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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Foreign Policy: Western Balkans Update

Ambassador Philip Reeker, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs
Washington, DC
March 9, 2012

11:00 A.M., EST


MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Our briefer today is Deputy Assistant Secretary Philip Reeker with the Bureau of the European and Eurasian Affairs here at the Department of State. He will make some opening remarks and then will open up the floor to questions. Just a reminder, please turn off your cell phones at this time, and when we open up for questions and answers, please wait to be acknowledged and to receive the microphone from one of my colleagues, and state your name and media organization.

At this point, sir, I’ll turn the floor over to you.

AMBASSADOR REEKER: Well, thanks very much. It’s always a pleasure to come back to the Foreign Press Center. I think I was here last in December, and we thought with spring in the air now that it’s March, it was time to come back, as I promised, again. Welcome also to our colleagues in New York. I hope one day I can fulfill my pledge and come up and see you in person there in New York as well.

It’s indeed been a very busy time in the Balkan region. As you know, with the Western Balkans, South-Central Europe continues to be an area of priority for the United States Government and our European partners. We believe strongly in the future of the region, a future where every country in the region can achieve its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. We believe that integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions is the way forward for stability, for prosperity, for all the people in that country, and where we hope no country that chooses the path of integration is left behind.

In that sense, spring is always a time to look forward, and indeed I think they’ll be happy to see spring in the region. Last month in February, I accompanied Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns to the region. We visited Belgrade, Sarajevo, Pristina, and Zagreb, and indeed they were experiencing there and throughout the rest of the region quite a severe winter – record level snowfalls, record cold temperatures. And we’re pleased to see that is slowly abating, and we were also very pleased that the United States could assist countries that declared disasters, like Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, where we provided support and humanitarian assistance to local organizations, material support, specialized equipment for cold weather operations, and even helicopter Medivac support throughout the region. Obviously, we’ll be watching with the spring thaw and the concerns about flooding. But that is one example where we’re all partners together and seek to help each other.

I think it goes without saying that there have been a number of very important and positive developments. I would just like to note today that we congratulate Croatia on the unanimous ratification of the European Union Accession Treaty. That’s the treaty which was signed in December and then ratified today by Croatia’s parliament. And this, of course, follows the very successful referendum in Croatia which took place in January. This is, of course, the results of many years of hard work by the Croatian people, successive Croatian governments, to implement successfully the necessary reforms and satisfy the criteria for European Union membership. And we commend Croatia for that. Croatia is a strong leader in the region and sets an example for other countries in the region to remind us of the hard work it takes but indeed the benefits that accrue as countries move forward in the accession track and the integration track.

Deputy Secretary Burns had an opportunity to, of course, see the new foreign minister, Vesna Pusic, in Zagreb, also met with President Josipovic to talk about this new phase in Croatia’s history and their participation not only in supporting further progress throughout the region, their own continuing reforms, and focus on economic development, but also Croatia’s partnership throughout the world, including with ISAF in Afghanistan. And as we know, so many other countries in the region are also participants in that.

I’d also point out that just last week at this time, we were noting in a statement from Secretary Clinton the announcement by the European Council that Serbia has been granted European Union candidate status. And we noted what an important step this is for Serbia’s future and congratulated the leadership and the people of Serbia for their hard work and their commitment to moving forward. As you know, we’ve long supported Serbia’s integration into the European Union.

And at the same time, the Secretary welcomed the European Union’s announcement that it is launching the very important feasibility study for Kosovo’s Stabilization and Association Agreement, which builds further on the European Union’s – European Council’s conclusions on Kosovo from last December. And this is, again, a very important step for Kosovo’s European orientation and reinforces the European perspective shared there as well.

We really believe that these steps are beneficial for not only those countries, Serbia and Kosovo, but for the entire region.

We also would note also in the region that in Macedonia, the prime minister of Macedonia has met with the prime minister of Greece. We believe that’s an important step for those two countries to be discussing the issues that they face together as neighbors in the region and as part of Europe, and we hope that that can continue and produce some results there.

So all in all, I think there is a lot happening in the region. As the deputy secretary noted on his travels, he was in Sarajevo and Bosnia just days after the Council of Ministers had met, having been formed, and Chairman Bevanda having taken over as chairman of the Council of Ministers. He also met with the tri-presidency. This was, of course, a long time coming to get a government in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a new government with a coalition agreement that we hope will continue to work and implement necessary legislation and other steps important in moving Bosnia and Herzegovina forward as well in their EU accession process as well as their NATO accession process.

In that regard, important laws were also passed by this new government on a census and on state aid, and we would hope that they can move forward on the defense property law to implement that, which would allow Bosnia and Herzegovina to move into its Membership Action Plan with NATO.

So we had a very, I think, useful and important trip with the deputy secretary. He looks forward to continuing engagement with the region, and of course, that’s what I do every single day, whether it’s cold and snowy or sunny and warm in the region or here in Washington.

With that short introduction, I’m happy to take your questions for a brief time today, and I look forward to your interest and keeping in touch with you on these important developments.

MODERATOR: We’ll begin now here at the center.

QUESTION: Mr. Reeker, two quick questions, if I may. Vedran Androvanski, Voice of America Macedonian Service. What is your take on the latest incidents in Macedonia, the increased interethnic violence? And what are the reasons, in your opinion, for such increased violence?

And the second one, I am fully aware of the need for consensus into NATO for all the decisions that are being made, but the U.S. and other NATO members, are they planning on putting eventually pressure on Greece to agree on Macedonia becoming a member under the reference name before the NATO summit?

Thank you so much.

AMBASSADOR REEKER: Thank you, Vedran. And to your first question, I am aware of some violent incidents that took place March 7th in Macedonia. Our Embassy in Skopje put out a statement expressing sympathy to those injured, a number of young people who were in some cases severely injured in really terrible incidents of violence. We understand that the authorities in Macedonia are investigating the incidents and seeking the perpetrators of what, as the Embassy describes them, are really callous acts. Those who would attack children, students, really are the greatest kinds of cowards. Clearly, simply no purpose in that kind of activity, and the proper authorities need to investigate these. We understand they are investigating what happened in those incidents.

Certainly we echo the condemnations of authorities from the government in Macedonia condemning those actions, and we would call on all parties to remain calm in this. What needs to be done is deal with this under law. It’s a law enforcement action. They need to find out what happened, get the facts of the case, make them known, and allow a legal process to take its course.

In terms of NATO, we’re all very well aware of Macedonia’s desire to join NATO. We very much want to see Macedonia as a full member of the NATO alliance. And in that respect, we, and I think all of our allies, would like to see, as soon as possible, a resolution of the name issue with Greece. That’s why I commended the engagement of the two prime ministers and hoped that they can continue to meet, also using the UN channel through Ambassador Nimetz to move forward. We’ve long said that we believe there is a solution to that dispute which can be found mutually satisfactory to both parties, and then, as the North Atlantic Council has made clear, would allow Macedonia to receive an invitation for membership.

So again, we hope that that the two parties can work hard at moving that forward, because we believe it’s in the interests of not just the citizens of the two countries – Greece and Macedonia – but in the interest of the region and of the alliance as a whole. And we hope to see progress in that channel.

MODERATOR: We’ll take our next question over here in the front.

QUESTION: Milena Durdic, Voice of America Serbian Service. You’ve been talking about integration of Serbia and Kosovo, so I wanted to ask what further developments do you expect when that integration is concerned, as well as further talks between Belgrade and Pristina. Thanks.

And actually, one more if I can. Do you have any comment on the attack on journalists in Montenegro, and do you think the media situation in Montenegro currently is a reason for concern? Thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR REEKER: Well, with regards to your first question, as I said, we welcome very much the important steps taken at the European Council last week. This is important for the EU as a whole. It’s very much in line with our policy and our partnership with Europe in trying to integrate the Western Balkans into these transatlantic institutions, including EU membership.

It’s an important step for Serbia to have full candidacy status. They worked hard on this. Of course, this is in some ways just the beginning of now the next chapter in that process. A lot of additional reform that needs to take place, and that will include continuing to work through the European-facilitated dialogue with Kosovo in order to find additional solutions, agreements that help make the lives of individuals, citizens in both countries, more functional and improved, and in that regard, normalize the relationship there.

That’s what the European Union and individual member states have called for. We support that effort. I think the dialogue has been very successful in producing a number of key agreements, including agreements that were reached just two weeks ago. And now it’s time to focus on implementing those agreements. I think a lot of hard work has to take place at the experts level, and that will continue in coming weeks.

As I noted as well, there’s important steps forward for Kosovo with the beginning of their feasibility study. I believe that the EU expects to have senior officials and experts traveling to Kosovo in coming weeks to begin that process, as each of the other countries that has gone through the European accession process knows, a feasibility study is a very important and necessary step. And we were pleased to see that the European Council embraced that in Kosovo, underscoring the European perspective for Kosovo as well.

So it’s going to take continued hard work, I think, from both countries. The United States will continue to support those efforts: the dialogue led by the European Union; our assistance efforts in both countries which are aimed at helping them with the necessary reforms; and continuing to look for solutions, peaceful solutions that help improve the stability and security and prosperity of all the people in the region.

And then on Montenegro, I did see the reports about the attack on the journalist, and we would join in condemning such an attack. It was really quite shocking to read about that. I think our Embassy has commented on it. I believe Prime Minister Luksic and others have also condemned that attack. And again, law enforcement is trying to look into the crime and hold responsible or take appropriate legal action against the perpetrators of that crime.

We wish the journalists all the best and a speedy recovery from that. But obviously, the role of independent media, free speech, the ability of reporters to do their job without fear of retribution, is critical. Obviously, we condemn all crime against anybody – journalists or not – but I’m pleased to see that there’s been a robust response on the part of Montenegrin authorities in that regard. We’ll continue to follow developments there.

MODERATOR: We’ll take our next question here on the right. You can stay in your seat. It’s easier for the cameras.

QUESTION: Okay. Just to round out the VOA set of questions, my name is Keida Kistreci, and I am from the Albanian Service. First, I just wanted to follow up on the question from Milena in terms of dialogue. Do you think that this continued dialogue between Serbia and Pristina will also include talks on the north? And any thoughts that you might have on the election – Serbian elections that the Serbians in the north want to hold also in that area?

And then the second question about Kosovo is the U.S. urged Kosovo and supported its decision for the agreement and the compromise on Kosovo participating in international events. What is the U.S. doing now to increase recognitions and to work with those countries that have not recognized Kosovo, including the five EU countries?

And since we also broadcast in Albania, just one more question about Albania.

AMBASSADOR REEKER: I’m going to lose track, so could we stop there? Because I’m already forgetting what you asked at the beginning.

QUESTION: If I can keep the mike, yes.

AMBASSADOR REEKER: It’s a Friday. So I should have been taking notes. On the first question as regards to the dialogue, again, as we said many times, we support very much the dialogue which is led by the European Union and which has produced a number of important agreements. There are more agreements ahead. There are more areas that should be addressed, like telecoms and electricity, energy. But that process will be ongoing, and we will continue to offer our support wherever we can in that regard.

Implementing those agreements already reached is also critical, and to that extent we welcomed as Secretary Clinton’s noted a couple of weeks ago the implementing agreement on the integrated border management, so-called IBM agreement that had been reached earlier. This, in fact, is a very forward-looking approach to handling the management of the border, and so we have applauded that and we applaud the continuing participation in good faith, serious efforts by both sides. And this, of course, takes place at all levels. There are experts who work quite hard at the details of these things, and then more senior officials come together in these dialogue sessions that you’ve seen held in Brussels.

As regards the north, clearly there have been ideas that have been floated. There are a number of clear ideas in terms of the comprehensive settlement plan already. President Tadic of Serbia has made some suggestions and ideas. Prime Minister Thaci also has some ideas on how to approach these serious issues, and we’re glad that people are addressing them because there are issues that need to be addressed. And that will need to be something that takes place in due course. For now, we continue to support very much EULEX, the efforts of KFOR, and underscore the importance of freedom of movement for both EULEX and KFOR throughout the entirety of Kosovo – something that is underscored by the European Union as well and which both governments, that in Belgrade and in Pristina, have said is important in line with agreements and indeed UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which is a very positive and important resolution and piece of international law in that regard. And that has been underscored, I think, by the European Council as well in their decision to move Kosovo forward in this process.

So there’s much to be done. Serbia does have elections coming up. We’ll wait for specific announcements from there. I think we’ve been very clear and the United Nations is very clear as well that local elections in the north not held under Kosovo law would bring representatives who have no authority under that law. You may recall that in 2008, the UN Secretary General’s envoy in Kosovo stated that the elections and their results had no legitimacy. And so this is something that needs to be addressed and move forward. I think there are ways of – that have been expounded in the comprehensive settlement plan to have elections in the north at the appropriate time in the framework of Kosovo law. So that’s what we’ll look for.

And then you had a last question that I’ve already forgotten.

QUESTION: My – the other question was about the U.S. efforts to help with more recognitions after Pristina’s government obviously took a very difficult decision for the compromise.

AMBASSADOR REEKER: Well, our efforts to support and promote recognition of the Republic of Kosovo are continuous and ongoing. I believe there are some 86 or more countries that now fully recognize Kosovo, and the United States encourages that in all of our discussions with other foreign leaders..Those countries that do not recognize Kosovo should do so because we believe it’s important for regional stability. And it’s quite clear, as the International Court of Justice made clear, that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was in line with Resolution 1244 and international law.

And this is something that we believe is very important. So step by step, I think that’s happening. There are five European Union member-states who do not recognize Kosovo, and obviously we encourage them to reconsider and look at what it means and the importance of this in promoting Kosovo’s stability and wider future. And I think the European Council itself has taken an important step in that direction yet again with last week’s decision, and the feasibility study will also help that.

The whole idea of integration – and the European Union has a goal for all the countries of the Western Balkans – is to bring them into this family that we’ve seen can be successful in promoting stability and security throughout the rest of Europe. And that’s what we want to see for the Balkans as well.

MODERATOR: Sir, I know your time is starting to run short, but do we have a question from New York?


QUESTION: Good morning, Ambassador Reeker. Good to see you from New York. This is Erol Avdovic, correspondent for Dnevni Avaz from Sarajevo. Ambassador Reeker, you have mentioned so many times and many other officials, high officials of this Administration, how important is for Bosnia to move forward toward Euro-Atlantic integration. Without mentioning over even specific today, can you put some more specifics especially in regard of new Council of Ministers in Bosnia and Herzegovina? I mean whether do have some specific task or so. Within that, can we expect soon somebody, perhaps Foreign Minsiter Lagumdzija, to be invited to meet Secretary Clinton?

And at the very beginning, if you allow me, you mentioned that the Western Balkan is priority for this Administration. Since Vice President Biden visited region in May 2009, what has not been met toward your expectations in that regard?

AMBASSADOR REEKER: Well, if I started on that list, we could spend a long time here. Obviously, we have lots of hopes and expectations. But what’s more important, Erol, is that these are the hopes and expectations of the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and indeed of citizens throughout the region and all the countries of the region. This is not about fulfilling our needs, but about supporting citizens in our countries, countries that we consider important partners in part of our goal to see Europe whole, free, and at peace. And that’s what the Vice President stressed on his trip back in 2009. Indeed it’s what Deputy Secretary Burns stressed when he was in Sarajevo and the other stops on his trip last month. He did meet with Foreign Minister Lagumdzija in Sarajevo. I think it may have been the foreign minister’s first official meeting in his new office. And we look forward to continuing our conversations with him and also with Prime Minister Bevanda and with the members of the tri-presidency, whom we also saw in Sarajevo.

There clearly are a number of things for the Council of Ministers to get down to work on. We’ve mentioned a few of them. I should not forget the budget and the importance of passing an appropriate state-level budget, because as people in this town know, a budget is what allows the government to do its business on behalf of its citizens, and there’s a lot of business to be done in Bosnia and Herzegovina. So citizens, voters, expect their leaders to behave responsibly, to find solutions, accommodations, compromises, as necessary in a democratic parliamentary process. And that’s what we hope to see happen with regard to the budget but with regard to so many other things.

And I note that there is a meeting today going on in Banja Luka convened, I believe, by Mr. Tadic-- excuse me, the president of Republika Srpska. I’m going to get all my names mixed up here. President Dodik. And he’s got members of the other key political parties in Bosnia meeting today to address a number of these issues, and we hope that they can find ways to move forward in meeting the needs, of passing the laws necessary for helping Bosnia not only to function better on behalf of its citizens but to move forward in the European path. That includes also the defense property law and legislation that we’ve discussed before. The United States has helped tremendously to try to find a solution there; it just takes the agreement of Mr. Dodik to allow that to happen, accomplishing one of the 5+2 criteria and allowing Bosnia to move forward in its membership action plan.

So a lot for Bosnia to do. We support very much the efforts of the European Union’s Special Representative there and the enhanced presence the EU has over the last six months of continuing to grow, working closely with the Office of the High Representative and of course our Embassy working closely with the rest of the international community there as well.

MODERATOR: Sir, I think we may have time for one more question. In the back, on the right.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Ambassador Reeker, thank you for this opportunity. I am Ivica Puljic from Al Jazeera Balkans. I have two questions.


QUESTION: Hi. I have two questions. I don’t know if you are aware that Fikret Abdic, very controversial figure from Bosnia war, was released from the jail today, and it will be, I mean, big problem between Sarajevo and Banja Luka because of that. If you have any comments about that.

AMBASSADOR REEKER: I’m not sure I’m aware of that particular development, so I would --

QUESTION: Okay. Then let’s go to other question. It’s about Croatia. Croatian foreign minister is coming here on the 21st and she’ll be with Secretary Clinton, of course. A little bit if you can comment that. And how do you see Croatia role in whole region right now? Thank you so much.

AMBASSADOR REEKER: Well, we do look forward to welcoming Foreign Minister Pusic to Washington, where she will meet with Secretary Clinton. Deputy Secretary Burns enjoyed very much his meeting with her last month in Zagreb, and at that time, we talked not only about Croatia and first our congratulations on the steps and progress Croatia has made, but also about the work that lies ahead in terms of economic reform and moving forward in the final phases to become a full member of the European Union next year.

And of course, we talk about the region as well, and we appreciate Croatia’s constructive approach. We were pleased to see that Prime Minister Milanovic traveled in one of his first trips outside Croatia to Sarajevo and met with the government leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We think that’s important because good neighborly relations are important everywhere and particularly in the Balkans.

So we appreciate Croatia’s partnership, their participation, of course, also in ISAF, and look forward to what I think will be a very robust and positive relationship with the new government there and with Foreign Minister Pusic as she comes to Washington.

Shall we take one more here?

QUESTION: Mr. Deputy Assistant Secretary, my name is Andreja Komljenovic, and I am representing Nezavisne Novine Banja Luka. My question for you is a very short one. There has been in Bosnia and Herzegovina a controversy regarding the changing of election law and Srebrenica issue. And there has been pressure exercised by the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo on the politicians of Bosnia. And my question to you: Is that in line with the general attitude of the Administration and Secretary of State Clinton, who said that the way forward in Bosnia is to reach compromise within the players in the region? Is that a way to move forward or not? And what’s your take on this Srebrenica election law question? Thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR REEKER: Thank you for the question, and I’m not sure that I would agree with your premise. Our Embassy is engaged regularly with officials in Sarajevo, obviously also at the entity level in Banja Luka and throughout the country.

In terms of Srebrenica, I think it’s important to remember, as Ambassador Moon has said, as our Embassy in Sarajevo has discussed, Srebrenica holds a special place in the conscience of citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina and indeed of citizens all around the world. I think all parties recognized that and that special situation when they supported an amendment to the election laws back in 2008 that allowed former residents of Srebrenica to vote in Srebrenica municipal elections. That amendment reflected the fact that the population of Srebrenica was dramatically and tragically changed by the genocide that was committed during the war.

I think most people in Bosnia and Herzegovina respect the fact that democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina has to provide for adequate representation of all peoples and promote at the same time reconciliation, something that is so vitally important in Bosnia and Herzegovina and throughout the region. And so reflecting the comments you noted of Secretary Clinton, we, the United States, our diplomats, can help politicians consider ways to address what is a very sensitive issue. In that regard, we can encourage Serb and Bosniak political leaders to work together to find solutions that may include compromises that can ensure that the concerns of the Bosniak citizens of Srebrenica are adequately addressed and their rights protected.

So as we face new local elections, whoever is elected as mayor or as officials in Srebrenica or in any other municipality in Bosnia and Herzegovina or in any one of the two entities represents fairly and equally all the citizens of that particular municipality. That’s the job of elected officials, that’s the mandate that they receive, and I think it’s important to keep that in mind as well as keeping in mind the special place and the special circumstances that surround Srebrenica.

So this is an issue, as you noted, that is of concern to many, and it’s something that needs to be treated sensitively. And I think political leaders have a responsibility to sit down together and to think about solutions that can address the concerns and the sensitivities that I mentioned. And we are confident that that’s possible, and we call upon the leaders to take that attitude.

Thank you all very much. We’ll look forward to doing this again. Thank you in New York, and best wishes. See you again soon.

MODERATOR: Thank you all very much. This event is concluded.

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