Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Belgrade, Serbia
June 15, 2011

QUESTION: Mr. Gordon, thank you for this interview. The first question I wanted to ask you is when Mr. Biden came to Belgrade, he said that his visit was intended at resetting ties between Serbia and the United States. That message was reiterated during Mrs. Clinton’s visit to Belgrade. Do you think that the ties were reset, and how would you describe them now?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think that the ties between our two countries are very good. The facts of these visits alone, I think, is an indicator of the intensity of the diplomatic relationship that we have. In the past, Serbia and the United States had some major differences; nobody denies that. I think the Vice President coming here was an opportunity to say, in this administration, we want to move forward together on a number of areas in which we have common interest, and we share a vision for Serbia and for the region, which is to say a Serbia that is on the path to European Union membership, strong, prosperous, stable, good relations with neighbors. We have very good dialogue with Serbia on all of these fronts. We cooperate in the security area, in counter-terrorism, anti-drug, narcotics, and these steps forward, the relationship could be better, and we are going to keep working on it. But I think it is fair to say that we have really taken a turn for a better in the bilateral relationship.

QUESTION: Some of these improvements actually are sort of low profile, some improvements have not been so broadly publicized here, like the number of our officers or cadets training in U.S. military schools, the participation of our army in joint exercises. Do you think that actually our ties are a bit better than we believe?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think much more goes on than people are aware of. Some of these things are not so high profile and in the newspapers every day. That is why I mentioned some of the areas, I mentioned intelligence cooperation, counter-terrorism cooperation, anti-narcotics cooperation is not the sort of thing that you trumpet every day and is visible to people, but it is important to us. We know what Serbia is doing as a partner of United States on these areas, in which we share interests and values. Obviously, the arrest of Ratko Mladic was another important development, one that we strongly supported, and we are very pleased to see, and we congratulate Serbian government on that important step. So, yes, a lot of this is behind the scenes, a lot of our diplomatic encounters are behind the scenes. When I am speaking regularly to my Serbian counterparts, it is not necessarily in the newspapers, but it is a way for us to have a dialogue about things that matter to both countries.

QUESTION: You said that you see the right path for Serbia is the path towards the European Union. But even after the arrest of Ratko Mladic, some countries like the Netherlands sort of failed to ratify the next steps because they have new requirements, like the arrest of the last remaining indictee Goran Hadzic, and then already announced that they will have some more conditions. Do you think that EU is bit weary of enlargement, and that would be a problem for Serbia?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I do not think that there is any question that the bar for EU membership is very high and arguably even higher as, as you say, there is bit of enlargement fatigue in the EU. As it is gotten bigger, countries are more and more skeptical of new members and they watch very carefully which new members that come in. But I do not think that the door is closed, I do not think that the door should be closed, and I do not think that conditions for Serbia have changed or should change. It is very straightforward, the EU has tough and demanding conditions, the Commission will look very carefully at Serbia’s internal reforms to see if those conditions are met. They’ll look very carefully at cooperation on the war crimes issue, where it’s true that arresting Ratko Mladic was an important step forward, but with Hadzic out still, I don’t think it’s possible to say that that issue has entirely been dealt with. It is also the view of a number of member states and of the United States that Serbia needs to come to terms with Kosovo in one way or another before the process can move forward, simply because you can’t take in a new EU member state where there is unclarity on the border or no positive relationship with an important neighboring country. So, yes, more needs to be done, but there’s no question that the objective is one that we share with Serbia, because we believe all of the Balkans needs to be part of the European Union, and Serbia is really a critical piece of that.

QUESTION: You say it will be difficult for Serbia to join the EU with unresolved issues with a neighboring country. Serbia does not view Kosovo as a neighboring country. How much of a problem do you think it can be in the accession? Will Serbia have to recognize the independence of Kosovo in order to become an EU member? Is that the view of the United States?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, the European Union will determine whether full diplomatic recognition is a precondition for membership. I don’t think we’re at the point of finally answering that question yet. We know that in the meantime - the expression I used was ‘come to terms with,’ find the modus vivendi with, Kosovo. What can’t happen is for Serbia to move down this path with very serious differences over status, an absence of agreement on customs, on practical matters like electricity, telecoms, freedom of movement. It doesn’t seem to me realistic for a country to join the European Union with all of those ambiguities about Kosovo. So, first things first, start dealing with those issues, show that there’s recognition that this needs to be sorted out, and down the road it can be addressed whether full diplomatic recognition needs to happen before Serbia can join the European Union or whether there is some other way of coming to terms with the issue that satisfies the member states, but what is clear is that more work needs to be done before that process can move forward. That’s the view of the United States, and I believe it’s the view of most of the member states of the EU as well.

QUESTION: So are you saying that the U.S. diplomacy will not advocate the formal recognition of Kosovo as, you know, advise its allies in Europe to make it a precondition for further integration into Europe?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, certainly we want to see full recognition. We recognize Kosovo, as do more than seventy other countries around the world, including most members of the European Union. So, that is, of course, what we would like to see. I don’t think that’s realistic in the near term, and that’s why our focus for the near term is, in the first instance, to start dealing with some of the practical issues that affect the daily lives of the people between the two countries, and then, as the process moves forward, Serbia will have to, and Kosovo, will have to deal with some of the more difficult issues. But of course, in the long run, we would like to see recognition. Recognition that takes into account the interests of the ethnic Serbs who live in Kosovo, that takes into account the need to protect Serbian religious sites in Kosovo, and that provides for sound relations between what we believe are two countries.

QUESTION: When we were talking about the prospects of Serbia, you mentioned EU integration, but not Euro-Atlantic integration. Was that deliberate? Have you sensed how volatile this issue is in Serbia, so you do not mention NATO membership?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I’m fully aware of Serbian views about NATO. Our interlocutors here in Belgrade are not pressing us on the issue and we’re not pressing them. Our view of NATO is that the door is open to democracies in Europe that want to join the security alliance. We think there are many benefits in doing so in terms of integration and interoperable military forces, and we have common interests in, not only protecting our territories, but projecting security around the world. So, that’s why NATO’s door is open and countries like Serbia, other democracies in Europe that want to join, are welcome to go through the process. But, the bottom line is, it’s up to those countries, and if Serbia is not interested in joining NATO, as my understanding is right now, it’s not asking to, that’s a democratic decision and perfectly fine.

QUESTION: The advocates of Serbian membership in NATO are saying that it may be sort of a short cut toward membership in the EU. Would you connect these two things in any way?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: No, I think they are different things. We have seen some countries become part of one organization but not the other and vice versa, and that depends on their interests and the views of the organizations themselves. There’s a lot of overlap and it tends to be, and that’s why we use the phrase “Euro-Atlantic” institution, they tend to go together, and most of the countries that want to join European Union also want to join NATO, but there’s no automatic linkage between the two, and it’s up to each country which path they want to pursue.

QUESTION: Do you believe that ties between the former Yugoslav republics, or at least those who were at war during the last decade of the last century, that they are improving, and that they have improved a lot? How would you describe the relations between mainly Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I don’t think that there is any question but that they have improved a lot, and it depends what time frame you want to take. Obviously, since the war time they have improved dramatically, qualitatively; but even over the past couple of years, I think they continue to inch forward in almost every bilateral case I can think of. Relations are better this year than they were last year, and they were better last year than they were five years previously. We’ve seen a lot of interrelationships between Croatia and Serbia, Serbia and Bosnia, Croatia and Bosnia, Kosovo and others, so I am quite positive about the region longer term, and it’s been a major rebuilding process after a terrible and tragic war, but I think there’s no question that it’s moving in the right direction.

QUESTION: I read your speech in Sarajevo that you gave yesterday, and in that speech you warned that at the moment Bosnia is not moving in the right direction. Why is that and how to mend that situation?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, I was very direct with our friends in Bosnia, because I wanted them to understand that whereas the rest of the region actually is moving forward, sometimes in fits and starts and with steps forward and backwards, it is moving forward towards reform, economic reform, stability, relations among neighbors, and membership in Euro-Atlantic institutions. Bosnia, frankly, is not. It made decent progress for the first decade after the Dayton agreement, but in the past five or six years it has either stagnated or moved backwards. My last visit to the region was with Secretary Clinton last October, just after the Bosnian election. Here I am, eight months later, and they still haven’t even formed a state-level government. Without that they are not going to be able to tackle the issues that they need to deal with to succeed as a country and they are not going to be able to move forward on the path to European integration. Meanwhile, Croatia is moving ahead, Serbia we’d like to believe is moving ahead, others in the region are moving forward, and I think Bosnia’s political leaders need to put the country’s national interests over their narrow, or partisan, or ethnic interests if they want that country to succeed, and I think the people of Bosnia should send a message to their political leaders that that is what they want to see.

QUESTION: Do you believe that there should be a constitutional change in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in what way should it go?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, first of all that’s for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina to decide – you won’t see the United States coming forward and saying, “Here’s the constitution that you should adopt, and make these changes.” Obviously, they have to agree, or it’s not going to succeed. We do believe it’s pretty clear in the long run there needs to be some changes at a minimum to comply with European law in the European accession process, but to create a more functional state, I think, all observers will recognize that some changes need to be made, but obviously they need to be made by and with the cooperation with the people in the entities.

QUESTION: Complaining about the first attempts of constitutional change, the leadership of Republika Srpska says that the attempt is made towards too much centralized power in Bosnia. How centralized do you believe the Bosnian government should be?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Not very. It is already significantly decentralized, and I do not know anyone who’s seeking to centralize government. That’s a myth that I sometimes think is created. We want to see, we believe Bosnians need a more functional state. But, no one is trying to impose centralization. We’ve always said that the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina should have two vibrant entities where there is a very significant degree of self-government. And no central government or the Office of the High Representative is trying to impose any rules or governance or regulations on the entities. They just need a minimum of functionality and cooperation to exist as a successful country.

QUESTION: And finally, when you think of Serbia, what is the first association in your head?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Europe. Clearly Serbia is a part of Europe. That’s why we want to see it join Europe and the institutions. So that’s first, but second is Novak Djokovic, and maybe even first sometimes. I think he is a great ambassador and representative of the country.

QUESTION: I hope you’ll agree that it’s a good association, much better than you probably used to have years ago.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: It’s a very positive, and not just him, but some of the other great athletes in this country really put a positive face on Serbia’s reputation in the United States and around the world.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.