US Ambassador to Serbia: We have a problem with Prime Minister Albin Kurti

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The U.S. Ambassador in Belgrade Christopher Hill said Western countries have made it clear that Kosovo will face consequences due to developments in the northern part of the country, emphasizing that the problems lie with Prime Minister Albin Kurti.

In an interview with the Serbian service of Voice of America, he said that Kurti has not agreed to Western demands to reduce tensions by withdrawing special police units and municipal leaders from the north.

 

The following interview has been edited.

 

Voice of America: The situation in Kosovo is still unresolved. Deputy Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar and EU Special Envoy for the dialogue Miroslav Lajčák presented proposals to Belgrade and Pristina for de-escalation, new elections in which Serbs would participate, and a return to dialogue for normalization. What response have you received from Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, is he ready to accept it?

Christopher Hill: I think we have a problem with Mr. Kurti, he is not willing to accept it. It seems that we have some very fundamental issues with him, if we can still consider him a partner. But I’ll leave that decision to our embassy in Pristina.

Voice of America: He said he is not ready for de-escalation and new elections?

Christopher Hill: De-escalation is crucial, and I think we have made progress in that direction in recent days. There has been a reduction in tensions, of course, from the Serbian side, and the expectation from the European Union and the United States is that Kosovo will take a step in that direction. One of them is the withdrawal of the special police from the north. Also, municipal leaders need to vacate municipal buildings, and this needs to happen at some point. And the third issue is a bit more difficult, whether new elections can be held. From the Serbian side, it was clearly stated that the establishment of the Association of Serb Municipalities is important, which is still a problem for Mr. Kurti. Because everyone else understands that it is necessary.

Voice of America: Can you imagine Serbs participating in elections without the Association?

Christopher Hill: I think the Association of Serb Municipalities is essential for the north of Kosovo. And it seems that most people understand this. The Association is something we have promised. It is something we have decided to have. But perhaps it will be necessary to somehow explain to the Serbian community what it means. It means the ability to have schools, to control schools, to have textbooks that people are satisfied with in those schools, medical facilities, doctors, medical care. I think all these elements are understood, and a lot of work needs to be done to implement them. And I think we need goodwill. And of course, we hope to get that from the authorities in Pristina.

Voice of America: What do you expect from Mr. Vučić in this process? And what would be the consequences if the expectations are not met?

Christopher Hill: We consider him a good partner, him and his government are good partners in this process. And we hope it continues that way. We would like him to do everything possible to deescalate the situation, and we see signs that it is already happening. That’s very positive. I was present in the negotiations (with Escobar, Vučić, and Lajčák) the other night, and I can tell you that they went beyond the current crisis in Kosovo. I think there is an understanding with the authorities in Serbia on how to move forward, how to do things together. We are very interested in improving relations with Serbia – at least as much as the people and the government in Serbia are interested in it. We feel that Serbia is becoming a better partner for us.

Voice of America: Is there unity within the QUINT regarding the position of the Prime Minister of Kosovo? We saw that the U.S. was very specific regarding the consequences, but the others didn’t follow.

Christopher Hill: What we have said about Kosovo is that there will be consequences in our bilateral relations. Secretary Blinken made a very strong statement condemning Mr. Kurti’s actions of sending special police to the north and failing to work and communicate properly with partners. These are serious accusations against Mr. Kurti, and I hope that Mr. Kurti can understand that he needs to act differently from how he has acted. And so, I will not speak to him anymore.

Voice of America: One of the sparks of the crisis in Kosovo were the local elections. The turnout was extremely low, about 3.5 percent. But the West did not challenge the results of those elections. Does it seem like a wrong decision?

Christopher Hill: You will have to ask other people if it was a wrong decision. I certainly have my opinion on the elections, and let me answer this question more as an analyst than as an ambassador. I think some people expected the turnout to be low, but they didn’t expect it to be only 3.75 percent. And I think it became very clear very quickly, I would say for everyone, that with such a low turnout, there is no reason to move forward. It is clear that these figures worried many people, including myself.

Voice of America: It seems that the European proposal for the normalization of relations didn’t bring much progress; tensions on the ground are the same, if not worse. Do you consider the agreements to be failures? Is there perhaps a need to find a new approach?

Christopher Hill: My opinion, and I want to emphasize this because I am not a negotiator, is that all the elements of the agreement that should be on the table are there. For the Serbian side, there should be the Association, and this is important because the absence of the Association lacks trust in the international community. Serbia should make the decision to recognize the documents of Kosovo and not hinder Kosovo’s accession to regional organizations, etc… It is clear to me that it can be said that it is not working, but giving up is not an option. And I have to say one more thing: what I have seen in other negotiations, but not here, is a good tone of conversation. In the case of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, you are trying to shift things to another level compared to where they are now, but I think the harsh rhetoric is damaging the process.

Voice of America: Do you expect Mr. Vučić to recognize the independence of Kosovo?

Christopher Hill: I think he is willing to do what he said – achieve normalization, and that is very important. And that precedes all future stages of cooperation. Let’s start in order, let’s try to realize the Association, the recognition of Kosovo’s documents. This is important at this point.

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