U.S. Ambassador: The U.S. supports Kosovo integrating itself into Euro-Atlantic structures, including the CoE

 

Ambasador SAD Džef Hovenijer Intervju
FOTO: KoSSev

The Brussels Dialogue is the best means to realize this vision we all share – of seeing Kosovo take its rightful place in European and Euro-Atlantic structures, the U.S. Ambassador to Pristina, Jeff Hovenier, said in an exclusive interview for KoSSev. The Ambassador says that the U.S. in order to create greater space to facilitate the dialogue, „recommended“ to Belgrade and Pristina to continue implementing the moratorium from the Washington Agreement once it expires. On the other hand, he emphasized that the Kosovo government has the sovereign right to make a decision to apply for membership in the Council of Europe. „The U.S. supports Kosovo integrating itself into Euro-Atlantic structures, including in the Council of Europe,“ Ambassador Hovenier underscored.

The U.S. Ambassador to Pristina, Jeff Hovenier, visited North Mitrovica on Tuesday for the very first time since taking office in January this year.

The Ambassador had a working lunch with Srpska Lista representatives and took a short walk to the main bridge dividing the city. The SL representatives shared their concerns with the Ambassador, while he conveyed the United States’ commitment on a couple principles, such as that „Kosovo is sovereign and independent.“

Although he toured the city while working for Martti Ahtisaari’s team in 2007, Hovenier says much has changed since then, both in Mitrovica and Kosovo itself.

“Mitrovica feels very different from 2007 to today. As I went downtown and walked down the pedestrian street with some of the local mayors, what struck me was how different it feels. How much the ambiance reflects a society that is just living its life. We saw full cafes and people experiencing the pleasures of a sunny day in May in Mitrovica.“

The Ambassador shared a strong belief that Mitrovica, although a lot people talk about its role in the past, is one “of the best manifestations of Kosovo’s future.”

“This is a place where a democratic multiethnic Kosovo can and should thrive and we are committed to seeing that happen.”

The Ambassador reveals that he is impressed by how much progress has been made in Kosovo in overall.

“How much the people of Kosovo have built, developed and formed as a society that delivers for its citizens. When you compare what it felt like in 1999 or 2000, compared to 2022, it’s pretty impressive,” the Ambassador highlighted, noting that some things remain unchanged, such as the views and politics.

On the dialogue: We are at a moment where progress is possible

In what stage is the dialogue led in Brussels right now, especially after the last meeting in Brussels between Mr. Petkovic and Mr. Bislimi, where they could not again find a solution for license plates? How do you see the dialogue?

I see the Dialogue as a necessary activity to get to the desired end state. And the desired end state is a Kosovo that is claiming its rightful place in European and Euro-Atlantic institutions and structures and behaving and being like what it is – a smallish Western Balkans state. I have watched the Dialogue or the things like the Dialogue before, we can call it the Ahtisaari process, we can call it the process in Rambouillet, I was part of all of that.

Every single time if you pick a moment in time, things don’t always look good. But if you take a longer-term perspective, you can always see a trajectory that is positive, in which more and more progress is made towards this end state. I think it’s where we are right now. Enormous progress has been made.

I just met with the police commander for the region (cf. north). He and all of his officers who support him were wearing Kosovo police uniforms. If you would have told me back in 2007 that was going to happen, I might have been skeptical. I just see that as one example of the real progress that has been made.

We are at another moment. This is an important moment. I can’t say how dialogue will resolve itself or how much longer it’s going to go, that will depend on the negotiators, but I do believe we are at a moment where progress is possible.

There are a couple of factors I think that make that a reality. One is a change in the external environment. I do think that Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine changes a little bit the calculus about Europe and European security, and creates, perhaps, more incentive to make progress in fulfilling this vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace, of which Kosovo is such an important part.

You also have the absence of a distraction of elections coming. There won’t be elections in Kosovo for a while. Serbia has just had its elections, so there’s an opportunity here. Finally, the Biden administration has put in its team. It took us a little while after our elections for the President to identify his team to work on these sets of issues, but we are now all in place, and it’s a team that has a decent amount of experience on this set of issues. I think that conditions are right to make some real progress. And that’s certainly something I’m committed to do and I know that Ambassador Hill in Belgrade is committed to do the same.

We strongly support dialogue centered on mutual recognition

Do the United States and Germany coordinate their activities when it comes to the Brussels-led dialogue?

The United States coordinates with a lot of partners with regard to the Dialogue, including Germany. I was very pleased to see the efforts made by Chancellor Scholz recently to get the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia together and to see if he could help facilitate further progress in the Dialogue. I have a great relationship with my German colleague in Pristina, Ambassador Rohde, who is actively involved as well in support of the Dialogue, but I could say the same about a number of my colleagues as well.

The United States position is fairly clear. We will work with our partners to advance this process, to achieve an agreement on normalized relations centered on mutual recognition. We are actively supporting the process which is led by Miroslav Lajcak, who is the facilitator. The negotiators, of course, are Kosovo and Serbia. It is an EU-facilitated dialogue with the very strong support of the United States.

Comprehensive agreement possible during Kurti’s and Vucic’s mandate, there are conditions for it, but it depends on political will

Do you believe that there will be a comprehensive agreement between Kosovo and Serbia during your mandate and the mandate of U.S. Ambassador to Belgrade, Christopher Hill, or within the mandate of Mr. Kurti and Mr. Vucic? And, when you said that the U.S. actually thinks that there should be mutual recognition – is that exclusively implied and would the US actually agree to something that is not a mutual recognition?

I’ll start with the first part of your question. Do I believe that this can be done during my mandate, Ambassador Hill’s mandate or the mandate of current political leaders? Yes, I believe it is possible. Will it will absolutely happen? I can’t control that. That is actually something that the two governments themselves, President Vucic and Prime Minister Kurti, have got to decide.

I do believe conditions are right for that, if this is where there is political will to achieve it (cf. conclude an agreement), and I do see some real indications that this is a possibility. With regard to what the United States expects to come out of this process, I think my President has been quite clear and has on multiple occasions articulated our vision – which is an agreement on normalized relations between Kosovo and Serbia centered on mutual recognition. And I’m going to let President Biden’s words on that one speak for themselves.

But what if Vucic and Kurti don’t make a deal? When you see the Dialogue, there was not a lot of dialogue. The parties keep accusing each other. Like last year, the accusations from Belgrade and Pristina that the other side is not doing what it is supposed to do. What if they cannot make a deal?

I’m a diplomat, what that means is that I am both an optimist and I’m a realist, because that is the way to be when you are a diplomat. The optimist in me says that there is no reason why they shouldn’t make a deal. It is in the interest of Serbia. It is in the interest of Kosovo. I am a realist – this is hard. There are difficult issues that have political costs associated with them. It will require both sides to engage actively, creatively and with some urgency to achieve it, but I believe it is possible. And that is, of course, one of my highest priorities as U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo, is to see that realized.

Ambasador SAD Džef Hovenijer Intervju
FOTO: KoSSev
The U.S. supports Kosovo integrating itself into Euro-Atlantic structures, including the Council of Europe.

Let’s talk about the most interesting topic in the region in the last two weeks, or the “most interesting” institution, let’s call it like that – the Council of Europe. Do you believe that Kosovo will become part of the Council in Europe in the next twelve months? Is it possible it is a done deal? Or is it possible that Kosovo will withdraw its candidacy?

I can’t speak for what the Government of Kosovo will determine what it wants to do here, but we have been very clear that Kosovo is a sovereign country and it gets to make its own sovereign decisions with regards to its foreign policy goals and priorities. And they’ve made the decision to apply for the Council of Europe membership and they made a pretty strong case that they align with the values of the Council of Europe. As a matter of policy, the United States does support and has supported Kosovo integrating itself into European and Euro-Atlantic structures, including the Council of Europe.

Let’s talk about the Washington Agreement and the moratorium that was part of that agreement. One year after signing that agreement, the United States actually said that Kosovo and Serbia should probably continue with applying this moratorium. Has the U.S. changed its position when it comes to this issue?

As I just said, we also accept that Kosovo will get to determine its own foreign policy priorities and objectives. So, the United States was appreciative of the decision to agree to a one-year moratorium in the Washington commitments back in the year 2020, and it is absolutely the case that our stated recommendation to both sides was to continue the moratorium, because we believe that it created greater space to facilitate the Dialogue.

Again, we see the Dialogue, not as an end in itself, but as the best means to realize this vision we all share of seeing Kosovo take its rightful place in European and Euro-Atlantic structures. But, the Government of Kosovo had the sovereign right to make the decision to apply for the Council of Europe membership and they did so.

On meeting with SL: “I shared with them the U.S. commitment to a couple principles – Kosovo is independent”

What can you tell the public about the meeting with Srpska Lista representatives, as well as the representatives of the Kosovo police in the north, what did you talk about?

I did get together with Srpska Lista leaders, including the four mayors of the four municipalities here in the north, and we walked around Mitrovica some and then we had a working lunch together where we talked about a lot of the issues. I think I will leave those conversations largely among ourselves, not because they’re secret, they’re not, but there were no real surprises. They shared with me the concerns that they have expressed publicly.

I shared with them the United States commitment to a couple principles. One is making clear the United States does have the view, very clearly and since 2008, that Kosovo is a sovereign, independent and democratic state and that the United States is committed to Kosovo sovereignty and territorial integrity. We know where the border is. The border is north of where I am sitting right now, while I am sitting in Mitrovica.

That said, the United States is equally committed to all citizens of Kosovo enjoying the same rights and privileges. And in fact, in the Ahtisaari process and in other ways, we have worked really hard to build in a series of legal protections that would address the specific concerns of the ethnic Serb community in Kosovo. We talked about how important it is to see those protections realized. It was a good conversation.

I began my day hearing from civil society representatives. I felt that it was also very important to get the perspective of the civil society groups on where things are, what has been achieved, and what their aspirations still are, for further achievement in this shared goal we have of a true democratic multiethnic society where everyone lives and is able to exercise their rights and live in freedom and prosperity without regard to ethnicity or other differentiating characteristics.

Attacks on police have become more frequent lately. Most of them happened in the municipality of Zubin Potok. You just spoke to representatives of the Kosovo Police. Do you have any information you can share with the public – who is responsible for these attacks? Why are they happening?

It’s hard for me to speculate and I don’t have any information beyond what the public has and it would be inappropriate to talk about the ongoing investigations even if I did. But I would say I am very reassured that the authorities are taking this very seriously.

I want to make a couple of things clear. This is Kosovo and the Kosovo Police are responsible to ensure law and order, including here. It would appear that these attacks were largely against people carrying out their responsibilities to provide law and order. So it is my hope that those responsible are identified and held accountable.

No one wants to see this area become an area where there isn’t security and stability. It is important to get it right. It is important that it be done in a way that respects the rights and the concerns of all citizens, without regard to ethnicity. And I hope that the action being taken by the Kosovan authorities will provide those reassurances.

Ambasador SAD Džef Hovenijer Intervju
FOTO: KoSSev
The U.S. appreciative of Kosovo’s support to Ukraine and sanctions on Russia

Kosovo used the war in Ukraine to link Kosovo issues with the Ukraine crisis. Since the outbreak of war, Kosovo was loud in saying that they should become a NATO member immediately, a member of Council of Europe. They wanted recognitions of five EU countries, but on the other side, they were also loud in saying that Serbia is “a factor of crisis and instability.” My question for you is – what is the truth, according to you? Is Belgrade a factor of crisis and instability in the region, as Kosovo officials see it, or is Belgrade a factor of stability and peace in the whole region, as seen by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Serbian representatives?

I think characterizations of Belgrade’s positioning probably best belong to Ambassador Hill, rather than from me. What I would say is for the United States it a priority to see this project of a Europe whole, free and at peace and seeing Kosovo take its place rightfully in European and Euro-Atlantic structures. It is a sovereign and independent state and it should be in those organizations going forward.

On Ukraine, I want to say a couple of things that are important in response to your question. One is that the United States has been delighted and appreciative of the very strong support that the Government of Kosovo has shown to the people of Ukraine. The Kosovo government was one of the very first to condemn Russia’s unjustified invasion. I think it is the only country that I’m aware of that has adopted all the United States’ packages of sanctions and all of the EU packages of sanctions, and that support was recognized in a recent G7 statement which specifically called out Kosovo, which does not have a commitment or requirement to align its foreign policy with the EU, but has done so anyway, and very strongly so.

We welcome that and encourage that and believe it reflects Kosovo for what it is – a partner on this and absolutely ready to stand up against tyranny, to stand up against a country like Russia, trying to impose its will over the objections of a neighbor. The people of Ukraine get to decide whether they will belong to the EU or not. The people of Ukraine get to decide what their security arrangement will be. And it is wrong, it is completely wrong, for Russia to use military force to try to change those decisions.

Thank you for talking to KoSSev.

It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Interview led by Ivan Mitic

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