Ambassador Hovenier: Association should be among the first steps

2023-09-20 20:12:08, Kosova & Bota CNA

Ambassador Hovenier: Association should be among the first steps

The American ambassador in Pristina, Jeffrey Hovenier, says in an interview for Radio Free Europe that the United States expects both Kosovo and Serbia to implement all the obligations and commitments undertaken with the Ohrid Agreement for normalization of relationships.

According to him, Kosovo should start moving forward the Association of municipalities with a Serbian majority and "this should be among the first steps".

"We believe that it should be fully in line with the current Constitution of Kosovo. We believe that it should be fully in line with the decision of the Constitutional Court. We do not believe that there should be executive authorities or powers", says Hovenier.

The American ambassador adds that Serbia seems to have a different vision, but this, according to him, "does not mean that Kosovo cannot advance an association that addresses the concerns of the Serbian community in Kosovo."

"Serbia may ask for more, but, at the end of the day, this is what the United States and the international community are prepared to see as acceptable," says Hovenier.

He expresses the hope that the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, will work with the representatives of the European Union towards this "strategic goal".

If you don't, says Hovenier, there will be consequences.

"We are very committed to seeing the progress of Kosovo, but we cannot be more interested than the Government of Kosovo", says Hovenier.

The American ambassador also emphasizes that the European mediators of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue enjoy "strong confidence" from the USA.

Radio Free Europe: Last week, Kosovo and Serbia held talks in Brussels, but did not make any progress. From the US perspective, is any party more to blame for this?

Jeffrey Hovenier: You probably saw our public statement after the meeting of the two leaders - with the relief of the European Union - on September 14. And, from the State Department, we have expressed our disappointment that there has been no progress.

You know, we, to a large extent, support the dialogue facilitated by the EU and we support the conclusions of the facilitators - in this case, the High Representative [of the EU, Josep] Borrell and the Special Representative of EU [Miroslav] Lajcak.
There are a number of facts here. The fact is that a meeting was held, difficult discussions were held, efforts were made to reach an agreement on a sequenced plan for the implementation of the Ohrid Agreement.

I want to be clear that - from the US perspective - we expect both sides to fully implement all their obligations and commitments, undertaken in Ohrid, and with the Implementation Annex [of the agreement].

As the high representative, Borrell, said in the statement to the media at the end of the day, he drew a compromise, which Serbia finally accepted and Kosovo did not. This is unfortunate. Our hope is that the Government of Kosovo will also find a way to work with the EU [dialogue] facilitators, to find a common way forward.

Radio Free Europe: But what happened on Thursday? Why has the Government [of Kosovo] not been able to find that common path?

Jeffrey Hovenier:It is difficult to answer, I was not there and there were no American officials present at that round [of talks]. Sometimes, we have a better insight. Therefore, I cannot answer the question.

As far as I understand, the Government of Kosovo has had some specific concerns about the timing of the start of a credible process for negotiating the statute of the Association of Serb-majority municipalities. And, it was the request of the USA and the expectation of the USA from the Government of Kosovo that that work starts and starts very soon. It is an urgent element of the implementation of the Ohrid [Agreement].

Now again, I want to be clear, we expect both parties to fully implement all their obligations and commitments with the Ohrid Agreement and its Implementation Annex .But, it is no secret that we have been saying for some time that one of these commitments is the advancement of the Association. This, in particular, must move forward with some real urgency. This is our hope.

Radio Free Europe: What is the opinion of the US on the sequence of steps for the implementation of the plan? Is Kosovo now being asked to establish the Association first and then secure de facto recognition from Serbia, or should these two be done at the same time? This was part of the plan that, in fact, the prime minister [of Kosovo] presented on Thursday - to first have de facto recognition and then the Association...

Jeffrey Hovenier:If you listen carefully to what the senior representative, Borrell, said after the meeting... He said that, as a way forward, he suggested two parallel tracks. The need to urgently move forward with a credible process for drafting the Association's charter is part of this. And this is the main thing that we have asked of Kosovo, the most difficult thing but the main thing that we have asked of Kosovo regarding the implementation of the Ohrid [Agreement]. But, at the same time, in parallel, work would be done on these political matters, on the implementation of commitments for the normalization of relations.

To an outside observer, this seems like a reasonable thing, parallel processes, parallel tracks. You have to give a little and take a little. And, we could spend a lot of time on who does what, when exactly and in what order... But let's be honest, at the end of the day, both things have to happen. Kosovo should start moving the Association forward.

Radio Free Europe: So that should be the first thing?

Jeffrey Hovenier: That should be among the first steps. This is what we have been saying for a long time. There is an urgency to this. We also demand that Serbia fulfills its commitments under the Ohrid Agreement.

Radio Free Europe: But, [Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin] Kurti does not agree with this...

Jeffrey Hovenier: I know that Prime Minister Kurti, of course, did not accept the proposal that the high representative [Josep Borrell] put on the table. From our point of view, this is unfortunate.

It is also an opportunity for me to say something, because I have seen a lot of concern and criticism about the facilitators of the European Union. I must say that, from the US point of view, we do not agree with these criticisms. This is not our assessment of the circumstances.

Miroslav Laj?ak enjoys strong trust from the European Union. He gave a statement about this two days ago, as well as for the high representative. He also enjoys strong trust from the United States of America. We've worked with it in other contexts, we've worked with it here. I must say that we do not appreciate that he advances the demands of Serbia, or that he is compromising in some way.

We see him as a very capable, competent diplomat who tries to find a way forward, who is able to reach agreement from two very, very different sides on a number of sensitive issues. And we congratulate him on his work.

Radio Free Europe: But, considering what you said, that the USA supports the EU, Borrell and Lajcak, however, Kurti thinks that Miroslav Lajcak is siding with Belgrade and said that he is one-sided, not neutral and not fair. What happens if Prime Minister Kurti decides to stop cooperating with Mr. Lajçak?

Jeffrey Hovenier: I don't like answering hypothetical questions. My hope and expectations are that the Government of Kosovo will work with the appointed representatives of the EU to once again achieve this strategic goal together.

Again, why do we have Ohri?

From the US perspective, the whole purpose of this maneuver is to fulfill a vision, a vision to see Kosovo more integrated and fully integrated into the European and Euro-Atlantic structures. This means that Kosovo moves towards the EU, towards NATO, it means dealing with some of these obstacles that came up along the way in the past. The only way to do this is through dialogue progression.

The US supports the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, which is what the Ohrid Agreement was supposed to do, as a very important step towards our longer-term goal - mutual recognition.

But we think that this is what can be achieved now. And, this must happen because without it, Kosovo's path towards Europe is limited. I brought with me the EU statement that was published two days ago. It's a part that I believe is important to highlight. In the last paragraph they say that "the EU reminds the parties that the European path of Kosovo and Serbia goes through dialogue mediated by the EU and through the normalization of their relations.

Both sides risk losing the opportunity to make progress on their European paths."

We fully agree with this. We see dialogue as the way forward.

So, to get back to your question, our hope is that the Government of Kosovo will see this strategic opportunity and all of us involved will find a way to find a common path forward - resulting in full implementation from both parties of all their obligations and commitments arising from this agreement. And, for Kosovo, one of the most important obligations is to move forward with a credible process for the charter of the Association of Serb-majority municipalities.

While we're on the subject, I want to say something that - that I fully understand - we fully understand the concerns of many [participants] in the Government of Kosovo that an Association can end up being something that has a negative effect, not to mention destroys the effective functions of the state. I want to say – I've said it before, but I take every opportunity to say it again – I want to be clear about the US's vision for the Association.

We believe that it should be completely in line with the current Constitution of Kosovo. We believe that it should be fully in line with the decision of the Constitutional Court of 2016. We do not believe that it should have executive powers or powers. We think there should be compliance with the commitments made by the EU - Mogherini's letter.

We've said all of this in a public document that was signed by State Department Counsel Derek Chollet and Deputy Assistant Secretary and Western Balkans Envoy Gabriel Escobar. I have said this several times.

We hope that there will be some level of trust, we are supporting this process and when we say that, we mean it. And this is true.

We will work with the Government of Kosovo and others to ensure that this, which we believe is necessary, is an important means of responding to the concerns of the ethnic Kosovo Serb community, but is done in a way that does not have these negative effects, which seem to be very worrying for the [Kosovo] Government.

Radio Evropa e Lire: You believe, the Government of Kosovo believes, the EU believes that it should be established in line with the decision of the Constitutional Court. But Serbia does not believe so.

Jeffrey Hovenier: I agree that it seems that Serbia has a different vision, but that does not mean that Kosovo cannot move forward with the Association that addresses the concerns of the ethnic Serb community in Kosovo or improves its status, and at the same time be loyal to it. all these limitations that I just mentioned. We are asking Kosovo for this.

Radio Free Europe: Well, what happens if Serbia does not accept such a thing and demands more?

Jeffrey Hovenier:Well, Serbia may ask for more, but at the end of the day that is what the US and the international community are willing to see as acceptable.

Radio Free Europe: What are the guarantees that the Association will not at some point end up like a Republika Srpska?

Jeffrey Hovenier: I believe there has to be some kind of confidence in the US and in the pledges we've made that we're not going to let that happen. We have agreed that this will not happen and we are serious about it.

Radio Free Europe: Also, I want to know your opinion if the establishment of the Association is being pushed forward for the Serbian community in Kosovo to gain more rights or is it a bigger move by the West to make sure that Serbia is satisfied and trying to create a greater distance between Serbia and Russia?

Jeffrey Hovenier: I can talk about my motivations. I have spent many years of my life working on different pieces of this puzzle, Kosovo. I served with Martti Ahtisaari when the Ahtisaari Plan was being developed, I worked with William Walker when I was part of our OSCE mission, I worked in Kosovo in the National Security Council when the International Court of Justice made the decision .

What motivates me is to make sure that this Government is sufficiently open about this very sensitive issue, i.e. for the ethnic Serb community in Kosovo so that it can exercise its rights in accordance with the laws of Kosovo. in accordance with the Constitution of Kosovo.

It is important that they are given a space to do so. This motivates the US.

Radio Free Europe: And what if this Government does not respond to this [request] and does not cooperate for the Association?

Jeffrey Hovenier: Well, again, this is a bit of a hypothetical question. The Prime Minister has said that he understands the obligations of Kosovo for the establishment of an Association. Where things seem to be stuck right now is precisely the specific question of in what order we will implement an agreement that we believe is a very important agreement for both countries. I hope that the Prime Minister will realize that he may have to do this sooner than he would like, so that he can move these other things forward, but for the good of the country.

Radio Free Europe: And if you don't?

Jeffrey Hovenier: Well, then I think we're going to be stuck for a while and there will be consequences, but I think we want to avoid that.

Radio Free Europe: Is the United States reviewing its support for Kosovo?

Jeffrey Hovenier: When I say consequences, I don't mean specific measures. I'm just talking about missed opportunities. So, I don't know how the United States could change its support for Kosovo in relation to our commitment to the people of Kosovo and the idea of ??Kosovo as a sovereign, independent, democratic and multi-ethnic state. And, of course, we spend so much time and effort to advance this vision for Kosovo to be what it is - a small or medium-sized state of the Western Balkans that is fully integrated into the European and Euro-Atlantic structures.

Our vision for a complete, free and peaceful Europe cannot be realized without Kosovo being a part of it. And that's why we've put so much effort into it. That's how we see it.

Radio Free Europe: Going back to the Association, I know that Mr. [Gabriel] Escobar, in December, mentioned the possibility of seeking alternative partners for the creation of the Association. Is the United States still looking for them?

Jeffrey Hovenier: I think what Mr. Escobar meant was that, if the Government doesn't want to come up with ideas, there are civil society groups and others who can and would. I think that, at the end of the day, we all understand that only the Government of Kosovo can put forward provisions that the Government of Kosovo will accept and implement.

We talk to a lot of partners in different ways about what are some ideas of how you can do that, how you can respond to the concerns of the ethnic Serb community in a way that is consistent with these shields that I mentioned: the Constitution, the Court's decision Constitutional and all others. There are many creative ideas. So, I think that's what he meant.

Radio Free Europe: If Kosovo's leadership continues down this path as it did on Thursday, could there be a point where there could be permanent damage to relations between Kosovo and the United States?

Jeffrey Hovenier: This is a difficult question to answer. And again, this is a bit of a hypothetical question. What I would say is that we want to see a good partnership with this Government moving forward with a common agenda. We both want to see Kosovo take its place in the European and Euro-Atlantic structures. We, the United States, believe that this can only be achieved through progress in dialogue.

And I think the Government agrees with that, but we're a bit stuck on the best ways to do that on the way forward. So what we're trying to focus on – and what I believe Miroslav Lajcaku and Josep Borrelli and others are trying to focus on – is how to do this in a way that... because we have two sides negotiating ... how do we do this in a way that allows both parties to have a little bit of what they're looking for, a little bit of what they want, but that's satisfying moving forward.

Radio Free Europe: Do you have patience?

Jeffrey Hovenier: We are diplomats. So, I think one of the qualities of a good diplomat is strategic patience.

Radio Free Europe: I would go north a bit and talk about the north. In your opinion, has the extension [of the situation] occurred in the north?

Jeffrey Hovenier: Well, there has been some escalation, but again, if I can quote the EU statement, which we fully agree with... it says very clearly that there have been steps, but that the steps taken so far are insufficient and the security situation in the north remains tense. I think this is an accurate reflection of the situation now.

We welcome the initial steps taken by the Government of Kosovo to do some of the things we had asked the Government of Kosovo to do to help reduce tensions in the north. However, we do not believe that the tensions have completely subsided, nor has the Government taken all the actions that the EU and we initially asked it to take.

So this is still a work in progress. More can be done and we are deeply concerned about further actions that could escalate the escalation. Thus, the EU statement refers to the concerns we have about evictions from public buildings, further expropriation of land and other things that could make this more difficult and increase tensions. Just as we have expressed criticism for some of the actions taken by Serbia, which have also increased tensions, some of these [are] threats against the police, who are doing their best to support the Government of Kosovo and its responsibilities to implement the rule of law in the north.

Radio Free Europe: What else do you expect to happen in the north for a full extension?

Jeffrey Hovenier: To achieve scaling up?

Jeffrey Hovenier: Well, I think it's good to go back to what we've been asking for all along and what was outlined in the initial EU statement. I think it was June 3rd.

We requested that the Kosovo Police no longer operate in the vicinity of municipal facilities. We asked that the mayors of the municipalities work from alternative locations - Some have done it, some have not. And we demanded that new elections be called very urgently, and we demanded that Serbs participate in those elections unconditionally.

Radio Free Europe: Okay, so how do you foresee these elections going?
Jeffrey Hovenier: That's a great question. At the moment I have no answer. The Government of Kosovo has established a legal framework that would enable the holding of elections. And, we appreciate that and welcome it. I will also say that there is a discussion... The process that is put in place that requires a percentage of registered voters to sign a petition that then requires some sort of impeachment referendum and then requires some sort of vote ... While legal and possible, it is complex. And so, as my colleague Gabriel Escobar said, there is also the possibility that the mayors will just resign.

We know that this also causes new elections because that is what caused the previous elections. I would say I don't know what the process will be like. And, also, I would say that elections make sense when we know that Serbs will participate. As I said, one of the expressed wishes of the EU in its latest statement. And, one of the things we have also said is that the purpose of the elections is to escalate tensions in the north. This only happens if the Serbs participate.

So one of the things we're asking, too, is that the Serbs in the north accept it. They live in Kosovo. They are citizens in the legal system of Kosovo. They must participate in democratic processes to ensure that their rights are advanced and respected.

Radio Free Europe: You expected this even in April. They didn't.

Jeffrey Hovenier: We asked them. They made the choice not to [participate in the election] and unfortunately we have the result we have now.

Radio Free Europe: So, would the extension now also depend on their decision whether to vote or not?

Jeffrey Hovenier: Well, I think in practical terms, yes. The situation will be less tense. There will be less, you know... it will be a less tense environment if the municipal elections are held with the participation of Serbs and the citizens in the north feel like they are represented by the political institutions. In a practical sense, yes.

Radio Free Europe: The Ambassador, the High Representative, Josep Borrell, and the State Department said that time is running out. Can Kosovo and Serbia risk international attention in the future with upcoming election processes, both in the EU and in the USA?

Jeffrey Hovenier: I believe that, currently, we are in a moment that gives both Kosovo and Serbia real opportunities to move forward and leave behind some of the things that have hindered their mutual trajectories. And, I think that moment is not endless. There are a number of things that can limit that momentum. Some are electoral processes in Europe and the United States. Some are, also, just the extent to which we manage to make progress before flashpoints and violence overtake the circumstances.

And so, again, our advice here in Pristina to the Government of Kosovo, for which I am responsible, is to take advantage of this opportunity, which is not infinite. Move urgently, constructively, into dialogue. See the dialogue for what it is - an opportunity to reposition your relations with Serbia and further advance your integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures. And, patience will not be limitless to take advantage of this opportunity or to make significant efforts by high-level political people to move this forward.

We are very committed to seeing Kosovo forward, but we cannot care more than the Government of Kosovo./ REL

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