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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Recent Developments in the Western Balkans

Thomas Countryman
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs

Washington, DC
June 6, 2011

Date: 06/06/2011 Location: Washington D.c. Description: Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Thomas countryman briefs on the recent developments in the western Balkans at the Washington Foreign Press Center.  - State Dept Image

1:30 P.M. EDT

MODERATOR: Thank you all for joining us here. You know the Foreign Press Center rules. If you’ve got your cell phone, please turn it off or down. And we’re a pretty small group so we’re going to be fairly informal today. I’m sure that you all know Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas Countryman, who’s our deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, overseeing the Office of South Central Europe.

And we’re going to go ahead and start today with some brief comments on recent developments in the Balkans and in the region, and then Deputy Assistant Secretary Countryman has agreed to take questions for up to about 45 minutes, so you should have plenty of time.

Please again, I think you’ve all met, but be sure to state your name and your outlet before your question so that we get it on the transcript accurately.

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Thank you. I have no dramatic announcements today. But we thought it was a good opportunity, since several of you had requested a chance, to just speak as a group. There’s obviously a lot happening, positive and negative, in the region and so I’ll simply suggest some of the things that we, of course, are following closely and see where it leads you to your questions.

First, the United States commitment in the Western Balkans is firm. We’re working ever more effectively with our partners in the European Union to help all of these states achieve the goals they have, which is membership in the European Union and, for many of them, membership in NATO as well.

Second, of course, we were encouraged 11 days ago by the capture of Ratko Mladic and his extradition to The Hague last week. It’s an important step forward for Serbia. It’s fulfillment of an important moral and legal obligation for Serbia and a step towards candidacy for the European Union, although, of course, it is a big step but only one step towards that goal of candidacy and there remain a number of issues on which Serbia needs to make progress to attain that goal this year, including progress in the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia.

Next, I would mention Macedonia, which had yesterday elections that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe termed largely free and fair, not perfect but attaining high standards. And we can talk about that and talk about what’s next on the agenda for the new Government of Macedonia when it’s formed.

We have continuing concerns about the situation in Albania. I praise the citizens of Albania for their high participation and their dignified conduct of elections in Albania last month. In virtually the entire country, it went smoothly. We, of course, have an issue in Albania about which questions remain, and I expect we’ll talk about that a little bit as well.

So let me just stop there and open the floor – questions in any direction you want to go.

QUESTION: Mr. Countryman, my name is Jane Bojadzievski from Macedonian Service Voice of America. What’s your comment to the early parliamentary elections held yesterday in Macedonia? Mr. Gruevski secured his third mandate as prime minister, and his party won majority of the parliamentary seats.

And I have the second one as a follow-up. What’s – what are the – Washington’s expectations of the new Macedonian Government in terms of your Atlantic integrations and – as well as the name issue with Greece? Thank you.

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Well, first I’d also congratulate the citizens of the Republic of Macedonia for an election that was competitive, transparent, well administered, in which the people turned out in high numbers and behaved peacefully and with dignity. The quality of this election, I think, is unprecedented in the Republic of Macedonia. The OSCE identified some issues and it is an important priority for the next government to address those issues so that the next elections can be even better.

It does appear that Prime Minister Gruevski’s party has again secured a majority. We’ll wait for that to be a little more official before we offer congratulations. I realize formation of the government will still require some time in any parliamentary democracy.

In terms of next priorities, we absolutely believe that this would be the right time, as soon as the new government is formed, to bring to closure the discussions with Greece over the name of Macedonia. We think it is within reach. It can be done. After elections is a much better time to get something like this done than before elections. So we look forward to that being concluded so that Macedonia can continue on the path to NATO and the European Union.

It will also be important for the new government to address some of the issues that the European Union has identified as top priorities on the accession path for Macedonia, and these would include the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the media. These are crucial questions if Macedonia is to meet European Union standards.

And finally, in terms of priorities, we look forward – since we have the 10th anniversary of the Ohrid Agreement coming up shortly – to sincere and determined application of the terms of the Ohrid Framework Agreement to give all citizens of Macedonia, whatever their ethnicity, the strong feeling that they are part of this country.


QUESTION: Milan Misic, Politika Belgrade. And Secretary, would you comment on the current phase of the Kosovo-Serbia or Belgrade-Pristina, as we say at home, dialogue? Obviously, they have opened many questions, but so far (inaudible) sold.

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Both Belgrade and Pristina have sent to Brussels well qualified negotiators, people who come well prepared, who speak to each other with respect, which is crucial, and who can explore, together with the EU facilitator, creative ideas to solve some of these issues. It’s true that no one specific agreement has been finished yet. But I think in the continuation of this dialogue next week, I have good hope that some of these agreements can be reached.

It’s important for citizens of both countries who wish to live a more normal life. There should not be barriers to freedom of movements, to economic trade in goods, to services such as transportation and electricity and telecommunications that people everywhere in Europe and even in the rest of the Balkans take for granted. So to reach agreements in these areas will have a significant advantage for the daily life of people in every part of Kosovo regardless of their ethnic group. I think that we’ll see such agreements soon and we will continue to help where we can. Although, I emphasize again that we have confidence in the EU’s facilitation of this dialogue, and we participate more as a supportive guest.

QUESTION: And If I may –


QUESTION: -- follow up on that, for the first time our Serbian politicians – Prime Minister Dacic, namely – publicly opened the question of the division of Kosovo between Serbia and Kosovo. How do you see that?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: I respect Mr. Dacic as a competent politician, as a good minister. However, this idea is an issue that can be a political issue within Serbia. It cannot be a serious issue for the international community to consider, and it is not an issue for the dialogue. Our position is the same as that of the Government of Kosovo and the majority of the European Union, that the status of Kosovo has been decided, that its borders have been decided. To reopen that question is not realistic today. In fact, it is a dangerous process because the borders of all the states in the region do not follow pure ethnic lines and it is impossible to create borders that follow pure ethnic lines. So to seek to begin such a process is an easy thing to say, but it is not a process that can be concluded peacefully. And so we have no interest, nor does Pristina, nor does Brussels, in such a process.

It bothers me that in 21st century Europe, there is an approach that resembles 19th century kingdoms’ discussions of territory. There’s no mono-ethnic state in this region. Serbia itself has got dozens of nationalities. If it’s the position of the Government of Serbia that the only way to have a functional state is to be mono-ethnic, then that raises impossible questions for Serbia itself. I have a more optimistic vision of Europe, including the Balkans, which is we have many examples of states that are multiethnic. I have confidence that Serbia can succeed as a multiethnic state in the European Union, and I have the same confidence that one day Kosovo, Macedonia, and the other states of this region will also succeed as multiethnic states in the European Union.

QUESTION: Follow-up.


QUESTION: Slobodan Pavlovic with Danas, Belgrade. How do you explain Mr. Dacic’s proposal, then? If you give some – such a compliment at the beginning, and now you qualify his ideas –

MR. COUNTRYMAN: You have to --

QUESTION: -- as dangerous.

MR. COUNTRYMAN: You have to ask Mr. Dacic to explain it. I do diplomacy; I don’t do politics. And politicians frequently have a reason for commenting on diplomacy that may have its roots in politics. But you have to ask him.

QUESTION: Would you allow me to correct or is this for internal consumption?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: I’ll learn something. Go ahead. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: How about off the record reply?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: There’s a camera right there, but go ahead. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, on my question, your answer – could you answer?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: No. Off the record, I don’t know either. No.


QUESTION: Can we discuss the elections in Albania? It seems to be a spiral of boycotts, agreement, disagreements, dragging on and on and on from June 2009 now, first parliamentary elections and now the local elections. What is going on there?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: You’re asking me what’s going on. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, you traveled there three times lately.


QUESTION: And I have been there long before you, but not lately. (Laughter.)

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Not lately. Well, again, I repeat, I think it was an extraordinarily strong performance by the people of Albania. You’ll recall the comments that I’ve made, that Mr. Lajcak has made, that the EU and U.S. and OSCE ambassadors have made, which is it’s up to the people of Albania to assert their ownership over the elections. Elections do not belong to one party or another; they belong to the people. And I’m very impressed with how the people of Albania rose to that challenge, turned out in great numbers, behaved peacefully and with dignity, provided thousands of nonpartisan monitors to observe the election in addition to the international monitors who came in. And in every municipality except one, the process went very well. In that one municipality, the largest one, Tirana, it was a very close vote.

And so, the maneuvering has been intense. We’ve expressed our doubts about the legal basis for the decision by the Central Election Commission to count a certain category of ballots. That question is now in front of the Electoral College, which is the highest constitutional body in Albania for such questions. What is essential for us is that all parties, again, act with the same dignity that the people of Albania showed – keeping calm, respecting the law, not seeking to provoke violence. All of these issues must be addressed by the Electoral College. We look forward to seeing what they say, but we reserve judgment on the results until we’ve heard their final opinion.

QUESTION: To your view, is the Albanian leadership matching on the performance of the Albanian people?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: I would certainly hope that after these elections, we could see on every level in Albania better communication, more respectful communication, better participation by all parties in all governing bodies. That would be a big step up. And I think when the people turn out in such large numbers, that’s what they’re asking for. And that’s what we would hope to see come out of this current period and proceeding over the next two years until the next national elections.

QUESTION: May I follow up? I don’t want to –

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Yeah, sure. There’s a lot there.

QUESTION: Yeah, okay. There are many, many problems that the Albanian parliament, Albanian leadership in general, whether the current position or opposition, to solve. It seems that they are stuck to this power struggle when there is the property issue not solved, where there is the judiciary reform not figured out, and other things. You have a large number of young people studying abroad and not returning to the country. So you have practically a considerable brain drain in that country. Can you address those issues? You have been there lately, three times back to back. Actually, somebody who was giving us feedback in our interviews with you, saying that the plane turns on the air going back there. So --

MR. COUNTRYMAN: I didn’t hear that. Okay. The – here’s what I would say. We have not seen enough political leaders who are willing to put the national interest of Albania ahead of the interest of their particular party. Now, usually political leaders are convinced that a victory by their party is the same thing as the national interest. But that’s not obvious to everyone else. What’s in the national interest of Albania today is demonstrating, especially to the member states of the European Union, that Albania can function like any other democracy that is seeking to join the European Union. And in the last couple of years, it has not been meeting that criterion. What I fear today is that what should be a very positive demonstration to Europe, to Brussels, to all the member states of Albania’s political maturity – as I said, everywhere in the country, this election process was positive – instead of being a positive signal, it can turn into a negative signal if there is not a genuine effort by the parties to approach this issue in a calm and constitutional way.

This is in addition to all the other issues that you raise. There needs to be more cooperation on the requirements that the European Union has outlined. There are so many ways in which Albania is doing well, in its economy and reform efforts. Its politics, however, hurt its image in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe. And we should find a way to turn around that image not with a public relations campaign but with reasonable solutions and respectful communication.

QUESTION: On this election struggle, the results – about the results, the parties sort of inclined to put that before the Venice Commission. Do you have any suggestion or position of the State Department, the U. S. Government?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Well, that’s a decision for Albanian institutions to make. I note that many other European democracies have utilized the services of the Venice Commission as an independent way to get a good opinion on what are the European standards for elections. I don’t – can’t think of a case in which going to the Venice Commission was a bad idea. But this is a decision for Albanian institutions and not for the United States.

MODERATOR: Either of our colleagues who haven’t posed a question have one?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Yeah, let’s go around. And we’ll come back if we have time.


QUESTION: I’d like to also be away. My name is Jela De Franceschi. And this has to do with neighboring Kosovo. There have been a lot of criticism that Kosovo is an economic basket case, especially coming from some European officials that worked in Kosovo. What is the position of the State Department regarding economic development in Kosovo?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Kosovo has a difficult economic challenge, without question. It’s got a very young population. It has high unemployment, including among young people. It has few natural resources. It is dependent to a great extent upon remittances from its citizens working in other countries. And all those make the task of economic stability more difficult.

I believe, however, that Kosovo has the potential to achieve an economic model that will work, that will take advantage of youth, of energy, of education. It has in particular in the current team of economic ministers – I think it has a group of experts who have demonstrated an ability to formulate a comprehensive economic plan, one that’s actually integrated across ministries. Not every country in the region actually has ministers who speak to each other about their economic priorities.

The hardest part for Kosovo, as in many other countries in the area, is budget discipline. You cannot promise to the people something that you can’t afford to deliver. And I think that the leadership of the Government of Kosovo today realizes that, is seeking to get the right balance between what they can afford and what they promise. And I hope we’ll see some significant progress. But it’s hard.

QUESTION: What about – yeah, it’s hard. How about the economic cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo? I mean, it’s a logical economic sort of a unit.


QUESTION: Is that going anywhere?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Well, that’s part of what the dialogue is about, that at present there is no genuine economic cooperation, but there’s obviously room for extensive cooperation, without either side being forced to sacrifice their different political opinions about the status of Kosovo. That’s a normal process and it’s worked many other places in the world where two countries may not recognize each other.

So as I mentioned in the area of transportation, telecommunications, energy, there’s definitely room for economic cooperation to the benefit of both countries and of the people in both Serbia and Kosovo.

QUESTION: I have one question about Montenegro.


QUESTION: It’s a bit --

MR. COUNTRYMAN: I was waiting.

QUESTION: What are Montenegro’s challenges?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: I’d say Montenegro has the same fundamental challenge that every country has had. Let me back up seven years, and you may have heard me say this before. It was about seven years ago that the Croatian Government made a serious strategic decision that it would do whatever was necessary to qualify for European Union membership. And they agreed they had to start in the hardest field, which is the rule of law, establishing an independent judiciary and having a firm fight against corruption. Seven years later, they are on the verge of closing the accession negotiations. And I have to say how deeply impressed the United States is with Croatia’s progress and how eager we are for them to close those negotiations in the near future. But the last chapter open, again, was rule of law. It’s the hardest thing to do, not just because you’re in the Balkans but also because these are not big countries. It takes a big investment.

So Serbia – or, excuse me, Croatia showed the way that this could be accomplished. I respect Serbia for following that example and for making the hard strategic decision that it would do what is right in the rule of law and pursue that as a priority. We have a visit this week from the Justice Minister of Serbia, Snezana Malovic, and it’s an opportunity to continue our cooperation, but also to acknowledge and respect what Serbia has accomplished in this field.

I’m not sure that the other five countries in the region have really, truly made that strategic decision to do whatever is necessary to reform the rule of law. I don’t mean to single out Montenegro, but I think this is the number one challenge: How do you establish an independent judiciary, particularly in a small country where almost everyone knows everyone else? How do you fight corruption in a country that has – that borders several other countries where there’s still an incentive for that kind of behavior? That’s the number one issue that faces Montenegro. I think that they want to go that direction. I think they will make the right decision. And we look forward to Montenegro making real progress towards NATO and towards the European Union.

QUESTION: And Montenegro may have a – play a role in the region?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: They play a – well, yes. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Spell it out for – (laughter).

MR. COUNTRYMAN: No. This is for Montenegro to define its role. It is a constructive neighbor. We are impressed that Montenegro, like many of its neighbors, has contributed troops to the NATO-led effort in Afghanistan; that it’s contributed troops in peacekeeping missions elsewhere. And by the way, every country in the region has – contributes in one way or another to peacekeeping missions. They’ve shown that they want to contribute to international stability and not just consume the resources of the international community, and I think that’s their demonstration of good neighborly relations with all of their neighbors is a positive example for the region.

QUESTION: Yes, a little follow-up. Where do you see the – Serbia’s weakest points in trying to achieve European standards? You just mentioned judiciary –

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Yes. It’s a better question, perhaps, for a genuine expert on the European Union rules. The requirements to join the European Union are decided in Brussels. They’re not decided in Washington. What I would say first about candidate status, which Serbia would like to achieve this year, as I said, the extradition of Mladic was not only good for the region, good for families in Bosnia-Herzegovina who were the victims of his actions, good for regional reconciliation so that people can talk about individual responsibility and not collective responsibility; it was the right thing to do, and it was a big step towards European Union candidacy. But there are other steps.

There’s still one more – the last of the 162 indicted by the ICTY, and that’s Goran Hadzic. I’m confident Serbia will continue actively the search in the same way that they searched for Mladic. There are a thousand questions that very competent ministries in Belgrade are working on, on specific issues for candidacy. And I think it’s going well, but it’s a lot of very detailed work to do.

And, finally, in our view and the view of many of the Europeans we speak to, Serbia needs to demonstrate that its admission to the European Union will not bring new controversies into the European Union. I think most members of the EU are very clear that there’s no room to import a territorial dispute into the European Union. It would be good for Serbia to give the European Union some confidence that that will not be the case with Kosovo. In my view, that means that Serbia needs to demonstrate it’s capable of coming to terms with the reality of Kosovo as it is today, not as it was 20 or 100 years ago. And I think that is an important standard for a number – not for every EU state, but for a number of EU states. I think if the candidate status can be achieved, I don’t see any reason that Serbia, having solved those big political issues, can’t proceed with the technical issues as rapidly as Croatia did. But we’ll see.

Nothing on Bosnia? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Knowing your fluency in Bosnia and Serbo-Croatian –

QUESTION: Well, I was thinking of actually to ask you about our friend from Banja Luka (inaudible) regarding latest development (inaudible).

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Well, first today, right now, the European Union is hosting – conducting a structured dialogue about the Bosnia-Herzegovina judiciary in Banja Luka with representatives of the state government as well as the two entity governments. This is a positive thing for the EU to do. It’s something that they do with other candidates and potential candidates in order to discuss how they can make progress towards the European standard of the judiciary. And so we wish the European Union well in this respect.

I would just like to echo the words that President Barroso of the EU said in Sarajevo a month ago, when he said that the EU strongly supports the work of the state court of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the state-level prosecutors office, the high judicial and prosecutorial council. All of these bodies are an important contribution to ensuring that the rule of law meets European standards, and it is therefore crucial that their existence is no longer questioned. We absolutely agree with that statement, that the – these are institutions that were not created by one person, but by the joint work of the European Union, the United States, the OSCE, OHR, UNDP. And it is absolutely essential that they function well, if Bosnia is to have any hope of being a clean, non-corrupt society and any hope of joining the European Union.

There’s an old tradition in the Balkans, and in many other places in the world, where political leaders believe that part of their privilege is to control the courts and prosecutors to ensure that courts and prosecutors are never used against them. And that’s still a tempting model for some people in this region. But it’s important to be very clear that as a European Union candidate, future candidate, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is all citizens, including presidents and prime ministers, who must be accountable to the courts and not the other way around.

As far as the actions of the Republika Srpska and their conclusions that the National Assembly voted in April, we’ve been clear. We absolutely agree with the high representative and with the other members of the European Union that these actions are anti-Dayton, destabilizing, absolutely unhelpful in this situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and we regret that they have not been withdrawn by the Republika Srpska. So we will certainly do what we believe is necessary to defend the Dayton agreement and to defend the independence of the judiciary in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

MODERATOR: We have time for one, perhaps two more questions.

QUESTION: Do you think the situation in Bosnia is dire? I mean, there are some people saying that it’s sliding back, that it’s sort of – and that the hatreds are still there and perhaps even the three ethnic groups even more homogenizing than they were.

MR. COUNTRYMAN: It is not dire, but it is stagnating. The leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina from the major political parties have not delivered what the people asked for, which is a government capable of talking to each other respectfully, of making compromises, and of moving ahead towards the European Union. It continues to be the case that each leader puts the interests of his party, his ethnic group ahead of the greater goal of allowing this country to move towards the European Union. I would not say it’s dire.

I do get concerned every time I hear rhetoric from Banja Luka or anywhere else that reminds me of the rhetoric I heard in the early ‘90s in the various capitals of the former Yugoslavia that tends not only to the nationalistic but to the racist. It’s not a time right now to repeat verbally the battles of the 1990s. It is the time to look towards the 21st century and towards the European Union.

QUESTION: You’re a veteran observer of the area. How do – based on the trends that are in place right now, how would you, let’s say, picture the area five years from now? I know it’s looking at the tea leaves or whatever, but –

MR. COUNTRYMAN: That’s all right. Let me answer this way: I took a break from being a very close observer for about eight or nine years and watched from afar. When I came back to this job last year, I was very deeply, positively impressed by the progress I saw in every single country in the region. The unfortunate exception was Bosnia-Herzegovina, where there had been a certain amount of economic and social progress, but not the political progress that every other state in the region showed. I don’t want to use those last ten years to project the next five. I have confidence that all the states of the region, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, will be not only better places to live – not only cleaner, less corrupt, more transparent – but they’ll be better candidates for eventual membership in the European Union. And I hope all of them will be better friends with both Brussels and with Washington and with each other.

MODERATOR: Okay. Do we have a final question?

QUESTION: Well, I think it could be off the record – okay – about Serbia’s new ambassador-at-large, Mr. Novak Djokovic. (Laughter.)

MR. COUNTRYMAN: I was heartbroken on Friday watching the semifinals.

QUESTION: You were not the only one.


QUESTION: Seven million Serbs felt that one.

MR. COUNTRYMAN: What can I say? He’s – politics is politics, but this is serious. (Laughter.) This is tennis.


MR. COUNTRYMAN: He’s a fantastic player, and as you say, he’s a great ambassador. I mean –

QUESTION: He is. He is.

MR. COUNTRYMAN: -- tennis is a sport where you see people’s faces. It’s not like football, and he presents the best face of Serbia, and –

QUESTION: We call him “Super Serb.” (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: That’s a very good way to leave it. Thank you all for your time. And thank you certainly to Deputy Assistant Secretary Countryman for being with us here today at the Foreign Press Center.

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