History must be careful not to miss out on the current affairs in the Western Balkans. Against the backdrop of Russia’s raging war in Ukraine, the EU and US are marching in lockstep to normalize Serbia-Kosovo relations. While the French-German proposal, designed under the auspices of the European Union, is being debated in the Serbian Assembly, the American voice of diplomacy is coming into clear focus. Western Balkans, again, is headline news.
In an exclusive interview with The Pavlovic Today, Gabriel Escobar, Deputy Assistant Secretary overseeing the US policy towards the countries of the Western Balkans at the State Department, dissects with anatomical precision the US strategy on how to resolve the frozen conflict at the heart of Europe that’s effectively taking place on the NATO borders.
“Our policy has been very clear,” he began. “We fully support the EU-facilitated dialogue to normalize the relationship. For us, mutual recognition should be an end goal, an important one. We think all of the countries of the region should recognize each other, should reduce barriers to trade, should help resolve some of the outstanding problems remaining from the 90s and move forward toward European integration,” Gabriel Escobar laid out the details of the US strategy.
While the US is not participating in the ongoing talks, Escobar is an active observer in the EU-facilitated dialogue the US supports. “I work very closely with Miroslav [Lajcak], but it is still fully European facilitated. I don’t participate in the talks,” Escobar clarified.
—What are the main points of concern that, as an observer, you brief Secretary Blinken about regarding the areas of perpetual crisis? I asked Gabriel Escobar.
“Well, first of all, we think that the dialogue does have a good plan. We think now that the French-German proposal which we support—I was there, when they delivered it—was an important step in the normalization,” said Escobar. “It’s a great roadmap, we hope that both sides accept it and begin immediately on the implementation of it. But in the meantime, there’s quite a few areas existing within the Brussels Agreement that remain unfulfilled. One of the most important ones is the Association of Serb majority municipalities,” he stated.
Secretary Blinken recently made a phone call to Serbian President Vucic. According to Ned Price, he “thanked” the Serbian head of state “for his constructive engagement on the EU proposal to normalize relations with Kosovo.”
—What does the US consider a “constructive engagement?” I inquired.
“They are willing to consider every single point in the agreement. They are willing to begin the implementation and negotiation of the annexes, associated annexes immediately. So that is really constructive,” explained Escobar.
Serbia has started a national dialogue in the Parliament about what it would mean for the country to accept the French-German proposal for Serbia-Kosovo normalization of relations. “That’s a significant step forward,” noted Escobar. The Deputy Assistant Secretary was optimistic when The Pavlovic Today asked about his reaction to the first round of parliamentary debates.
“The reactions are normal. The Kosovo issue is a highly emotional question for Serbia. It’s one where they worry a lot about what that means for the future, what it means for Serbs who live there. But it’s an important one that they should be taking,” said Gabriel Escobar.
The Serbian Parliament, Escobar is adamant, is “a good forum for discussion,” a place where all voices could be heard. “You’re hearing the people who are very much opposed to the agreement, and you’re hearing from people who are opposed to elements of the agreement but generally support it. And you’re hearing from the President about the need to move forward.”
Open polemical spirit, Gabriel Escobar maintains, despite the unseemly furor of lawmakers from the opposition parties holding “No to Capitulation” and “Treason” signs and protesting loudly against the French-German proposal, does not seem to concern him.
“No, I mean, to be honest, that’s all within their political framework. They should discuss it. I think all of the concerns and all of the objections should be met and overcome,” Escobar remarked.
The US vision for peaceful coexistence between ethnic Serbs and Albanians
One of the areas of perpetual tension in Kosovo is the status of the Serbs who live in the north. The formation of the Association of Serb majority municipalities was called for in the 2013 Brussels Agreement. For the last decade, the EU was unsuccessful in making Kosovo’s leadership abide by what they signed. In recent weeks, America has become increasingly vocal by saying that the Association of Serb majority municipalities needs and “will be” implemented.
— Are we at the point where it is becoming crystal clear that without strong American leadership, the EU cannot move the needle in Pristina? I put the question in front of Gabriel Escobar.
“I don’t know about that,” Escobar responded. “I wouldn’t agree with the characterization that under the EU auspices, nothing’s happened,” he insisted. “But let me start with the vision,” he continued. “First of all, our vision has always been consistent since their independence that Kosovo will be an independent sovereign country, a multi-ethnic democracy within its current borders,” Escobar laid out the US vision for Kosovo. “That’s still our vision. Now, within that construct, there is already an agreement that was signed under the Brussels Agreement for the establishment of the Association of Serb majority municipalities. It’s an existing legal obligation. So that’s why any future agreement will include that, and does include that, the current French-German proposal includes that.”
Does this mean the Brussels Agreement’s provision will also be in the French-German Agreement? Gabriel Escobar revealed that the European deal that has not been officially made public has a provision that says that “all existing agreements” must be implemented.
“Any way you go forward under the auspices of the EU-facilitated dialogue, you’re going to have an Association [of the Serb majority municipalities]. That’s why I always say it will be implemented at some point. Whether or not the current government in Kosovo accepts the legal obligation is not an agreement between Kurti and Serbia. It’s an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. That’s why I continue to say it’s going to happen. It’ll be the basis of the normalization agreement. There’s no getting around that,” Escobar was clear.
“So now within that construct, our position is that it should be something that does not violate the Constitution of Kosovo, under the laws of Kosovo, that does not create problems for the functionality of Kosovo. In other words, no Republika Srpska model. Now, what it does do, in my opinion, is it helps Kosovo take over the services and the issues that Serbs in the north currently look to Belgrade to do— it would be transferred, all of those services should be provided by the government of Kosovo. And if Serbia has any voice in it, it should be done transparently, and again, under the laws of Kosovo. So that’s our vision. What this would do, it would provide these municipalities the ability to coordinate and create economies of scale on things like education, health care— all in Serbian language— trash removal, ambulance services, the kinds of things that municipalities already do but they’d be able to coordinate among themselves, to make it work for them. And by the way, as they do it, it should be seamless. People should not feel any difference in their life or any negative difference in their life as we move forward on this.”
Escobar recently penned an OpEd with Derek Chollet aimed at the audiences in Kosovo, making a case for forming the Association of Serb majority municipalities. In it, Escobar says that the time to implement the municipalities is “now.”
— What is so specific and urgent about now? I asked.
“What’s specific and urgent about now is one: over the last year and a half, we’ve seen a series of escalating confrontations between Serbia and Kosovo, all of them centered around the treatment of Serbs in the north, and the way they interact with the government of Kosovo. So one, we need to break the cycle of confrontation and near-violent conflicts,” responded Escobar.
The other factor that makes the formation of the Association of Serb majority municipalities an urgent item on the US-European agenda is the ongoing war in Ukraine.
“What’s going to help us resolve this conflict is going to be two things, US-EU unity and NATO solidarity. So we cannot waste our bandwidth on conflicts inside of the territory of Europe,” remarked Escobar. “Europe needs to be free, peaceful, and united as we confront real security threats outside of the continent, outside of our transatlantic space. So we need to do that. And so, within the context of that, the Germans and the French propose this roadmap, which we fully support. In that roadmap and in the context of the crisis, where the Serbs walked out, the urgency, the need for the implementation, the Association [of Serb majority municipalities] is absolutely crucial to moving forward.”
—What makes you confident that Albin Kurti and Aleksandar Vucic are going to accept and sign the French-German Agreement?
“First of all, I’m hoping that they both see the opportunities in this. To have a peaceful, sustainable and predictable relationship between the two of them, between the two countries,” said Escobar. “Second, the urgency that the Europeans and the Americans are imparting to both sides about the need to get this done. And let’s be clear: We want this to be a win for both sides. We want both sides to be able to reap the benefits of first of all, a peaceful relationship. And second, an open door to European integration.”
Urgent questions for North Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro
Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia are the three NATO members in the Western Balkans. Going through each country, Escobar laid out one thing each country is doing well and one urgent question they need to address.
“Let’s start with North Macedonia,” Escobar stated his order of preferences. “The one thing that they’re doing right, the one thing that they have been doing right is North Macedonia in the context of a region that is characterized in many aspects on the negative side by ethnic rivalry, North Macedonia is a true example of peaceful coexistence between Albanians and Orthodox people. So it is now a model democratic civic state. Now, what they need to do urgently now is to move forward to implement the agreements that they have on working on the constitutional changes,” said Escobar.
Expressly, he referred to the EU-brokered agreement for North Macedonia to change the preamble of the Constitution to acknowledge ethnic Bulgarians as a constituent ethnic group. “Now, their preamble already recognizes several ethnic groups. I don’t think that this is an issue. And I also think that North Macedonia has a pretty good track record of protecting minority rights. But they need to do that. And we’re hoping that they do that. And we’re hoping that then, we’ll finally fully open the door for their European integration, because to be honest, North Macedonia can close chapters very, very quickly. They are reform minded,” he added.
“I mean, honestly, Albania within the region is doing quite well, “said Gabriel Escobar. “If you look at where Albania began in the early 90s, where they are now. They are now one of our most trusted partners within NATO and bilaterally on security, commerce, political issues and regional stability. And so they’re doing that right. Their path to Europe is wide open. And it’s really just a question of how quickly they can make reforms.”
“Our position is that they should focus on building their institutions to prepare for solid elections,” noted Escobar. “They should very urgently address the question of the vacancies in the Constitutional Court. I know that after that they’re planning to have presidential elections. And then beyond that, parliamentary elections. After the parliamentary elections, we’re hoping to see a government that forms a coalition that is committed to European integration, committed to their NATO membership, and focused on the fight against corruption.”
Russia is not a constructive player in the Balkans
The geopolitics in the Western Balkans puts the region in the very first rank of political complexity and among many spheres of influence. The local and external challenges of the region where war used to be the continuation and extension of politics by other means cannot be underestimated. The foreign influence of Russia and China in the context of the war in Ukraine has raised the stakes for the whole region that’s been moving slowly toward EU membership.
—Does Russia now have the diplomatic resources to focus on keeping the main players in Putin’s orbit, given that they’re fully involved in the war in Ukraine? Does this make an opening for the United States to engage more the players who thus far were in Putin’s orbit?
“First of all, we’ve always engaged all of the actors,” said Escobar. “Now you are right about one thing that Russia doesn’t have the influence that it did before. But I would say that we’re looking at Russia’s influence. Russia never had any kind of influence that wasn’t malign,” noted Escobar. “Russia never sought to rebuild those countries, it never sought to create multi ethnic reconciliation, just the opposite. What it sought to do is create chaos, to create division and just create problems. So it was pretty cheap for them to do it, but I think the countries of the region recognize that,” noted Escobar.
“The other thing is, they [Russia] didn’t actually need to do very much because the problems that they are accelerating are problems that are existing. Things like the ethnic rivalry in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the problems between Serbia and Kosovo, they’re just meddling in that. So that’s another reason why we urgently have to address those issues.” he added.
According to Gabriel Escobar, the US ties with the Western Balkans are “really strong,” and the future engagement “along with the European Union will only intensify.”
Of one thing Escobar is certain. “The people of the region are focused on European integration. When they leave their countries, they don’t go to Russia, they go to Europe. And if they don’t go to Europe, they come here.” Deputy Assistant Secretary noted that “70% of the economy of the Western Balkans is tied to Europe, of what’s remaining of the 30%, the vast majority is among each other. Within that what’s left is American, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Turkish— none of it, outside of energy, is Russian. So Russia doesn’t have many tools. They don’t provide any capacity building, no assistance, very few loans. Russia is not a constructive player in the Balkans.”
The press is going to ask tough questions
Secretary Anthony Blinken likes to say he’s a “recovering journalist.” The journalistic ethos imbibed from the American model for press freedoms a very few countries in the world can claim. How, I asked Escobar, can the media in the Western Balkans create a healthy ecosystem for the free and independent press?
“We’ve been very consistent in our messaging that most of the countries are not doing well, when it comes to journalistic freedom,” Escobar was blunt. From the US standpoint, what needs to happen is for the Western Balkans countries to adopt “better laws” to protect journalists.
“They need to have less political influence on the institutions that are charged with the rule of law, and they need to build a culture where they can accept that the press is going to ask tough questions,” he said.
Going back to his early days in diplomatic careers in the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar recalled what his impressions of the media ecosystem were then.
“On the press side, when I started working in the Western Balkans, I would venture to say that a lot of the journalism wasn’t actually journalism,” he said. “You know, the journalist didn’t ask follow up questions, they didn’t investigate, they would be brought into a press center, and they would be given a statement, and they would take a picture. And that was the story. So in fact, in many cases, because the story was already written, the most important person on a journalistic crew was the cameraman,” he recalled. “So I think the investment that the United States and Europe, through our capacity building programs, is helping create that generation of journalists,” Escobar added. “For the ones who are already there, who are quite brave, they need more protection, they need more support, they need more visibility. And we need the government to do the same for that.”
As the Western Balkans opens up a new chapter and the Serbia-Kosovo normalization agreement under the EU auspices enters its final stage, the peoples of the region, inevitably related to each other by the collective memory and events that shape their lives, are looking up at a new political dawn breaking on a horizon. For the first generations that have no memory of the conflict itself, it’s a life less ordinary. For the journalists, the representatives of truth-telling and objectivity, the Western Balkans awaits their ink.The plot thickness.