Deputy Assistant State Secretary Gabriel Escobar, in the midst of the bustling United Nations General Assembly in the heart of New York City, sat down for an interview with The Pavlovic Today. The focal point of discussion inevitably centered on the United States’ stance toward the Western Balkans, a matter of paramount importance following the recent collapse of the EU-led dialogue between Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in Brussels.
Escobar, with measured diplomacy, refrained from characterizing the situation as a “collapse” and instead described it as a political development where the involved parties fell short of coming closer to a resolution.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as a collapse,” Escobar observed. “I would say that we were unsuccessful in bringing the parties closer together.” However, according to the stance of the Biden administration, this does not imply that diplomacy should be abandoned.
“The dialogue is the only path,” underscored Blinken’s top diplomat for the Western Balkans. “It is an important one, especially for Kosovo because as the two sides normalize, they’re also harmonizing with the European Union. We need a European path for Kosovo, by having a European process, which is the dialogue, a European plan, which is the Ohrid Agreement and the Brussels Agreement. And having the European Union as the guarantor, it gives us a platform from the United States side to push for greater integration of Kosovo into the region, and for potentially more recognition.”
In light of Europe’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell’s recent remarks about Prime Minister Kurti’s apparent reluctance to compromise, the question arises: Does Prime Minister Kurti genuinely desire to be part of a diplomatic solution?
“I can’t speak for Mr. Kurti. But it does appear that he is trying to set conditions for the European Union. Now, whether the Prime Minister of a country of a million and a half people can be the one to dictate terms to a transatlantic community of 700 million people, I think there needs to be a little bit of realism in that relationship. So I do hope that we can get Kosovo to a more pragmatic and realistic place.”
—What would that mean in terms of the formation of the Association of Serb-majority municipalities?
“Look at the plan that the European Union proposed, which I think is very fair. Both sides should immediately begin implementing their requirements. I know that in some cases, Serbia wants Kosovo to establish the Association before it takes action on its part, and I know that Kosovo has proposed that Serbia complete all of its parts before the Association’s implementation. But the Association is going to be a process. So I think we need to start that process. The recognition of Kosovo’s licenses, ID cards, government documents, all of that is a part of it. And addressing the issue of parallel structures under the Association, I think that’s also a process. So I believe that process needs to begin now. We are still waiting for the government of Kosovo to show that it’s moving forward on the Associations.”
—What is your message for Kurti?
“Please don’t lose time,” DAS Gabriel Escobar responded.
“The [EU] enlargement process right now is real, and there is a lot of pressure to integrate Ukraine. So, I do think that once the enlargement happens, I would like to see all the countries of the Western Balkans move forward. But if they don’t, Ukraine might still move forward. So, I don’t want to lose any more time on technical discussions of sequencing because, as I’ve said before, the association is a legally binding obligation. It’s got to happen,” stated Escobar.
The key question, according to Escobar, is “How long do the people of Kosovo want to wait for Kosovo to do its part, and how long do the people of the region want to wait for normalization between Serbia and Kosovo?”
In the Western Balkans region, Serbia is gaining international prominence as the host of EXPO27. Asked by The Pavlovic Today if he could pick two or three things that Serbia is currently doing well, Blinken’s top diplomat had some positive things to say.
“First of all, I would say that Serbia is doing well in attracting international investment. About half of the foreign direct investment in the region goes to Serbia. The second is that Serbia is actually working to create a 21st-century workforce. The universities in Serbia are really good. They are trying to work with other institutes to make sure that their people are competitive in the knowledge-based economy, and I would say that the Prime Minister of Serbia is very focused on that. So those are a couple of things that they’re doing quite well.”
DAS Escobar on Montenegro and North Macedonia
Transitioning to the topic of the Western Balkans at large, attention turned to Montenegro and its ongoing government formation. The diplomat expressed a measure of concern, stating, “I am starting to get a little worried about the fact that the government hasn’t been formed. However, we have to take into account that Montenegro is a country that’s rapidly transitioning from a country that was mired in the 1990s, led by parties from the 1990s, to a 21st-century generation of leaders.”
Speaking of the newly elected President Jakov Milatovic, Escobar lauded, “The youngest democratically elected leader in the Balkans, who’s made an incredibly positive impression around New York and within the US government.” Escobar voiced optimism, saying, “We can expect great things from Montenegro.” He emphasized their common goals, stating, “Our only concern for Montenegro is that they continue in the government formation, to find opportunities to make that government live up to its own ideals. That is to be focused on European integration, focused and committed to NATO membership, and focused on the fight against corruption. And I think in that regard, we have a common understanding with the President that it should really be parties that reflect that.”
Moving on to North Macedonia, Escobar’s optimism remained undiminished. “North Macedonia is a tremendous partner. And they have shown enormous leadership,” he affirmed, particularly in light of North Macedonia’s chairing roles in OSCE this year.
He further noted their prospective invitation to join the European Union, remarking, “North Macedonia is being invited to join the European Union, and the United States wants North Macedonia in the European Union. They have been a tremendous partner in NATO and bilaterally, and they’re going to be a great partner in the European Union.”
Escobar acknowledged the complexities involved, urging, “I’m not asking the political parties to support the Prime Minister; I’m asking them to support the European path. And I know it’s a difficult decision and a difficult process that they have to undertake. But it’s not the first time that North Macedonia has made tough choices. And I can tell you that every time they’ve made a choice, they become stronger. So if North Macedonia were not a member of NATO, they would not be the chair of the OSCE. If they hadn’t done what they were doing before, they would not have this level of international leadership. So I do look forward to the day when we can partner with North Macedonia during their European Union presidency.”
DAS Escobar: Kurti’s letter to Secretary Blinken factually wrong
Returning to the Belgrade-Pristina EU-led dialogue, The Pavlovic Today inquired about Prime Minister Kurti’s criticism of Borrell and Lajcak. Kurti had allegedly written a letter to Secretary Blinken expressing grievances about EU’s Miroslav Lajcak. DAS Escobar unequivocally addressed this issue.
“Well, I’ll tell you that the letter is factually wrong in that it says that Lajcak and Borrell are colluding with Russia to have a biased approach against Kosovo,” DAS Escobar stated firmly.
“I have watched the process very, very closely and been present in Brussels during many of the meetings. And I can tell you, there is no bias there.”
Escobar expressed his belief that the agreements in Ohrid “actually benefit Kosovo more than Serbia,” highlighting that the requirements are more demanding on Serbia than on Kosovo.
“The attacks on Mr. Lajcak and Mr. Borrell are unjustified. I also think they should stop. As for the personal attacks on Mr. Lajcak and his people, I think those should be condemned, and they should be condemned by the Prime Minister and the President of Kosovo as well.”
When asked about Kurti’s motivations, Escobar responded, “Well, I don’t know that all of the attacks on social media are coming from Kurti. But I can tell you that the letter to Secretary Blinken, I had to say, to the Secretary’s staff was not justified. I don’t know why he’s doing that.”
DAS Escobar: One thing that was evident is that Serbia accepted the European proposal on sequencing
Regarding President Vucic of Serbia’s willingness to cooperate and seek compromise, Escobar noted, “One thing that was evident is that Serbia accepted the European proposal on sequencing.” He acknowledged some doubts from the Kosovo side but emphasized that it is the European Union’s responsibility to ensure that Serbia fulfills its commitments.
He explained, “The Ohrid agreement actually calls on both sides to do their part independently. So it is up to the European Union to make sure that Serbia complies, and Kosovo should comply with their obligations. Not just within the dialogue, but to the European Union.”
In response to a question about potential measures or consequences the United States might consider to hold Kurti accountable for compliance with international law, Escobar refrained from discussing measures but focused on consequences.
“I don’t want to talk about measures. I want to talk about consequences. So already, Kosovo is facing consequences from its unwillingness to work closely with the European Union. But what I’m saying is what you have is not consequences but missed opportunities. So after Ohrid, I had discussed with the government of Kosovo, the U.S. embarking on a new recognition campaign to convince countries that Kosovo had done everything necessary under the Ohrid agreement. We were looking forward to a strategic bilateral dialogue; we are looking forward to a closer relationship with NATO, including potentially Partnership for Peace, and then supporting Kosovo’s European Union candidacy. Unfortunately, because we haven’t had any implementation on Ohrid, all of that is now off the table. I would like, I would hope that we could do that in 2024.”
Regarding bilateral relations with Serbia, Escobar expressed his optimism, stating, “We’ve had 140 years of diplomatic relations with Serbia, all of them good, except for the Milosevic era. So the United States has never been anti-Serb. We had very big challenges with the way Milosevic was destabilizing the region. So we are looking forward to putting that relationship back on track. Serbia is part of the European family, and that’s where it belongs. And I am confident that that’s where it’ll end up. At least that’s what the people of Serbia want. And it’s definitely what the Government of Serbia claims to be a strategic goal.”
Is there a specific reason why there are high-level bilateral meetings during the United Nations General Assembly between Secretary Blinken, Department officials, and the high-level leaders of the Western Balkans?
“Well, part of it is because we’re very focused on Ukraine, obviously,” stated Escobar.
“Another technical reason is that we’re missing a lot of people at the top levels of the State Department right now. We don’t have a deputy secretary; we don’t have an assistant secretary, and Councilor Chollet, who is very active in the Balkans, has had other commitments that have made it so that he couldn’t be here the whole week,” explained Escobar.
“Nevertheless, we’ve had a lot of interaction with Western Balkan leaders this week at many different levels of the U.S. government, all of which have been productive.”