Interview With Bojan Brkic of Radio Television of Serbia (RTS)
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
QUESTION: Your Excellency, thank you for this opportunity to talk to you. Can you tell us please what is the purpose of your visit to Belgrade? And also you’ve met with a number of Serbian politicians from across the political spectrum. What did you talk about?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Sure. First, let me say I’m delighted to be back in Belgrade once again. The purpose is to engage following your elections here in Serbia with the new leaders and potential new leaders.
I’m actually on a regional visit. I was for the past couple of days in Dubrovnik for the Croatia Summit where, as you know, there is participation from countries throughout the region and it was a good opportunity for me to engage with all of them. I have to say I regret there wasn’t official Serbian representation there, and that’s something I hope can be addressed in the coming years because Serbia really should be present at all regional gatherings.
So I wasn’t able to see Serb leaders there, but I was able to see them here, both last night and this morning. And I came with a message of support from the United States, as we have a number of key priorities in the bilateral relationship, and most importantly to stress the direction for Serbia, whoever forms the next government, hopefully seeing it on track for European Union membership which we strongly support, and stabilizing and normalizing relations with neighbors, including with Kosovo.
QUESTION: And did you get such assurances?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I was encouraged by some of what I heard. I think President Nikolic has said publicly and he said to me this morning that he wants to keep Serbia on the path to the EU. We all know that being on the path to the EU means strengthening democracy at home, preserving and advancing a market economy, and making peace and having stable relations with neighbors.
I think the EU has been quite clear that for Serbia to continue down the path towards EU accession, that requires coming to terms with Kosovo. That’s the position of the United States as well. I believe that the President is committed to moving forward on these dossiers and seeing Serbia be a full part of Euro-Atlantic institutions of the European Union which is also the goal of the United States.
QUESTION: Regarding Kosovo, in the past the United States insisted on the technical dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, but President Nikolic now supports the idea of actually having dual talks, both political and technical. What do you think about this initiative?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: We supported the technical dialogue. It was an EU-facilitated and led process, but it is a reality that Kosovo and Serbia need to deal with these technical practical issues, whether it’s customs stamps or license plate or telecoms or electricity or border management or university diplomas. There is a whole range of issues that need to be addressed.
We were pleased that the two parties were sitting down across the table for the first time and talking about them. I’ll be perfectly honest, we wish that more progress had been made in more areas. We wish there was more implementation of some of the agreements that were made. But progress was made and we’ll look to the new government, and that was one of my messages here this morning, to implement what has already been agreed and to continue the work to solve these practical issues that help the everyday lives of people on both sides of the border. I believe the new government is committed to that.
At what level those talks take place, that’s something that has come up with the new government, the new leaders in Serbia, that’s for Kosovo and Serbia to decide. I think it is right that there need to be political talks as well.
Ultimately Serbia and Kosovo need to deal with the fundamental political issues that divide them. That would facilitate Serbia’s path to the EU. That would bring more stability and peace in the region. That would help the everyday lives of the people. That would spur investment in Serbia and in Kosovo. And that sort of normalization is what we seek, and I honestly believe that it can be done in a way that is consistent with Serbia’s legitimate interest of protecting the rights of Serbian citizens and ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, in the north.
QUESTION: Talking about protection of Serbian citizens, President Nikolic said after your meeting today that the incidents in which Serbs are the victims in Kosovo had been increasing recently. Do you, having in mind that fact, think that it was a good moment to stop the civilian presence in Kosovo?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I’m not sure that is an accurate description of a trend. It is true that in the past days there was a terrible tragedy and crime of the murder of Serb returnees, a family that went back, something that we’ve condemned, and we have insisted and will continue to insist that the perpetrators be found and justice be done--just as we would anywhere else in the region, in Serbia or elsewhere. We will continue to push on that.
I think as a more general rule we’ve remained committed to protecting security of all citizens in Kosovo and elsewhere. There’s an international military presence there for just that purpose. It should protect citizens of either side against any forces that should seek to harm them.
I think that the Kosovo government is committed to that goal and I think we’ve seen in the south of Kosovo progress made in terms of representation in Serbian majority municipalities. We remain absolutely committed to the protection of all those who live there.
We don’t believe that it’s through Serbian security services or military security presence or intelligence presence in the north of Kosovo that this goal can be achieved. That’s one of the fundamental issues we want to work on together.
We do think that Kosovo is ready for the end of supervised independence. Kosovo has made a lot of progress in the four years since its independence. That process was set up for the international community to help steer them towards that goal, and now we want to continue to work with them to move forward, but that requires absolutely protecting the rights of all of its citizens.
QUESTION: Serbian presence in the north of Kosovo. Did you address that issue with Serbian politicians? What was their reaction? In particular, those who are supposed or expected to form the next government.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: We have long been clear with all Serbian leaders that we’re opposed to a Serbian security presence in the north of Kosovo. We believe it’s inconsistent with Resolution 1244. It’s inconsistent with peace and security in the region. It’s a drain on Serbia’s own budget and we don’t believe that that is the path towards protecting Serbian citizens or ethnic Serbs in the north, which again, is a goal that we absolutely share.
So we’ll continue to make clear that that’s our view and it’s an obstacle to our relations between the United States and Serbia.
It doesn’t mean that Serbia can’t continue to support schools and hospitals and other institutions in the north. It’s perfectly normal for neighbors to have an interest in what takes place across the border and certainly when they have citizens or members of the same ethnic group. It’s a natural interest on behalf of any country, but it’s not through Serbian security presence that that can be done. As I said, the first point, there’s an international military presence there. There’s a European rule of law presence there to help with that goal. In the long term we’d like to see it become self-sustaining through dialogue and normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.
There are a lot of other places in Europe where there had been regional tensions, ethnic tensions, even violence but through membership in the European Union and, frankly, adoption of 21st century norms, those issues have gone away and that’s what needs to happen here as well.
QUESTION: Coming back to the formation of the Serbian government. In the past speculations have been very frequent that the United States somehow interfered in that process in previous elections. Now the two high-ranking visits from U.S. diplomats during this year’s process of formation have prompted those speculations. Did the United States of America in any way influence the formation of the Serbian government? And did you at least state some of your preferences?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I’ve seen some of those speculations and it’s good to have the opportunity to address them.
We’ve been absolutely clear that it is up to the people of Serbia and the elected leaders of Serbia to decide what government to form consistent with their own laws and constitution. It’s not for us. That’s not why I’m here. That’s not why my Deputy, Phil Reeker, was here last week. We travel very frequently to the region. I think this is my fifth or sixth visit to Serbia. Phil has no doubt been here at least as many times, and we are here to engage post-election, but just as we have in the middle of a presidential administration, on a whole range of issues. So it really is up to the Serbian people and leaders to form their own government.
Now of course we also have priorities and interests and we’re not shy about expressing those as well. But it’s not in terms of which party or leader should have which position. That’s for Serbs. What we can say is we want whatever government gets formed, in the wake of the parliamentary and presidential elections, to continue the strong cooperation with the United States in matters of importance to us, like anti-trafficking, anti-corruption and rule of law.
We want, as I said, to see whatever government that is formed continue on the path towards European Union membership and integration. We want to see it reach out to neighbors and foster regional cooperation. We want to see it come to terms with Kosovo. So that’s what we’re focused on is policies and whatever government emerges from this process we want to see work with us on those priorities.
QUESTION: My final question, we are now at the, so to speak, end of one political cycle and the beginning of another because the composition of the government is significantly different. We can say that mainly opposition now will lead the country and not be opposition in the future any more. Do you feel comfortable with this turn of events? Do you think that the Serbian political scene has democraticized enough that all the political leaders have transformed democratically enough to be comfortable with any government?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: As I said, I was encouraged by some of what we have heard from some of the leaders who are likely to be part of the next government in Serbia. Obviously, as we say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We’ll have to see what -- we’re looking for deeds and not words and there are open questions about the path that Serbia is going to pursue.
We can only be clear about what path we think is in everybody’s interest and we’ll look forward to working with whatever government gets put together and I’d like to be able to say at the end of the term of whatever government gets formed, we will have moved forward on some of the key bilateral and regional interests that are of importance to the United States.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: My pleasure. Nice to be here.