Escobar: A new meeting in Brussels soon; we will form the CSM with or without Kurti
The US Special Envoy for the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, said that he had very constructive talks with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade about the Franco-German proposal for resolving the Kosovo issue and that the next meeting of the negotiators in Brussels could take place soon.
Escobar said that the international community demanded of Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to form the Community of Serb-majority Municipalities (CSM) and pointed out that the CSM formation and the negotiations on the Franco-German proposal "are not entirely connected". The American diplomat also spoke about the potential economic consequences for Serbia if it continued with the current politics regarding sanctions on Russia and about concerns about the alleged activities of the Russian Wagner Group in Serbia.
You met with the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia, and you recently finished a meeting with President Vucic. Can you tell us if the dialog will be restored soon?
First of all, the dialogue has not stopped. The challenge was that it became an instrument for solving crises, and we want to bring it back to the strategic level again based on the Franco-German proposal. We think that the proposal is good. The US fully supports that proposal, and we want it to be a good solution for both countries. In other words, we want it to open a European perspective for both countries, to open the possibility for greater cooperation not only with Europe but also with the region and the US.
Do we have a date for the next meeting in Brussels?
Formally, no, but it is being discussed and should happen very soon.
You mentioned the Franco-German proposal. Mr. Vucic said after the meeting with international representatives, I am paraphrasing, that he was presented with potential problems and challenges if he did not accept the European proposal. Could you tell us what the consequences are and whether Vucic accepted the proposal?
I don't want to speak about the discussions in the context of the dialogue, but I can say that we discussed in detail what the consequences are for the region if it does not move forward. There is an open wound and a frozen conflict that is not actually frozen, that the community in the north of Kosovo lives in tension, with barricades, under pressure, people are worried... we talked about that. And we want to solve that in the context of dialogue. I think we had a good conversation and that we all understand what the challenges are if we continue as we have until now. I think we made a lot of progress today. The talks were very, very constructive, and I think we have a good basis for moving forward.
"Constructive" in the sense that the dialogue will continue based on the Franco-German proposal?
Yes, that proposal is now on the table. It is a different question of how we will negotiate the annex on implementation. Serbia participates 50 percent in that process, and there is nothing to be afraid of. I think this proposal opens up many opportunities.
You spoke very decisively about the fact that Mr. Kurti had to fulfill his obligation and form the Community of Serb-majority Municipalities. Mr. Kurti has also very firmly said on more than one occasion that he would not do so. What will happen at the end?
One person and one party cannot abandon the implementation of legally binding points, that is a fact. We will do it, and I will do it by finding partners. There are many people who would like to see better relations between the Serbs in the north and the rest of the country. This month we will start talking to people who have good ideas. We are actually talking about classrooms, waste collection, and emergency services, nothing that should scare you. We are discussing how to make the north of Kosovo more functional and better connected with the government in Pristina. We will do it, and the question is, at what moment will Kosovo realize that the international community expects and demands them to do it.
If I understood you correctly, you said you would do it if Kurti didn't want to?
We will start a conversation about it, a national conversation about what the fulfillment of that obligation means for the people of Kosovo. They also wonder – there are civil society organizations, think tanks, and student associations that want to see a positive development of the situation in the Western Balkans.
If Mr. Kurti ends up forming the CSM, is that a way to encourage Serbia to take a step towards accepting the Franco-German proposal?
To begin with, I want to say that the two things are not entirely connected. The CSM is an existing obligation and must be implemented. The Franco-German proposal is a very good proposal that allows both countries to progress toward sustainable peace. We will work on that simultaneously, we need both things.
President Vucic recently said he was grateful for Russia's support but that Serbia did not support aggression against Ukraine and considered Donbas and Crimea to be Ukrainian. Nevertheless, Belgrade does not impose sanctions on Russia. There is a lot of talk about the political consequences, and we also heard the message of the European Parliament. Are there possible consequences regarding foreign investments from the West, and will companies want to invest in Serbia if it remains on this side of history?
I assume there will be consequences. I think that the image of Serbia as a Western country is being harmed. It is true that companies ask us if Serbia is under secondary sanctions and if Serbia is a solid partner, someone they can count on in the long run. Because companies are not looking for security but predictability, and this brings a dose of unpredictability. My advice is to join the West in implementing all measures and sanctions so that Serbia would not be an exception in the region.
According to your information, did people from Russia participate in the tensions in Kosovo and at the barricades?
I don't have any concrete information, I've only heard rumors. But the barricades and tensions in Kosovo do not need Russia to make them worse, they are already bad.
Mr. Chollet expressed concern over allegations that the Russian mercenary group Wagner is recruiting people in Serbia and other countries. Mr. Vucic denied this, as did Mr. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, in an answer for the Voice of America. What is your information about it?
Derek Chollet said it best. He said that Wagner had a very malign influence throughout the world. It is bad for any country to do that. It's illegal here. The Government of Serbia is clear about that, as is ours. If there is such a thing, it needs to be stopped, and the government has to prosecute it. We have their determination to do it. That's good…
You have no specific information... Or you wouldn't like to say?
I don't have any concrete examples. We have heard the same stories as you, the same rumors. We saw the same things. President Vucic shared it with us, and he made a statement denying it.