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Europe and Eurasia: The State of Affairs in the Balkans

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Statement Before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia
Washington, DC
November 15, 2011

As Prepared for Delivery

Chairman Burton, Ranking Member Meeks, Members of the Committee:

Thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the state of affairs in the western Balkans.

While the dramatic events of the Arab Spring may dominate press headlines, the Obama Administration remains as committed as ever to helping the western Balkans on their path to Euro-Atlantic integration. I was last there in June, and then-Under Secretary Burns visited in July. Deputy Assistant Secretary Reeker, who took over the portfolio in August after serving for three years as U.S. Ambassador in Macedonia, is in the region on a regular basis and in continuous contact with our European partners. We welcome congressional visits to the region, including most recently by Chairman Burton and his colleagues who visited Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina last week.

The western Balkans is a critical part of Europe—historically, geographically and culturally. It is impossible to speak of a Europe that is whole, free, democratic, and at peace without having resolved unfinished business in this region. Our clear policy goal is the integration of these countries into Euro-Atlantic institutions. As we have seen in the rest of Europe, this is the best means of ensuring long-term peace, stability and prosperity.

Many officials in this Administration have a deep connection with the Balkans, as our understanding of international diplomacy was shaped by the tragic conflicts of the 1990s. It is no accident that Vice-President Biden visited the western Balkans just four months into the job, while Secretary of State Clinton travelled there in October of last year. Indeed, the Administration’s rapid response in Libya to prevent civilian massacre was driven in part by individuals who were determined to ensure timely international intervention to prevent violence against innocent civilians. While NATO took three years to agree on intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina and one year to act in Kosovo, the Alliance took only ten days to get involved in Libya following adoption of the UN Security Council mandate. Although our success in Libya clearly cannot erase scars in the Balkans, it demonstrates that lessons learned from past tragedies are helping to shape more effective policies in the present. As President Obama said in London this past May, “We have always believed that the future of our children and grandchildren will be better if other people’s children and grandchildren are more prosperous and free – from the beaches of Normandy to the Balkans to Benghazi.”

While there are many challenges in the region – which I will come to shortly – it is worth pausing briefly to review the progress made in the last few years with sustained American engagement and assistance. NATO’s military presence has decreased as a result of greater regional stability. Meaningful reforms have been made in rule of law, market economics, and democratic governance. Slovenia joined the EU in 2004; Albania and Croatia joined NATO in 2009; and Croatia was recently invited to join the EU in 2013. The North Atlantic Council has said that Macedonia will receive an invitation to join NATO as soon as its name dispute is resolved. Kosovo is nearing the fourth anniversary of its independence and continues to progress as a multi-ethnic democracy. Montenegro, only five years after it obtained independence, already has EU candidacy status and is a full participant in NATO’s Membership Action Plan. Serbia has a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU and has taken some notable steps towards achieving candidacy status, including the arrests of Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic. In September, a small group of Adriatic-5 country trainers deployed to Afghanistan – exhibiting a degree of military-to-military cooperation that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. And just last week, the foreign ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia signed a joint declaration announcing their countries’ commitment to resolving the long-standing issue of refugees and displaced persons in the Balkans.

To be clear, all of these countries still have work to do. Let me say a few words about each in turn.

Croatia continues to set a positive example in Southeastern Europe, as its rapid political and economic reform process has led to early membership in trans-Atlantic institutions. Last month, the European Commission recommended that Croatia be granted full membership in the European Union following the successful completion in June of six years of accession negotiations. In 2013, Croatia is expected to become the European Union’s 28th member – and, notably, the second former Yugoslav republic to join the union.

Since its accession to NATO in 2009, Croatia has contributed to KFOR and peacekeeping in the Golan Heights as well as played an active role in the ISAF mission in Afghanistan.

Croatia’s success demonstrates the possibility of progress, albeit with hard work and sacrifice, to advance the interests of the region’s citizens. As Secretary Clinton said this past June following accession talks, “Croatia has shown by example that European and Euro-Atlantic integration is not only a worthy goal – but is also attainable – for all Western Balkan countries.” Notably, this success was reached only after Croatia and Slovenia found a way to address a contentious bilateral issue through negotiation and compromise. The momentum resulting from Croatia’s transition should be cultivated as a model throughout the region.

Montenegro has been steadily advancing along the path to Euro-Atlantic integration. Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton welcomed Prime Minister Luksic to Washington last month, reaffirming strong US backing for his country’s reform efforts.

Montenegro continues to make solid progress toward NATO membership and, despite its small size, participates in ISAF. The European Commission’s recent progress report recommended opening EU accession negotiations with Montenegro, lauding the country’s progress in judicial and election law reform, media freedom, and strengthened anti-discrimination efforts while calling for further work on rule of law issues. The United States also believes that the fight against corruption and organized crime at all levels of society must continue to be addressed in Podgorica.

Albania quickly adopted necessary reforms to gain entry to NATO in 2009. It has since been punching above its weight in Afghanistan, contributing more than 300 troops to ISAF.

However, the United States is concerned about the longstanding political stalemate in the parliament, which has been unable to adopt reform laws stipulated by the EU as required to achieve candidate status. We are encouraged that the opposition has ended its boycott of parliament after the drawn-out process for settling the outcome of Tirana’s mayoral election. We have urged the Government to enact the EU’s and OSCE’s recommendations for reform, as well as to make realistic and tangible efforts to engage the opposition and accept compromise as part of the political process. At the same time, we have urged the opposition to be responsible and responsive – which, in a mature democracy, requires full and active participation in parliament. After two years of stasis, it is time for political leaders to move past personal squabbles and make tangible progress on the reform agenda or risk losing further momentum. We are partnering with the European Union, Albanian government and civil society in addressing the 12 priority reforms needed for EU accession.

The name dispute with Greece continues to thwart Macedonia’s aspirations for NATO membership and the start of EU accession talks. The United States supports the ongoing UN process on the name issue, and will embrace any mutually acceptable solution that emerges. Active, constructive engagement between Athens and Skopje is vital.

The United States shares the concerns expressed in the European Commission’s progress report about recent backsliding on democratic practices. Core rule of law challenges need to be addressed, specifically the lack of independent judicial institutions, selective prosecution and enforcement, and corruption. Although Macedonia has made progress in inter-ethnic relations, the recent suspension of the national census due to a political dispute over how to count citizens of all ethnicities underscores the need for more work. The United States has encouraged the government to make this a priority by continuing to implement both the letter and spirit of the Ohrid Framework Agreement.

The United States has welcomed the progress that Serbia has made this year on internal reforms needed for EU accession, especially its efforts to reform the judiciary. The arrests of Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic demonstrate a commitment to justice and reconciliation. With the extradition of both men to The Hague, Serbia has met its key obligations to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Furthermore, the country has made commendable efforts to rebuild relations with some of its neighbors.

In recognition of these measures, the European Commission made a conditional recommendation that Serbia be granted EU candidate status. However, the progress report issued last month made this recommendation – and I quote – “on the understanding that Serbia re-engages in the dialogue with Kosovo and is moving swiftly to the implementation in good faith of agreements reached to date.” The Commission did not recommend a date for starting accession negotiations, but said they should begin “as soon as it achieves further significant progress” in taking further steps to normalize relations with Kosovo in line with the Stabilization and Association Process. The United States has welcomed the Commission’s recommendation, as we strongly support Serbia’s EU aspirations. However, we agree with our European partners that Serbia must come to terms with the reality of an independent, multi-ethnic Kosovo with its current borders. It is in our view inconsistent with EU standards for Belgrade to have maintained and financed since 1999 a force of security officials within Kosovo, in disregard of the UN Security Council’s resolution 1244. It was also in our view inconsistent with EU standards, and with the Central European Free Trade Agreement signed by Serbia, for Belgrade to have prevented the export of goods from Kosovo to or through Serbia until about a month ago.

In March of this year, Serbia and Kosovo began an EU-facilitated formal dialogue process. These talks are explicitly not about reopening the issue of Kosovo’s status, which has already been resolved. Rather, both sides indicated their willingness to discuss practical solutions that could improve the lives of people in both Serbia and Kosovo. The United States has backed the efforts of Robert Cooper, High Representative Ashton’s appointed mediator, and has participated as an observer in every session of the Dialogue. While the Dialogue has resulted in improved technical cooperation, significant issues remain unresolved and Serbia’s implementation has been lagging. The parties must demonstrate good faith, flexibility and a willingness to compromise in order to make progress that will benefit the people of both countries.

The Dialogue broke down in July after the Serbian Government refused to accept the Kosovo customs stamp, accepted by UNMIK, and to restore two-way trade that had been interrupted since Serbia declared a trade embargo following Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. Serbia finally accepted the stamp in September. In the interim, local Serbs erected roadblocks and prevented freedom of movement for legitimate trade between Kosovo and Serbia, Kosovo officials, and key international institutions, particularly KFOR and EULEX, which are vital to maintaining stability. Serbian parallel and criminal structures in northern Kosovo have in recent weeks added additional roadblocks and numerous bypass routes to circumvent KFOR checkpoints and evade customs controls. These roadblocks are preventing KFOR and EULEX from fully exercising their responsibilities throughout Kosovo in accordance with their respective mandates. Resupply of KFOR troops in the north by air will become increasingly difficult as winter approaches. The United States has been clear that there must be a safe and secure environment and unconditional freedom of movement throughout Kosovo. The United States looks to the Serbian Government to cooperate fully with KFOR and EULEX in both the immediate removal of the roadblocks and ensuring proper controls at the border.

Let me be very clear on one final point: there is no way for borders in this region to be re-drawn along ethnically clean lines. As such, partition and land swaps are unacceptable solutions. If any such process is set in motion, there is no way that it can be confined to a single boundary line or that it can end peacefully. Any rhetoric calling for the partition of Kosovo and questioning the ability of people of different ethnicities to live together is harmful to regional reconciliation and contrary to the international community’s decade-long effort to move the region beyond the brutal conflicts of the 1990s.

Turning to Kosovo specifically, the country has made remarkable progress in the last three years by strengthening its political institutions and fulfilling most of its obligations under the Comprehensive Status Proposal. Having weathered a series of tests to the stability of its constitutional order, Kosovo needs to continue the hard work of building a cohesive state and strengthening its multi-ethnic, democratic institutions. The United States has been clear that a vital part of this process includes ensuring respect for the rights of all of Kosovo’s communities – including Kosovo Serbs – and the preservation of their cultural and religious heritage. Pressing priorities for the government include tackling unemployment, energy sector reform, crime and corruption, barriers to business and investment, and weak public administration and judicial reform. Like other post-socialist societies, Kosovo is struggling to embrace private sector-led growth, decentralize decision-making authority, and wean its people off the patronage of a strong central government.

As EU High Representative Ashton has said, “The future of Kosovo lies in the European Union.” The United States encourages ongoing reform efforts that will help the country move toward its rightful future. Like other countries in the region that have been motivated by the prospect of Euro-Atlantic integration, we believe that Kosovo needs to see concrete steps toward its European perspective. In that context, we welcomed the EU’s announcement that it will open a visa liberalization dialogue with Kosovo this year. We also hope that Kosovo soon receives European Council backing for concluding contractual relations in the form of a trade agreement, or even a Stabilization and Association Agreement.

The United States supports Kosovo’s efforts to take its place in regional and global institutions as a contributing member of the international community. There are currently 84 countries that have recognized Kosovo, including recent decisions by Kuwait, Gabon and Cote d’Ivoire. We believe that ever more countries will recognize Kosovo over time and strongly back Pristina’s efforts to secure wider recognition.

Bosnia and Herzegovina
Finally, let me address Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country has made great progress since the horrors of the 1990s, which is apparent when looking at its constructive contributions toward international peace and stability. Bosnia and Herzegovina is nearing the end of its two-year rotation on the UN Security Council, where it has provided consistent support for US priorities – including resolutions on Libya and Syria. Bosnia and Herzegovina has been a valued contributor to the ISAF mission, including the deployment of a multi-ethnic infantry unit to Helmand province.

The country has also been a steadfast partner in the fight against international terrorism. We saw this first hand on October 28, when the US Embassy in Sarajevo was attacked by a gunman. Local police forces – one of whom was regrettably injured – responded swiftly to stop the attack on the Embassy compound. We appreciate the excellent cooperation from Bosnian authorities in response to this attack, as well as counter terrorism issues more broadly. In recent years, Bosnia and Herzegovina has investigated and shuttered numerous terrorism financing NGOs and deported extremists who illegally entered the country. Given the need for constant vigilance, we are continuing to work closely with Bosnian authorities to strengthen their law enforcement and counter terrorism capabilities.

Notwithstanding these successes and reforms made through 2006, the country has not moved in the right direction over the last five years. We have witnessed a dangerous rise in nationalist rhetoric, as well as brazen challenges to state institutions and the Dayton settlement. In addition, the reform process needed for NATO and EU accession has stalled. Bosnia’s political leaders have been too willing to stoke ethnic fears and to place their personal political interests over the needs of the people they are supposed to represent. In order for Bosnia and Herzegovina to keep pace with progress elsewhere in the region, it must be able to function as a state that can deliver results for all its citizens – regardless of their ethnicity. Reforms are needed for their own sake, as well as to meet EU requirements and the country’s international obligations. We are urging Bosnia and Herzegovina to make progress urgently in three key areas:

First, Bosnia and Herzegovina needs functioning political institutions. Thirteen months after general elections, the country remains mired in a political stalemate that has heightened ethnic tensions, impeded formation of a new state government, and blocked the country’s progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration. The United States has pressed all of the major political party leaders to set aside personal, political, and sectarian interests and show maximum flexibility in the best interests of their citizens.

Second, Bosnia’s politicians need to demonstrate their commitment to the Dayton Framework and their willingness to abide by the decisions of state institutions. The United States continues to strongly support this framework: one state, two vibrant entities, three constituent peoples. We remain concerned by continuing challenges to this framework, particularly from individuals in Banja Luka who flout the authorities of the High Representative and seek to roll back the very reforms that have given Bosnia and Herzegovina its European perspective. We support robust entities and the decentralized government structure established in Dayton, under which Republika Srpska is and must remain a constituent part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This construct has been the cornerstone of peace for over 16 years.

Third, Bosnia and Herzegovina must introduce governmental reforms necessary for Euro-Atlantic integration. The EU has made clear that in order to be considered for candidate status, Bosnia and Herzegovina must pass laws on a census and state aid as well as begin a serious effort to comply with the European Court of Human Rights ruling in the Sejdic-Finci case to provide equal rights for all citizens, including members of national minorities. In order to participate in NATO’s Membership Action Plan, the Alliance requires Bosnia and Herzegovina to address state registration of defense properties. Broader constitutional reform will be required over the longer term to ensure the state has sufficient functionality and decision-making capacity to meet EU and NATO standards. Reform is also imperative in the entities. In the Federation, overlapping bureaucratic structures are fiscally unsustainable while a thicket of often irreconcilable regulations stifles economic development. And in the Republika Srpska, pervasive corruption and massive government spending sabotage any credible attempts to build a sustainable economy there.

The United States is working in very close coordination with the European Union to urge Bosnia’s leaders to form a new government and address these issues in parallel. We welcomed the arrival in September of new Special Representative Peter Sorensen, whom we strongly support, to lead an enhanced EU presence dedicated to guiding Bosnia and Herzegovina towards its European future. While the EU plans to further reduce its military presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina due to the stable security situation, we firmly believe it should retain its executive mandate to ensure the international community preserves the ability to respond to any contingency. Special Representative Sorensen is coordinating closely with U.S. Ambassador Patrick Moon, and with High Representative Valentin Inzko and his office. The Office of the High Representative will remain in place alongside the EU presence to continue its role of upholding the Dayton Peace Accords until the conditions established by the Peace Implementation Council for its closure are met. We stand behind the High Representative and his decisions, and we remain prepared to take measures against any individuals and organizations that threaten to undermine the country’s stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity.

Since the break-up of Yugoslavia, the United States has remained deeply committed to helping integrate the western Balkans into the Euro-Atlantic community. We firmly believe that the EU and NATO provide the best framework for peace, prosperity and stability in Europe. As I have outlined today, there has been remarkable progress over the last decade but considerable work still remains to be done. In the current climate of budget constraints and competing priorities, we recognize that our resources are finite and cannot cover all of the region’s needs. Our foreign assistance is focusing on the core remaining challenges in Albania, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, while addressing more fundamental issues of democratic reform and economic modernization in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. With an eye to resource scarcity, we have begun to leverage our assistance to attract funding from Central and Eastern European governments as well as the European Union. Our long-term goal is to find ways to share assistance efforts with our new allies in the region.

While the United States and European Union have important roles in completing unfinished business in the western Balkans, the main responsibility falls on the citizens and leaders of the region. Local political leaders must be willing to move past ethnic divisions and personal interests to focus on delivering genuine reforms and making necessary compromises, as demanded by their citizens. We need partners who share this vision, who are prepared to put the interests of the people ahead of their own pride, and who are willing to compromise for the greater good. The international community cannot want progress and reform more than local leaders do.

With that, I look forward to your questions.

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