Escobar: I did not receive assurances from Kurti about commitment to normalization

Gabrijel Eskobar
Source: 360 Stepeni

The United States of America had asked Kosovo and Serbia, ahead of the next round of dialogue on September 14, to commit to concrete obligations in connection with the agreement on the normalization of relations between the two sides, as well as the annex on its implementation, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar told the Voice of America.

The US diplomat indicated that, in a recent telephone conversation, he had not received assurances from Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti that he was committed to the implementation of the normalization agreement and its annex, which Kurti had announced on the "X" social network on Monday.

"And that, when it comes to the Kosovo side, means the presentation of the draft Statute of the Community of Serb-majority Municipalities. Kurti made no commitment to do so. Basically, what he committed himself to is to attend the meetings in Brussels and nothing more than that," Escobar said.

Escobar reminded that the consequences that could occur were already visible - if Kosovo and Serbia missed the opportunity to normalize relations.

"We are talking about the measures introduced by the European Union, which are reflected in the impossibility of progress in some of the mechanisms of the accession process - which are quite serious. Although Kosovo designates them as sanctions, they are not true punitive measures. It would also be very similar for Serbia. In connection with Kosovo, it is also about opportunities for new recognitions, donor conferences, strategic bilateral dialogue with the United States, and a close relationship with NATO. Unfortunately, if there is no progress - all of that will be missed this year. It will be very similar for Serbia. I think the European Union will want to see clear signals of interest in the implementation of the normalization agreement while they consider to what extent Serbia has progressed in the accession process," Escobar specified.

According to him, the USA continues to strongly support the dialogue, which is led by the European Union.

"We see it as a way to achieve peaceful and productive relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Bearing in mind the fact that an important agreement on normalization was reached in February and March - we would like to ask the parties in the process to take seriously the obligations from that agreement in order to progress in fulfilling existing and earlier obligations. We want progress within the framework of the dialogue and the Ohrid Agreement to be achieved during this year," Escobar said - adding that some kind of progress was expected on Thursday.

In Ohrid, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope that Kosovo and Serbia could reach some sort of understanding. Nevertheless, the new round of dialogue between Prime Minister Albin Kurti and President Vucic is expected in bad circumstances: Kosovo is facing Western measures due to the situation in the north of the country, and Serbia is trying to undermine Pristina. What's next?

The Ohrid Agreement, which the parties reached, is very wide-ranging and historic. It is a true agreement on normalization according to European standards, but also an opportunity for progress because the two countries can harmonize the integration process with European structures. Therefore, it gives both countries the opportunity to advance in the achievement of strategic goals - European integration. However, since its achievement, we have witnessed a series of escalations and useless activities that have stalled progress. It is necessary to overcome all the challenges that have been present since March, and I believe that it is possible. We hope that by fulfilling the provisions and solving the open issues, it will be possible to conclude all the challenges including elections, license plates, identity cards, and other topics that could be a source of escalation. It's really important because it addresses a whole range of issues.

You mentioned de-escalation - a term that has become common over the last few months. Can you explain in more detail what the two parties need to fulfill in order to achieve this?

Let me tell you first what the escalation was. We understood the need of the Kosovo authorities to hold elections when the mayors resigned. We acknowledged the election results - even though the turnout was extremely low. The elections were fair and free and we invited citizens to participate. All parties agree, including the Government of Kosovo, that a turnout of three percent is not a long-term solution for municipal authorities. We accepted the inauguration of the mayors and were convinced that they would not take controversial measures. That they will go about their daily business. However, despite the promises and our support for Kosovo - without coordination with the international community, they decided to take over some of the municipal buildings. We pointed out to the Kosovo authorities that there was no need to escalate tensions by placing mayors in those buildings. When it comes to the Serbian side, we are very concerned about the fact - although 90 percent of the demonstrators were peaceful, because of the presence of those who were very violent. Who came prepared to harm the police and KFOR. Some independent journalists were also injured in the riots. So that was a part of the escalation. Meanwhile, we are concerned about the lack of coordination in Kosovo regarding the use of special police units, the expropriation, and the planned eviction of some of the institutions from Government buildings led by the Serbs. These are issues that should be taken into account in the context of dialogue. We call on both parties to coordinate with the international community.

Some critics pointed out that the West was implementing a so-called policy of appeasement towards Serbia and that it was wrong that the country had not imposed sanctions on Russia yet. Is the West trying to win Serbia over to its side at the expense of its neighbors?

Such a thesis appears frequently. It is factually wrong because we accepted and recognized the outcome of the elections in Kosovo - despite the turnout of three percent. They agreed to the establishment of local authorities and mayors. We welcomed their application for membership in the Council of Europe and the introduction of visa liberalization. Serbia, on the other hand, did not support any of that. In addition, we sanctioned the head of the Serbian Security and Information Agency. So I would like to know how, according to the claims of critics, we supported Serbia. That is incorrect and misinformation.

There are more and more frequent announcements that elections could be held in Serbia soon, perhaps as early as March. How does this affect the chances of an eventual agreement between Kosovo and Serbia?

It should not, because the agreement was not reached by Vucic and Kurti, but by Serbia and Kosovo. The agreements remain in force regardless of who is in power.

Do you believe that the current representatives of the two parties will implement the agreement, if it comes to that?

An agreement has been reached and attention is now focused on its implementation. Therefore, the political will of both parties is needed to implement their part of the agreement. This is not about faith or trust. These are legally binding agreements, the implementation of which is the responsibility of individuals and governments.

Last week, the Secretary General of NATO, referring to the agreement between Kosovo and NATO from 2013 regarding the deployment of the Kosovo Security Forces (KSF) in the northern part of Kosovo, conveyed to the Kosovo President that every move, including the deployment of the police, must be coordinated with NATO. Do you support such a position - are the Kosovo authorities expected to coordinate the deployment of the Kosovo Police in the north with the international community?

This is a very important request. The KFOR mission shares responsibility for maintaining a safe environment in Kosovo. The same applies to the mission of the European Union, EULEX. We hope that the Kosovo authorities see the international community, especially NATO, as an important partner with whom they should consult and coordinate. We will continue to ask the Government of Kosovo to stay in close contact with NATO and KFOR on the ground. It is important to prevent any kind of misjudgment.

The Kosovo authorities have come up with a proposal to replace the mayors in the north of Kosovo with a petition. Is that a path you would support - or would their resignations be a less complicated solution?

If they want to hold new elections in which the Serbs would participate, I think that resignations are a faster and better way. The solution that includes the petition has never been implemented until now. Numerous regulations and laws that would refer to it are not in force. However, we support every way, consistent with the Constitution, to hold elections. We ask the Serbian community to participate in the voting when the elections are called. How this will be achieved remains for the parties to discuss. Definitely, I think it would be faster with resignations. We are monitoring the situation very carefully.