WASHINGTON — U.S. envoy for the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar says he anticipates major progress within the next year on the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.
The top U.S. State Department negotiator for the Western Balkans testified on July 18 before a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, covering a range of topics from efforts to de-escalate tensions in the region to potential additional consequences for Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, who Escobar said remains focused on dismantling the Dayton peace agreement and the constitution of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Escobar pledged to continue to call out and hold accountable anyone who undermines the Dayton agreement, which ended the country’s 1992-95 civil war or “threatens the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and multiethnic character of the country.”
He reassured lawmakers that the State Department is “just at the very beginning of showing what the consequences are going to be” for Dodik, who has long been a thorn in the side of negotiators for pursuing increasingly nationalist and secessionist policies while seeking closer ties with Serbia and Russia.
Dodik has been designated for sanctions by the U.S. and Britain, and earlier this month three leading European parliamentarians called on the European Union to “finally” impose sanctions on him.
The call came after the Republika Srpska assembly voted to suspend recognition of any decisions by Bosnia’s multiethnic Constitutional Court and decided against publishing the decisions of the internationally appointed high representative of the Balkan nation, Christian Schmidt.
Escobar said his office remains firm in its support of Schmidt, who responded by canceling several rulings that defy the Dayton peace accords.
Escobar also hailed the European Union-facilitated Ohrid agreement as the foundation of progress for the region, stating that “good faith” movement on the agreement would not only de-escalate ethnic tensions, but also open the door for greater recognition of Kosovo worldwide.
The Ohrid agreement, signed in March by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti, facilitated a deal which, among other things, requires Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s national symbols and documents. In turn, the agreement requires Kosovo to implement the highly contested Association of Serbian Municipalities (ASM).
While Escobar assured lawmakers that the agreement “creates real possibilities for both countries to move closer to the European Union and create a peaceful and sustainable relationship,” he said “to date, we’ve seen neither party move forward” on the agreement.
The last 60 days, Escobar said, have been instead focused on de-escalation after clashes between international peacekeepers and ethnic Serbians following controversial mayoral elections.
Escobar called for “political courage on both sides,” saying that what he hears from almost all that do not recognize Kosovo is that they are waiting to see goodwill from Kosovo on the ASM.
The committee also grilled Escobar on current U.S. action against Dodik, though the envoy defended current sanctions against him as effective, and additionally hinted at future consequences for the Republika Srpska president.
Escobar said that, in private conversations, Republika Srpska is constantly asking for the removal of current sanctions, but he added that the United States is talking with the International Monetary Fund about withholding funds for the entity.
U.S. lawmakers expressed significant concern during the hearing about Moscow and Beijing’s influence in the region, and Escobar agreed that combating Russian and Chinese influence was a high priority for the U.S.
Escobar said the integration of Bosnia into the European Union and NATO is essential for reducing the “harmful influence” of actors such as Russia and China.
Answering a question on how China is trying to influence the countries of the Western Balkans through the Belt and Road initiative, Escobar replied that it is doing so through apparently favorable, but nontransparent, loans and investments.
He pointed out that Russia is still the exclusive supplier of natural gas to some countries in the Western Balkans and is a serious threat to regional security.
“The Kremlin spreads misinformation, often in the Serbian language,” and seeks to create divisions, mistrust and interethnic tensions, he said.