• Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Gabriel Escobar discusses the March 18 EU-facilitated Dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia

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.  Today, we’re very honored to be joined by Deputy Assistant Secretary Gabriel Escobar.  

And finally, as a reminder that today’s briefing is on the record.  And with that, let’s get started.  Thank you so much, Deputy Assistant Secretary Escobar, for joining us today.  I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.   

MR ESCOBAR:  Thank you, Andrea.  Thank you to everybody who joined – who’s joining us on this call.  I want to start by saying that the United States is very happy to welcome this important and historic agreement.  It sets the conditions for normalization between Serbia and Kosovo, on European terms, and in that regard, it took a lot of political courage and a lot of vision from both Serbian President Vučić and Kosovan Prime Minister Kurti to reach this agreement. 

This agreement is a legally binding obligation on both parties, and both parties will be judged by their performance under the agreement.  And that agreement will continue to be the basis of our policy for the United States going forward and the basis for European engagement in the region.   

I also want to thank our European partners for this success.  This was achieved through the EU-facilitated dialogue with strong American support, but the vision and the leadership displayed by our European partners was exceptional.   

And finally, I want to thank the Government of North Macedonia for hosting this international meeting.  It is, again, another example of how North Macedonia has been contributing to European and regional stability for a long time, and we continue to welcome their engagement on all matters of European and regional security.   

So with that, I’ll stop and take questions. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  We’ll now turn to the question-and-answer portion of today’s briefing.   

So we’ll start with our first question, from Jelica Tapuskovic from Tanjug news in Serbia.  So, “What are your thoughts about the summit in Ohrid and what will be the next step?”   

MR ESCOBAR:  Well, as I mentioned in my opening statement, the summit was successful in laying out the path for a peaceful and constructive relationship between Serbia and Kosovo.  The next steps really are for both sides to start on the implementation as it was outlined on Saturday.  Both sides have legally binding obligations that they have to meet.  On the Serbian side, it is the beginnings of recognizing some of Serbia – Kosovo’s documents and other national symbols and IDs and things of that nature.  For Kosovo, it’s important for them to begin the drafting of their version of the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities.  But there are many other obligations, but I think those are the most important ones.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  Our next question, we’ll take a live question from Jovana Djurovic from VOA Serbian Service.  And you can unmute yourself and ask your question. 

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you.  So, Mr. Escobar, could you please explain this phrase you used, a “legally binding agreement”?  Because what we heard from Mr. Vučić when he explained what happened in his press conference on Sunday, he said he didn’t sign anything and he’s not going to sign anything, and there was sort of an impression that even though some things were agreed on, Serbia is not going to implement some of these.  So could you please explain, like, could you please give us some clarity what is going on and what is “legally binding” meaning?  Thank you.   

MR ESCOBAR:  Yes, yes.  So it is legally binding in every respect.  Vice President Borrell made that very clear in his press statement that what we have is we have a meeting of the mind, we have a commitment, and now we have obligations from both sides.  And both sides are going to be judged in their respective European paths by their compliance with what was agreed on. 

So the signature was not the issue; it was the obligation that both countries freely entered into.  And again, the understanding, the clear understanding from both sides, of what was expected and what each side would receive.  So it is an agreement in every respect.  

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  We’ll take another live question.  We’ll go to Ksenija Pavlovic from The Pavlovic Today.  Ksenija, you can unmute yourself and ask your question.  

QUESTION:  Hi.  Hello, Mr. Escobar.  Thank you so much for doing this.  The implementation annex has been released, and it has 12 provisions.  So my question to you:  What is the timeline for the implementation of all the provisions of the implementation annex?  And what is your comment or response to the fact that President Vučić said that the framework and this annex needs to be upgraded in the future, going forward?  Thank you.  

MR ESCOBAR:  Well, look, I mean, this agreement on normalization is the start of the reconciliation between Serbia and Kosovo.  So there will be a lot of work to continue to be done beyond this agreement.  Additionally, the EU-facilitated dialogue will also continue.  So there’s a lot here, but what’s important is that we have set clear, clear markers on how the two countries are going to relate to each other going forward.   

So there, the – with regard to the implementation, the implementation has to start immediately.  So we are going to have to move through what was agreed on in an expedited fashion, and as they do, the countries will see the benefits flowing.  So hopefully very soon we’ll start announcing some new initiatives with both countries that are going to be in support of their implementation and their integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  I’ll go now to one of our pre-submitted questions, by Marton Dunai from the Financial Times in Southeast Europe.  And Marton asks, “Please detail the U.S. take on any progress made on the two key issues: Serbia’s willingness to accept Kosovo’s sovereignty as indicated by integration into international institutions, including the UN; and Kosovo’s willingness to guarantee special rights to ethnic Serbs and set up the ASM.  With those issues blocked, any EU proposal remains unsigned and unfulfilled, so what sort of focus is directed to unblock those two issues?” 

MR ESCOBAR:  Well, look, let me start with the first.  I think the – for Kosovo, the most important thing and the thing that will get them the most benefit is greater Euro-Atlantic integration.  So that’s our focus, is integration into European structures.   

For Serbia, their insistence on the implementation of the legally binding obligation to begin talks on the association – begin talks and implementation of the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities remains key.   

So we are on day two of this agreement, so we are going to move forward on finding ways to implement all of the agreement as quickly as possible.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  We’ll now go to one of our live questions, from Boris Kamchev from Macedonian Information Agency.  Boris, you can unmute yourself and ask your question.  Boris, I believe you’re still muted.   

Okay, let’s then move on to another question from our – a live question from Antonya Velovic (ph).  Antonya, you can unmute yourself and ask your question.  

QUESTION:  Hello.  It’s not Antonya.  It’s Tanja Kovacevic, journalist from Srpski telegraf.  So can you tell me, what is the biggest problem in negotiation and what is expected of Serbia?  

MR ESCOBAR:  Well, from Serbia, as I mentioned, they have to start moving on all of the key elements of the – that are outlined in the annex, but also there is an expectation for both sides that any remaining unfulfilled commitments from the Brussels Agreement continue to be implemented.  So that is the expectation for both sides.  

So I’ve already outlined the next steps, and we’ll be working very closely with our European colleagues on how we can help the two countries implement this agreement and bring the spirit of the agreement – which is reconciliation – to life.  So hopefully you will see a stepped-up engagement from the United States and Europe on the reconciliation between the two countries.  

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  And our next question comes from Bojan Brkic from Euronews, Serbia:  “Did Aleksandar Vučić and Albin Kurti discuss Kosovo membership in any organization or general amnesty?  And if yes, was there any progress?” 

MR ESCOBAR:  Well, I want to clarify that this – the discussion and the negotiation was under the auspices of the EU-facilitated dialogue.  The United States strongly supports the dialogue but is not a party to it.  So I cannot answer the question, because I was not in the talks.  But I can tell you that everything that is in the basic agreement and in the annex was fully discussed during the meetings.  

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  And now we’ll go back to Boris Kamchev from the Macedonian Information Agency.  Boris, you can go ahead and ask your question.  You are still muted, Boris.   

Okay.  We will move on, then, to Vladimir Lame from Klan News TV in Albania:  “Are you going to send a monitoring election about the observation of May 14 local elections?  Have Albanian authorities demonstrated the real will to fight corruption in a high level?”  

MR ESCOBAR:  Well, I would say that, with regard to the fight against corruption, I think all countries in the Western Balkans have a lot of work to do.  Corruption, as I’ve said repeatedly, is probably the greatest challenge long-term for the entire region.  So I do want to see more – I would like to see more progress throughout the region on the fight against corruption. 

In Albania, I would say that there has been a lot of progress over the last 20 years on finding mechanisms, cooperation, and even implementing independent investigatory bodies that are addressing corruption.  So I would like to see that positive effort intensified. 

With regard to the election monitoring for the local elections, all I can say – I’m not entirely briefed on the monitoring plan, but I can say that Albania is under obligations as an OSCE member, as a member of the Council of Europe, to implement all of the conditions to create free and fair elections.  

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  And I see that Boris Kamchev has his hand up again.  We’ll try one last time.  Boris, you can – please unmute yourself using – unmuting the button on your Zoom app, and you can ask your question.   

QUESTION:  Yes, can you hear me?  

MODERATOR:  Yes, we do.   

QUESTION:  Sorry.  I had – I have problems with this Zoom application here.  I have to do something.  Hi, Gabe.  Thank you for doing this.  Can you tell me, what is the most realistic dateline for North Macedonia to join the EU?  Is it end of this decade or beyond?  What we should expect?  If, let’s say, the country’s parliament approves the necessary constitutional changes by the end of this year, we know that next year are scheduled elections for the European Parliament and new European Commission president will be appointed.  Can this change the calculus in North Macedonia, for example, to enter – to join the EU earlier?   

MR ESCOBAR:  Well, look, Boris, thank you for that question.  We’re not part of that process.  So I can’t answer that question.  All I can say is we are fully supportive of North Macedonia’s European path.  I fully and strongly support and want to see North Macedonia become a member of the European Union as quickly as possible.  I think that all of the countries of the Western Balkans deserve an expedited path to European membership.  The countries are European.  They’re culturally European, they’re historically European, and they’re economically European.   

Additionally, what we saw this weekend with North Macedonia hosting and participating in an international peace conference that led to a successful conclusion shows that the region can be a positive contributor to its own stability and its own security, and by extension to European security.   

So my message to the European Union is that the Western Balkans are an area of opportunity, not an area of risk.  So I’d like to work with the countries of the region to do everything that we can together to move the process much faster.  

QUESTION:  Thank you. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much.  Our next question goes to Mila Djurdjevic from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Serbia who asks:  “Far-right movements opposing to the EU plan for normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia have been organizing protests where we could see Russian flags, Wagner labels, and other signs.  Have the U.S. registered – has the U.S. registered Russian influence and/or support to far-rights movements and parties in Serbia?” 

MR ESCOBAR:  Well, I can’t confirm that we have direct evidence that they have, but we do know that there is – that Russia, through its online presence, through its media disinformation, has tried to contribute to far-right opposition to this normalization plan and to the Euro-Atlantic path of nearly all of the countries in the region.  So yes, there is a tremendous amount of malign Russian influence in this process. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  And our next question goes to Veljko Nesterovic from in Serbia, who asks:  “What guarantees can the USA and the EU give that the Ohrid agreement will not go down like the Brussels or Washington agreements?” 

MR ESCOBAR:  Well, the first thing is that there are – this is very clear, and the European path for both countries is strongly conditioned on implementation of this normalization agreement.  So we will be watching very closely.  But not just watching very closely for non-implementation; we’re going to be watching very closely how we can support the process, how we can continue to encourage and engage with both countries, and how we can continue to build a great relationship with Kosovo and an improving relationship with Serbia, and use that opportunity to create channels of cooperation between the two countries. 

So we will be engaged actively in the development of this process. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you for that.  And to all of our journalists, if you’d like to ask a question live, a reminder to raise your hand in the Zoom app, or you can type your question in the question-and-answer queue. 

Our next question comes from Harold Hyman with CNEWS, Decalage Diplo in France: “Are Kurti and Vučić presently in a moment reminiscent of Tsipras and Zaev in 2018?” 

MR ESCOBAR:  Well, look, it’s hard to pin down – to use historic analogies to developing situations, because each one is unique.  But in the case of Serbia and Kosovo, we do hope that they look at the relationship between Greece and North Macedonia as a good example.  In fact, there was a lot of symbolism in doing it in North Macedonia, a country which has good relations with both Serbia and Kosovo, which is the most successful model of interethnic harmony in the region.   

So there was an awful lot of  – there were a great number of reasons why Ohrid was chosen for this, and I’m glad that it was successful and it happened there.  And I do hope that the weight of history and the weight of successful international cooperation that was formed there can in some way translate into this agreement as well. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  And our next question will come from Amra Zejneli from Radio Free Europe in Kosovo.  Amra, you can unmute yourself and ask your question. 

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Well, my question – can you hear me? 

MODERATOR:  Yes, we can. 

QUESTION:  Yeah, my question got just updated.  Mr. Escobar, Srpska Lista just confirmed that it will not participate at the local elections a few minutes ago in the north.  Was there any disagreement regarding to it in Ohrid?  And I’d also like to ask, what will be the best European model for you in case of – in the creation of association?   

MR ESCOBAR:  Well, the idea of what the association of Serb-majority municipalities looks like is not up the United States; it’s up to the people of Kosovo, in conversation with Serbia.  But our belief is that it should be one that serves the interests of the people of the region, one that works well for both sides, one that allows ethnic Serbs to participate fully in the civic and democratic life of Kosovo, but also one that doesn’t violate the constitutional structure of Kosovo or impact its functionality. 

So within that, there are a lot of models and there is a lot of options.  And we hope to have conversations with both sides to be able to come to a mutually – not just a mutually acceptable, but a mutually attractive option.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  I would now like to give the floor to Alex Raufoglu from the Turan News Agency.  Alex, you can unmute yourself and ask your question. 

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you so much for doing this.  My question is about the elephant in the room, which is Russia.  There is a sense of Russian reaction to the deal and also concerns about its efforts to undermine it.  Thank you so much.  

MR ESCOBAR:  Thank you for that, Alex.  Look, I know that a lot of people believe that some of the parties are guided a lot by the desires or the actions of Russia.  But in fact, this is still, in many ways, a problem that is a local problem, that requires local solutions, that has been longstanding.  What Russia’s tried to do is to create problems within the existing problem set, to hinder the Euro-Atlantic integration of the region.  But in reality, the problems are still the problems of the region, and they have to be resolved looking at it through the lens of what needs to happen in the region, and that is regional reconciliation.  This was a really important aspect to it.   

And all I can say is that, throughout the talks and throughout the day, Russia was not mentioned, and Russia was not present.  And if Russia was doing any messaging throughout the weekend, it wasn’t effective.  So we got to a successful conclusion and put on a really successful trajectory for regional reconciliation, and I think that’s a positive thing. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  We’ll now take a question from Vizion Plus, from Albania: “Will the five EU states that have not yet recognized the Republic of Kosovo recognize it after the Ohrid meeting?”  And a second question: “In your opinion, why does the president of Serbia hesitate to sign the papers when he has agreed in principle in both Brussels and Ohrid meetings?” 

MR ESCOBAR:  Well, first of all, the question of non-recognition by five European Union countries you should direct to them.  We do hope that all of the countries of the European Union recognize Kosovo in the near future.  It’s important for Kosovo, which is part of the European family, to be recognized by the rest of the European family.  And I do believe that one of the things that has to happen in the region is that all of the countries of the Western Balkans should recognize each other and have peaceful and productive relationships.   

And with regard to the signing, I want to make clear:  This is a legally binding obligation which Serbia agreed to, as did Kosovo.  The messaging around the signing is really focusing on something that doesn’t have a material impact on the fact that we have an agreement.  It is an agreement, and we are treating it as such, and both parties entered into it with seriousness, and the European Union confirmed that it was an agreement in their eyes, as did both leaders.  So it is an agreement.  And focusing on the signature really is unnecessary, because we – it’s there; it’s an agreement.  And we’re going to continue forward with that. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  Let’s see.  I believe we have time for about one more question.  And let’s see.  We will take that from Llazar Semini of the Associated Press.  And you’ve spoken to a few of these questions, but I’ll just kind of outline the questions.  So number one:  “What are the concrete results that you’re expecting after the last Vučić-Kurti talks?  They all focus on one issue: Kosovo recognition.  Vučić says he’ll never recognize Kosovo, and Kurti says the end of any deal is the Kosovo recognition.  And on Saturday, they didn’t sign anything.  So what other steps shall they expect?  Will there be any other Vučić-Kurti meeting, or now the delegations between the two countries?  Such talks may prolong forever, as they have already done in the last 12 years.  What’s different this time?” 

MR ESCOBAR:  Okay, that’s a lot – a lot there.  Let me start by what’s expected.  Again, the immediate implementation of what was agreed to in the annex.  And second, will there be other meetings?  Well, the meetings so far have happened under the auspices of the EU-facilitated dialogue.  That dialogue will continue.  So I do imagine that there will be continued meetings between the two leaders, and we are intent on making this normalization plan work. 

Now, I do have to make clear that this was – the intention of this agreement was not about mutual recognition; it was about normalization – that is, about creating a peaceful relationship between two neighbors that have experienced a series of destabilizing confrontations in the last year and a half.  So the – our primary intent was to frame the ground rules of interaction between the two countries so that things like license plates and barricades don’t threaten to spin out of control and create regional instability.  So this is a good thing for both countries and for the region.   

Additionally, both countries really do move forward very quickly now on their Euro-Atlantic integration.  So all of this was very significant, and it shouldn’t be downplayed.  It is moving the ball very far forward. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  And unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for today.  Thank you to all of our journalists for their questions.  And thank you, DAS Escobar, for joining us.   

MR ESCOBAR:  Thank you, and thank you all for participating. 

MODERATOR:  And shortly, we’ll send the audio recording of the briefing to all of our participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it’s available.  We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at  Thanks again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another press briefing soon.  This ends today’s briefing. 

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U.S. Department of State

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