AK: Mr. Ambassador, welcome to Rubikon.
AMB: It’s great to be here, Adriatik. Thank you very much.
AK: Yesterday, in Brussels, took place another round of the talks between Kosovo and Serbia. For the first time there was a bigger negotiating delegation from Kosovo. Hashim Thaci, the President of Kosovo after the meeting with Vucic said this was the hardest meeting they had since the start of the Dialogue. What do you expect from this so-called last phase?
AMB: Well, you know we’ve all been working for normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia for a long time. Certainly my government has supported that for a long time. And I think it’s a little bit too soon to figure out exactly what to expect. Because I think there’s been this great conversation going on in Kosovo the last several months about what does Kosovo want to get out of the Dialogue. What are its goals? And that’s positive. The increased discussion of the future of the relationship with Serbia is very positive. But I think it’s up for Kosovo citizens, Kosovo politicians to try to get together to figure out, ok, what does Kosovo want out of this, out of this whole process? What are Kosovo’s goals? And I would rather leave that to Kosovo citizens to decide rather than for me to figure out or to tell you what I think your position should be.
AK: But don’t we all know what the Kosovo people’s goal is? Kosovo declared independence. Just recently we celebrated 10 years of independence. So it’s to have Serbia recognize this independence.
AMB: You know, I think there’s probably got to be more to it than that. People have to figure out what the goals are. The specific goals; the broad goals. And to help develop a negotiating position. I certainly hope that all the political parties will participate in that. I was happy to see that all the governing parties seemed to be going together to Brussels yesterday to have this conversation with the EU. That was positive. But I think there needs to be a broader discussion in Kosovo; a broader consultation of political parties, not just the governing parties. I think it’s important for everybody to be in the game. You know, consensus is probably too much to ask for, but discussion, goals, I think are very important.
AK: What do you mean by everyone being in the games? To have a larger negotiating team, delegation or to have just the consensus on a platform? Because so far we have seen that opposition is reluctant to see Thaci as the main negotiator. Should there be a unity team?
AMB: I’m not going to say exactly what should happen because it’s got to develop organically in Kosovo political space, I think. I certainly think Kosovo’s position in discussions with Serbia will be better if opposition political parties participate in conversation and work on establishing Kosovo’s goals. Regarding who’s in charge of this for Kosovo, it’s not up to me to decide or even to recommend who, and I think right now, more than the who, the what is important. What does Kosovo want to get out of this? Can the parties agree? Maybe not in everything together, but on some things that should be elements of Kosovo’s position. And I think everyone needs to get in the game. The governing parties need to keep trying to figure out what their position is. The opposition parties should be playing in this, too. Kosovo will be in a stronger position if everyone participates in the decision making process as to what Kosovo’s goals should be.
AK: Kosovo opposition parties are seeing Thaci as responsible for wrongdoings during this seven year period of the Dialogue. Because of that don’t want him to be the lead negotiator. Is it possible not to have the President as the lead negotiator?
AMB: As I said, I’m not going to get into the who. But
AK/AMB both talking: AMB: I can certainly say ; AK who the person is
AMB: I think who or which people lead is important, but I don’t think it’s for me to say. I think, making progress in the world happens when people find a way to say yes. It’s not just saying no creatively. So I think people need to get in the game to kind of figure out what Kosovo wants; to participate in the discussion; to participate in the method of getting to this negotiating team, whoever is on it. And that needs to be, you know, figure out the goals, figure out how you’re going to represent your country in this discussion and Kosovo will be in a stronger position the more people play in that game.
AK: You met with the leaders of opposition parties recently. Did you ask them to join the negotiating team, the Kosovo negotiating team with Serbia?
AMB: I said privately pretty much what I’m saying publicly. I’m not telling them to join A or join B. I’m saying get in the game; participate in the discussion; try to figure out what Kosovo wants and how you can contribute to that.
AK: So it’s better to have everybody on board?
AMB: It’s certainly better to have everybody on board. Realistically, the more people on board, the better.
AK: Is there a timetable when to expect some kind of conclusion to the Dialogue?
AMB: I don’t know that there’s a timetable, but I do know the window is not going to stay open forever. Right now there’s energy around the Dialogue. There’s energy here in Pristina. There’s energy in Belgrade, there’s energy in Brussels. There’s energy in Washington, DC. So, I think looking ahead to 2019 there are going to be European elections and no one can predict how those are going to come out at this point. What I do know is that now there are people here, people in Brussels, people in Washington, who want to make a deal. Who want to come to some kind of agreement. Who want to set this last vestige of the Balkan war period aside and finalize it. And I think it’s important to take advantage of that. That wind, wind for change, everywhere.
AK: Is it realistic to expect it to have a conclusion by the end of this year, as some are mentioning or the beginning of next year?
AMB: You know, in negotiations you can never tell how it’s going to go or how long it’s going to take. I’ve been doing that for decades and sometimes things go quicker than you expect and sometimes they take a lot longer. I think, predicting how long it’s going to take is impossible at this point but I do know that the EU has stated, at the beginning of this year, that for Kosovo and Serbia to fulfill their desires of joining the EU club, that the countries have to come to some kind of agreement. I think that is a tremendous negotiating advantage for Kosovo. It’s not going to get a better deal than that. It’s not going to get more negotiating leverage than that. So I think it’s important that everyone take advantage of that.
AK: We discussed in the previous interview with you, there are many ideas going around about how the final solution of the agreement would look like between Kosovo and Serbia and many are saying that maybe some exchange of territories or partition of Kosovo can again come into the table. What is the U.S. stance on it?
AMB: I’m not going to get at what could be the elements of a deal, of an agreement, at this point. I don’t think that is really helpful. Especially when I’m trying to encourage people in Kosovo to take on that responsibility and participate in the discussion. So I’m not going to say who I think should be in the room, I’m not going to talk about the shape of the table, I’m not going to talk about what should be the elements of the final agreement. I can say that Kosovo politicians, Kosovo citizens, are fully capable of making these decisions on the negotiating positions themselves, and the United States will be standing by them as they talk about these things. Our support for Kosovo is consistent, it’s unalterable, it will continue into the future. I think those are the elements of what a deal might look like, are elements that are more appropriately discussed by people in Kosovo.
AK: It’s been almost three years since you arrived in Kosovo, did you notice any change of U.S. policy towards Kosovo and the Balkans in these last three years, from the beginning up till now while we are talking?
AMB: People react as things change, there was this terrific deal between Macedonia and Greece, so our position changes when things change. We celebrate good news like that. So regarding U.S. support for Kosovo, I sense no change. Our commitment to Kosovo has been bipartisan, it has continued since the 90’s. I have no hints from the new administration of any change in that position.
AK: I note, up till now the U.S. policy towards Kosovo was Kosovo was independent, Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is the one that should be respected by all sides, partition is never to be discussed, so now are you hesitant to say that, to repeat this again?
AMB: First of all, Americans support for Kosovo’s independence is unshakable and will continue. The other questions you ask relate to the elements of a final deal and I’m still not going to get at those right now for the reasons I’ve already mentioned.
AK: But you exclude partition, or you do not exclude that?
AMB: I am saying that I’m not going to talk about what an element of the final deal will be, I’m not going to talk about who I think should be leading this discussion in Brussels, and I’m not going to talk about ancillary details like what room it should be in or the shape of the table. Especially I think we are getting ahead of the discussion that really needs to take place here, and needs to have more participation from Kosovo’s political parties. Everybody needs to get in the game to talk about these things.
AK: Does this mean that for the U.S. administration every deal that can be reached between Kosovo and Serbia will be okay with America?
AMB: I’m still not going to answer that question, I’m sorry, you are very creative in asking several different ways. But it’s still the same question. I don’t want to bore the audience and I’m not going to get at the elements of the deal today.
AK: But you answered these kinds of questions before. Something has changed.
AMB: Today, this week, I’m focused on encouraging Kosovo political parties, Kosovo politicians, to try to get together and work on what are Kosovo’s goals. I think we are getting ahead of things if we talk about what’s going to happen at the end of the game. Kosovo needs to figure out what its goals are, it needs to try to achieve some kind of consensus on those goals, and that is what I am focusing on right now.
AK: There should not be redlines?
AMB: I don’t think it’s really helpful for me to talk too much about redlines, it’s up to Kosovo to figure out what its goals are. I think Kosovo is facing a unique moment in its history when it can help determine what the future is going to be for Kosovo, for Kosovo’s children, and to put aside the nervousness, the tension, the controversy that has characterized the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia these last several years. I think it’s important to focus on how to make the future better for all of Kosovo’s citizens, for Serbia’s citizens as well, and to find out a way to get to this normalization that we’ve been working on for a long time.
AK: We are going to take a short break for some advertisements and we’ll be back for the second part of the interview.
AK: Mr. Ambassador, it has been several months now that Lista Srpska has abandoned Kosovo government. They are in a position of limbo, they are going to the ministries but they are not participating in government meetings. How do you evaluate this situation?
AMB: I think it’s very important for the Lista Srpska government officials, for the MP’s, to serve their constituents. I think, as I said before, everyone needs to be working for the benefit of Kosovo’s citizens, for the benefit of their constituents, and I notice that Srpska Lista MP’s did vote for some laws, especially rule-of-law laws that I care a lot about, during their freeze, so that’s positive. But I don’t think anyone should be on the sidelines. Politicians are hired to do a job, they should be doing that job, that job is taking care of their constituents. So I would certainly encourage Srpska List MP’s, Srpska List public officials to be serious about that and to work for the benefit of their community.
AK: Is Kosovo government creating room for them to work fine within Kosovo government? Or are there any obstacles that are setting them apart?
AMB: I haven’t noticed real problems created by the majority community in the government. I think the door is open for Srpska List politicians to participate in government and I think it’s very important to do that. It’s hard to take care of your constituency when you’re not sitting at the table doing your job.
AK: Belgrade has been pushing Kosovo Serbs to abandon Kosovo Security Force, and so far there are reports that some 40 Serbs have left, or requested to leave, Kosovo Security Force. Many analysts see that as a tactic of Belgrade at this phase of the Dialogue to bring to the negotiating table the formation of Kosovo Army.
AMB: The United States supports the KSF, we have done so for a long time, we spend a tremendous amount of time helping to train the KSF. The KSF members participate in, last time I checked, around 200 event, separate events, per year with us. And of course other NATO countries do train as well. I think it’s a shame that there has been external pressure on Kosovo Serb members of the KSF. These people are trying to serve their country, trying to serve their community, and this external pressure—the blackmail, the threats, the harassment of families crossing the border have been very negative for the Kosovo Serb community here. It’s a shame. In a society with human rights, like Kosovo, you should be able to choose your job, and I think this is a kind of interference in the human rights of those people. I am very sympathetic to the pressure these KSF members have been under, and I think this kind of harassment that we’ve been seeing does not contribute to the positive atmosphere that we will need to see to make progress on this normalization Dialogue.
AK: Is it possible to have two chains of command in the future Kosovo army as Belgrade was pushing?
AMB: That gets a little beyond my level of knowledge as a civilian. I think if you look at the KSF website you will see a study that my government conducted, that my Department of Defense conducted, three or four years ago, by a think tank that’s part of the DoD called DERI, and it lays out a proposed plan for what the KSF should look like. That is our position. I would be surprised if, I think it’s safe to say, in a military organization there needs to be one chain of command that needs to respond to civilian leadership, that’s certainly the way our military is organized. That’s the way militaries of NATO member states are generally organized. Kosovo aspires to join NATO someday, and I would expect that Kosovo’s organizations would be, continue to be, compatible with the way of doing things.
AK: It’s almost ten months since Kosovo has a new government, a new prime minister, what is your evaluation of the work of this new government?
AMB: You now it’s not really my job to publicly evaluate the work of any government, and I probably told you that a couple of years ago when different people were in government. So I’m just going to stick to that position.
AK: But opposition is asking to hold new elections, is that something that would do good for Kosovo in this situation?
AMB: Look, if you don’t have 61 votes to bring down the government, I think talking about new elections is a waste of time. It uses up political energy that could be used for making positive change. I think leadership and success come from working for positive change. As long as there are not 61 votes to bring down the government, I wish people would focus on what they can do to make Kosovo a better place for all of its citizens.
AK: So opposition is losing their time in vain?
AMB: That’s your characterization, I’m not necessarily going to share it. I think people should be working for positive change.
AK: Is there enough being done to fight corruption in Kosovo? You were vocal, and the U.S. Embassy has been vocal and involved, to help fight corruption in Kosovo.
AMB: I don’t think you will ever hear me say that enough work is being done on corruption. It is the defining issue for Kosovo’s future and everybody needs to work harder on it, including me. So, I’m not going to argue that there is a magic wand that can solve the problem tomorrow just by waving it. Unfortunately, this is an issue that faces almost every country around the world. Some countries are more successful at dealing with it than others, but I think it is incumbent on public officials, whether they are elected or they are appointed, to earn the public’s trust and to work hard to maintain the public’s trust. There are a fair number of challenges here, but there are things that people can do about it. There are things that civil society can do about it. There are things that media can do about it—calling attention to bad behavior. There are things that politicians can do about it. One of the things that politicians can do about it this summer is to vote for a couple of rule-of-law laws that are currently pending in the Assembly. There is one on disciplinary liability for judges and prosecutors. There is a criminal code revision. There is law and mediation. So, all of these things, these plus the other things I mentioned, working together, are going to help tackle the corruption problem. So, there is something each one of us can do and I hope citizens will talk to their members of Parliament and say how important this issue is to them and to encourage them to work on these anti-corruption laws.
AK: Yesterday the European Commission gave a positive recommendation for lifting visas for Kosovo citizens. There is also work to be done in other institutions of EU. People and politicians are giving dates when to expect visa liberalization, saying that it can’t come until the end of this year. Do you believe this is realistic? I know that you are US and are not in EU, do you have an analysis, your opinion?
AMB: I think it is important to pause for a minute and absorb the positive news from yesterday, that was clearly good news. I certainly hope to see more good news in the coming months. I have no special knowledge of any timelines so I won’t comment on that. It’s not my club. But I do know, that if you want to join a club, you’ve got to follow the club’s rules. I think the EU has made very clear the importance of rule of law measures for Kosovo and I think it will be important, as I said a minute ago, for Kosovo to take positive steps to improve rule of law. And I think that’s something that politicians should really focus on, members of parliament, but others as well. This visa liberalization question is another terrific reason, other than corruption and rule of law being defining issues for Kosovo’s future, is another reason that people should be focusing on what can they do to improve rule of law.
AK: There was a NATO summit last week and many speculated that there can be changes in the alliance. Do you think that this can affect or there can be some new developments concerning NATO involvement in KFOR troops in Kosovo?
AMB: I’m a NATO guy from way back. I support NATO completely. I’m not aware of anything that happened at the summit that would particularly affect Kosovo. There was a paragraph in the final communique that talked about the importance of KFOR and that talked about the importance of the Kosovo –Serbia Dialogue. KFOR is an essential element of providing peace and stability in Kosovo. The United States has the biggest contingent of soldiers in KFOR but I think it is extremely positive that there are 27 or 28 other countries that are in that game, too, that are contributing to peace and stability for everyone in Kosovo. I’m completely committed to KFOR. I was at Bondsteel the other day just having lunch with the American soldiers there. They are really happy to be here. They are happy to be able to make a positive contribution. Because in public service, and I’m of course a public servant, our U.S. soldiers are public servants as well; you gain a lot of satisfaction from making the world a better place. They’re here to do that and I’m really happy to support them.
AK: Mr. Ambassador, since you’re coming to the end of your serving time in Kosovo, what would be the first thing that you would say to people who would ask you in the future how was Kosovo about? How was it?
AMB: Well, my successor’s been nominated but he still has to be confirmed by our Senate. I’m not quite sure when that will happen. I’m not packing my bags yet, or anything. Whenever I leave here I think I will say what I’ve been saying since shortly after I got here. That Kosovo is a terrific country. That Kosovo’s people are great. That Kosovo really deserves a chance to be a country like any other. And it’s important for the United States and U.S. citizens to continue to support Kosovo in every way possible. I have had a wonderful time here during my almost three years so far. I’m sure it will continue to be wonderful as long as I’m here but you know, there is this tremendous affection, in the United States, for Kosovo and its people. I think that’s an asset. That just happened; that’s nothing that anyone bought; there was no transaction involved there, but it’s a tremendous asset for Kosovo to know that there are so many people in the United States who have been here over the years as part of the U.S. Army or part of the Embassy or business people. And they all go back to the United States and they say, wow, what a neat country; I’m so glad I was there. I’m sure I’m going to be saying that, too.
AK: Mr. Ambassador, thank you for the interview. It was a pleasure.
AMB: Thank you, Adriatik.