I’m hoping that the two parties can decide that themselves.  I mean, that’s the purpose of the EU-facilitated dialogue.  Now, it is true that the Brussels agreement has some guidelines about freedom of movement and those guidelines should be, first of all, the – help provide a roadmap forward, but all the other agreements should also shape this.  Now, the current license plate regime with the temporary stickers was, again, I’ll have to say temporary, time-limited, and was to be replaced with a permanent solution.   

Now, I really think that this permanent solution should not be seen as something that is going to significantly change the lives of the people in northern Kosovo.  It’s a simple fact that it was an expectation that vehicles that are operated in Kosovo should be registered and should be operated according to the laws of that country.  That said, they should provide the opportunity for freedom of movement not just within Kosovo, not just within Kosovo and Serbia, but throughout the whole region and Europe as a whole.   

So I see this as looking toward solutions that are going to create greater stability and greater integration in the region and with Europe.  So that’s the kind of solution that we’re looking for, and I’m confident that we can find it.   

MODERATOR:  Excellent, thank you.  We’ll go now to Adriatik Kelmendi from Klan Kosova.  There we go.  Adriatik, you’re live.  

QUESTION:  Yeah, hello.  Thank you for the opportunity, Mr. Escobar.  I was wondering, was it a mistake that even after a decade or so from Kosovo’s declaration of independence, its accession in many international organizations and institutions, and even after the ICJ’s [International Court of Justice] opinion that Kosovo independence was in line with international law, the U.S. and other Western states did not ask Serbia implicitly to recognize Kosovo but left it with the kind of ambiguity that makes Belgrade still believe they can behave as if Kosovo is not independent and part of international community?  Now we are seeing what they are – what problems are they making with issues of reciprocity and car plates and ID documents.  Thank you. 

DAS ESCOBAR:  Well, for us the question of Kosovo is not an open question.  We fully recognize Kosovo as an independent, sovereign country and a close partner.  Our aspiration for Kosovo is the same as those of the people of Kosovo; that is, that they can be – they would be fully recognized by all countries of the European Union, that they have visa liberalization immediately, and that the door would be open to all international organizations that they seek to be part of.  And I’m confident that we’ll move in that direction. 

But the future – that future – is most likely to be unlocked through the EU-facilitated dialogue.  Kosovo is European.  They are in Europe.  Their aspiration is to be a European Union member.  The goal of the dialogue is normalization between the two countries, and it is within reach.  So I constantly urge both parties – both Serbia and Kosovo – to engage constructively in the dialogue.  The dialogue is the key to the future, not just for Kosovo but for Serbia as well. 

And as I’ve said before, when you resolve some of the political questions, what’s most important is the economic future of the Western Balkans as the fastest-growing part of Europe, as the most dynamic part of Europe, will be unlocked even further.  I think all of this – that anything that leads to regional reconciliation and economic integration and freedom of movement and freedom of capital and goods and services is only going to strengthen the sovereignty, the independence, and the vitality of all of the countries of the region.  So this is why the dialogue is so important and this is truly the future, not just for Kosovo but for all of the countries. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  I’m going to go back to the Q&A box and take a question from Zoran Stanojević from Radio Television Serbia:  “What is the U.S. position on the community of Serb municipalities which is part of the mutually signed Brussels accord between Belgrade and Pristina?  Would you support EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell’s yesterday – the request he made yesterday that the CSM should be established without delay?” 

DAS ESCOBAR:  I agree.  We’re fully aligned with our European colleagues.  And we are clear that the association was agreed to before, therefore it must be discussed.  However, the association should not interfere – should not contradict the constitution of Kosovo, it should not create any problems in functionality of Kosovo, and it should not be a state within a state.  However, that said, there are many European models where minorities can protect their cultural heritage and their language within the framework of the constitution.  So we’d like to find some of those examples and perhaps use them as a guide to move forward on implementing the association.  So I’m hopeful that maybe we’ll be able to discuss that in Brussels later this month. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  I think we have time for one more question.  We’d like to go to Tatjana Lazarevic.  Tatjana, your mike is on if you’d like to ask a question.  Tatjana?  

Okay, I will go then to one of our questions in the Q&A session from Sandra Veljkovic from Vecernji list in Croatia:  “Do you support the Office of the High Representative, OHR, led by Christian Schmidt and his intentions to impose changes to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s election law?  How do you see the reaction from the Bosnian community, especially from Mr. Izetbegović? 

DAS ESCOBAR:  Well, I think the high representative is an important part of Dayton, and so we support him and the Quint supports him.  I also think that his mandate allows him to impose solutions when necessary.  We work constantly with him in trying to implement some of the decisions that he’s made to make sure that they create some – create more stability and create more opportunities for integration. 

With regard to the recent decision to impose changes to the electoral process, we support them.  Those changes will eliminate hate speech, will regulate the use of public resources for partisan gain, and will create some transparency in the process. However, what I do disagree with, I disagree with some of the rhetoric that was put out by some of the political parties as a result of that.  We should use the elections as a – as an opportunity to strengthen democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to create a peaceful transition of power between those who are elected and those who haven’t been elected. 

And so we reject any kind of references to conflict, to war.  I have to reiterate again there will be no war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The international community is united in making sure that the security of Bosnia and Herzegovina is protected.  We have a peacekeeping force.  That peacekeeping force will remain.  And so I encourage political party leaders on all sides to refrain from making comments that raise the tensions in the country. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  Unfortunately, that’s all the time that we have today for questions.  I would like to turn it back quickly to Deputy Assistant Secretary Escobar if he had any final thoughts he’d like to convey.   

DAS ESCOBAR:  Yeah.  So I’d just like to go – make a few comments that we didn’t get to.   

So I’ll start with – I’ll start with North Macedonia and Albania.  We congratulate them on the important step that they have taken, and we want to let the publics of those countries know that we’ll support their efforts to make reforms and to move quickly in their candidacy toward European Union membership. 

On Serbia and Kosovo, we fully support the EU-facilitated dialogue.  We’re hopeful that we can have some progress in August.  We do believe that there is a permanent solution called for by the Brussels agreement on the license plate issue.  I believe that we were close to implementing an energy roadmap for the north.  We’re close to signing a missing persons agreement, and I hope that they sign it very soon.   

And also, as Secretary Blinken stated to the president and the prime minister of Kosovo while they were here, we need to start a discussion on the association.  It is a previously agreed-to point in the agreement.  The constitutional court of Kosovo has given some guidelines, and we’d like to move forward on that in a way that creates – that doesn’t go against the constitution and doesn’t create problems in functionality. 

In Montenegro, we continue to support any government that is European-focused, that is committed to NATO, and that continues to fight against corruption.   

And in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we are looking forward to free and fair and open elections and the formation of government afterwards. 

So all of that I hope are all elements that will help the region remain stable in the face of other security challenges in Europe and that will move along their aspirations to be part of the European Union.  And I look forward to making a trip to the region very soon.  Thank you.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much for those closing thoughts, sir, and thanks for taking the time to join us today and for answering questions.  Thanks also to the many journalists for your participation and for your questions.  In a short while we will circulate an audio file of the briefing to all the participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as possible as well.  We would also love to hear your feedback, if you have any.  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 for another press briefing soon. 

DAS ESCOBAR:  Thank you. 

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U.S. Department of State

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