From: Ilva Tare
The criticism about the Open Balkan is not valid, says US Ambassador in Belgrade Christopher Hill

The Western Balkan countries need to come together and engage in patterns of behavior of talking to each other, resolving issues and trying to break down barriers.

The US Ambassador in Serbia gave in interview to Ilva Tare’s talk show #BalkansDebrief an online series of the Atlantic Council, in Washington DC.

Hill, a seasoned diplomat who knows the region well, makes an analogy of the criticism that decades ago were heard in the European Union about the size of Germany, when addressing the skepticism of Kosova and other countries who decline to participate due to fear of a Serbian hegemony in the region.

“I am not sure is a valid criticism to say that the Open Balkan is an effort by Serbia to dominate the others. This was said decades ago in the EU about Germany, as being too big”, says Hill.

“I would like very much to see Kosova in it. That’s going to be up to them. I’d very much like to see Bosnia in it and that’s going to be up to them as well”, added the US diplomat.

Why US supports Open Balkan? 

Ambassador Hill lists several reasons for backing the initiative and gives credit to Open Balkan for the current relationship between Serbia and Albania.  “First of all, it is open. I mean, anyone who wants to join and by the way, that includes Kosovo anyone who wants to join is most welcome. Secondly, it does support EU standards, in terms of rule of law, in terms of regulations. This one seems to be more sort of focused on let’s get something done rather than let’s study a problem for the next 10 years, they really want to get something done. And I give them a lot of credit for that. I would say that the Serbian relationship with Albania is as good as it’s probably ever been in history”, continues The US Ambassador in Belgrade.

Is the crisis of the identity cards over? Not according to the American diplomat. “I think all the negotiators and the parties would say, no. They’ve got a long way to go and they’ve got to try to agree on an agenda going forward and try to avoid these kinds of 11th hour crises”.

He also seems to point at Kosova’s government when saying that “there are a lot of important issues and one doesn’t like the important issues to be put behind the urgent issues” says Hill.

Asked by Tare about the Prime Minister Kurti approach in the dialogue from the perspective that Serbia has to start talking about full recognition of Kosova that focusing on intermediate steps has up until now been, used by Serbia to drag its feet indefinitely. Is he wrong to demand this?

Christopher Hill emphasises the importance of the steps and issues addressed before normalising the relations, such as the life in the future of the Serbs community in Kosova along with other issues.

“They’ve got many steps to go in this dialogue, and I think it’s very important to get through these steps. For example, there’s an energy issue there where, there has not been an understanding, although they’re close of who provides electricity and what the cost will be and who collects the payments and things like that.

So that’s one issue that needs to be resolved. There’s also an issue of setting up this missing persons effort, because there are many lives lost during the Kosovo conflict and families want to have closure on the loss of their loved ones. So that’s, that’s another issue that needs to be addressed.” Says Hill.

When asked whether or not the request of the US Envoy Escobar to Serbia to abandon the narrative that Kosova is Serbia with Serbia and Kosova are Europe, have any traction in Belgrade, Chris Hill says that “the issue of Kosova is utterly emotional to many Serbs, however progress has been made”.

Talking about President Vucic’s stance on the sanctions with Russia, the US Ambassador agrees that these issues are a challenge, but as he points out “not all is bleak in that regard”.

“I would say we have urged the Serbs to try to come into alignment with that. History is a powerful weight on all of these countries and in Serbia’s case, just the word sanctions has a rather difficult meaning for many Serbs, who lived through very tough times in the 1990s under sanctions.

So, it’s an issue which like many issues in diplomacy can’t will not be solved in a given day. No one will hit the side of their head with the palm of their hand and say, oh, now I understand we’ll change our policy immediately. But I think, if you look at the broad sweep of this issue, if you look at the broad arc of where Serbia is going, it’s heading West. You point out their opinion surveys that suggest that Serbia that many Serbs have sympathies that lie further east.

There is some truth to that, but if you look at where Serbian young people are going for their education for jobs, for their training and what type of model they see themselves focusing on it’s very much toward the West. I think our job is to continue to urge that”, concludes Hill in the #BalkansDebrief interview

Ilva Tare, is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. She is now hosting Balkans Debrief, a new talk show presented by the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Balkans Debrief  features in-depth analysis and exclusive insights with policymakers and key players on subjects impacting more than 18 million people.