Time for Serbia to move on, Kosova is independent and is never going back

“Today, it’s hard to recognize the region which I first visited in 1993. Countries are independent, democratic, and developing… Let’s finish the work we began when I first entered Congress. Let’s stand with the people of this region.”

 

Washington—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, today delivered the following opening remarks at a full committee hearing on Balkans policy recommendations for the next administration:

“When I entered Congress over thirty years ago, more than anything else, the Majority Leader at the time, Tom Foley, who would later become Speaker, asked what my top three choices for committee assignments would be. I told him: “Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs, and Foreign Affairs.” For as long as I could remember, I had followed the Middle East, the Cold War, and, of course, like everyone from my generation, the Vietnam War.

“But, little did I know the passion I would develop for a small corner of Europe called the Balkans. Sure, I knew about Yugoslavia — they hosted the Olympics in 1976, World War I started there — but beyond that, my knowledge was somewhat limited.

“Yet, days after I was first elected to the House in 1988, I was visited in my Bronx office by my now close friend, Harry Bajraktari. Harry told me of a place called Kosovo or Kosova in Yugoslavia which was populated largely by Albanians. Confused, I asked him how this place defined itself, Kosovar, Yugoslavian, or Albanian. Thus began my education about a region for which I am now considered an expert: The Balkans.

“I’ve traveled to every country in the Western Balkans several times, met with so many leaders from so many parties, and come to love the rich variety of cultures, ethnicities, and religions. But no place has touched my heart more than Kosova.

“My first days in the House of Representatives in 1989 were followed shortly thereafter by a now infamous speech by then Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic. That speech is seen by many as the beginning of several years of war and ethnic cleansing, ending with the breakup of Yugoslavia and the creation of seven independent countries.

“I spent many of my first years in the House of Representatives with a small bipartisan group of Congress members fighting the horrors. Only a few of us still serve today, Steny Hoyer, myself, Pete King, Alcee Hastings but our efforts never had a partisan flavor. We stood together on the House floor, we traveled to the region, and we demanded American leadership to end the killings.

“In many ways, American involvement in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s was the pinnacle of our post-Cold War power and influence. It also represented how such leadership can be put to good use.

“We stopped the killing and, along with our NATO allies, stepped in with peacekeepers to prevent the brutality from recurring. We stopped genocide in Europe, cold. In Bosnia, the conflict ended with the Dayton Accords and in Kosova most of the world moved to recognize the new republic. But, while we did so much good, there also remains a large amount of unfinished business not only in those two countries, but throughout the region demanding American leadership and closer work with our European partners.

“I’d like to start in Kosova — first the good. Kosova is an independent country, and has been for more than a decade. Frankly, if you run the clock back three decades, this was a mere dream. I never thought I’d actually utter those words, but today Kosova has joined the World Bank and the IMF, and more than 110 other countries recognize its independence, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, and so many other important nations. Kosovars are showing up as leaders in a variety of professions, including some world famous popular singers and soccer players, and, in my home town of New York City, as successful real estate owners, popular restaurateurs, and so much more.

“Yet, the end of the story has not been written and serious challenges remain. Most importantly, it’s time for Serbia to move on. Kosova is independent. It’s never going back. Frankly, blocking Kosova’s recognition in places around the world and its membership in the United Nations only holds up Serbia because its bid to join the European Union won’t be approved until it recognizes Kosova. So, I call upon Serbia to get on with it, so all of the people of the region, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or religion, can take their rightful place as citizens of Europe, alongside their French, German, Italian, and other brothers and sisters across the continent. But I am very proud of what we did in 1999. We prevented genocide on the European continent. And that is a major undertaking and something which we should be very proud of.

“But, that’s not the end of the discussion. So many people were killed then in 1999, disappeared, maimed, and raped during the Kosova War, and justice remains a long way off. We had a hearing not long ago in this Committee about the atrocities against Albanian women during the 1999 problems. Justice remains a long way off. In Serbia, bodies are still emerging from mass graves of Kosovar Albanians trucked back and quickly buried to hide the magnitude of the crime. Three Americans, the Bytyci brothers, were among those murdered. The families of these victims deserve justice, but have been given little. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia closed, and Serbian prosecutors have brought very few criminal cases despite the evidence. President Vucic even promised then Vice President, now President-elect Biden, Vice President Pence, and me that he would ensure justice for the Bytycis. We’ve seen absolutely none.

“While most of the crimes during the war were committed by Milosevic and his brutal army, the international community has forced Kosova — not Serbia — to set up a Special Court to deal with war-time crimes. The Court came about in response to a report by a European parliamentarian — in large part about a debunked claim of organ-trafficking by the Kosova Liberation Army. Yet the Specialist Chambers remains.

“Let me be absolutely clear: Anyone who committed war crimes on any side should be prosecuted and brought to justice. Period.

“But, I must ask: What is justice in the wake of the Kosova War? Right now, it seems like Serbia, the party responsible for most of the war crimes, faces virtually no pressure at home or from international communities to bring its perpetrators to account. At the same time, the victim in the war, Kosova, is forced to create a hybrid court with an international prosecutor and judges. Friends, if this were Denmark, we’d be thinking something was rotten here.

“As I said, if Kosovars committed war crimes, they should be held to account. But, here’s the problem: I’ve read the statute that created the court, and nowhere does it say that it should prosecute only one ethnicity. But that is exactly what’s happening. I know my tenure in Congress is coming to a close, but the problems with this court are continuing, and I strongly caution the court, the United States, and our allies that we must not allow it to become an “ethnic court,” because if we do, we’re only perpetuating problem which caused the region’s difficulties, and conflicts and divisions in the first place. Read the law: The Court has jurisdiction over all war crimes committed in Kosova, no matter which side committed them, all war crimes during the war-time period, and it must carry out its mandate fairly, without ethnic bias.

“Still, this court is part of a larger problem with how the United States has been approaching Kosova. We only see it partially as an independent state, not as a true sovereign partner, not as a regular country with which we have normal bilateral relations. Too often, we deal with Kosova as a ‘ward’ of the Dialogue with Serbia. We subsume our bilateral ties to such an extent that we, the United States, are limiting Kosova’s sovereign choices to avoid offending Belgrade. We told Kosova it can’t base its trade with Serbia on the principle of reciprocity, one of the cornerstones of international trade law. Sadly, the Trump Administration’s actions were a contributing factor in the fall of a Kosova government not too long ago. We have even put the brakes on Kosova’s tiny, defensive military.

“These things have to stop, and I hope President-elect Biden’s Administration will reground our relationship with Kosova on its own terms, not on irrational fears emanating from its larger neighbor.

“Now, that larger neighbor has its own problems and concerns, first and foremost its robust relationship with Russia. As U.S. Ambassador Hoyt Yee has said, Serbia “can’t sit on two chairs at the same time.” Serbia has been importing Russian fighters and tanks, and conducting military exercises with the Russian army. A U.S. Defense Department report told us that Belgrade’s drift toward Moscow has mostly occurred since President Vucic took power.

“At the same time, democratic space in Serbia has shrunk in recent years. Freedom House describes Serbia as a “hybrid regime,” not a democracy because of declining standards in governance, justice, elections and media freedom. If Serbia wants to become part of the European Union and the North Atlantic family of nations, it needs to get off the fence and embrace a Western path.

“I’d like to shift gears now and talk briefly about Bosnia. Before I do that let me say, I’ve been to Kosova many many times, any American comes to Kosova they’re treated like royalty. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve traveled the world, but the people of Kosova love Americans, love everything American, and understand we are mainly responsible for their freedom, for the fact that they are a free and independent nation. And so, if you go there, people will talk with you, people will approach you, people will hug you. It’s just an amazing thing that I’ve seen nowhere else in the world, the great affection they have towards Americans. When they declared their independence there were as many, even more, American flags flying all over Kosova than there were Kosova flags or Albanian flags. The American flag was paramount because Kosovars really appreciate what we did for them by preventing a genocide on the European continent. So, I’d like to shift gears now and talk briefly about Bosnia. Next week marks the 25th anniversary of the formal signing of the Dayton Accord, which ended the war in Bosnia. That negotiation was very difficult, but finally brought the horrors to a permanent conclusion.

“But, Dayton also created a stalemate. Under the agreement, only a unanimous decision of the collective presidency comprised of ethnic-controlled republics could move the country forward. Bosnia became stuck, unable to advance. We see, now, that this system has not worked. In so many ways it put Bosnia in a deep freeze where Republica Srpska blocks decisions in the country’s national interest in favor of widely expanded autonomy and a loosely veiled breakaway agenda. This has to end.

“The incoming Biden Administration needs to ask a simple question: Dayton has taken Bosnia as far as it could, but it no longer works and hasn’t for years. So, what should come next and how do we get there?

“Friends, this is the last hearing I will conduct on the Balkans, and it’s allowed me to remember some of the high points of my work on the region. In 1990s Kosova, I remember seeing walls built in schools to separate Albanians from Serbs and a separate health care system created by the nascent Kosovar majority. I remember cutting the ribbon on the USIA office in Prishtina in 1996, an outpost we sometimes called the first American embassy in Kosova. And, I remember talking to President Clinton and Secretary Albright about the need to step in and halt the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosova. Thank you, Madam Secretary, for everything you did and all your work. Everything you did is an inspiration to us all. Thank you for everything you did.

“I have been honored to address the parliaments of several countries in the region and to be present when we opened the beautiful, new U.S. embassy in Prishtina. Cutting the ribbon meant so much to me. And Madeleine, Secretary Albright, I’m so glad that you’re again testifying before the Foreign Affairs Committee during one of my final hearings as Chairman. We’ve known each other a long time and seen the world change a great deal, and I’m honored to count you among my friends.

“Today, it’s hard to recognize the region which I first visited in 1993. Countries are independent, democratic, and developing. They have young, intelligent populations ready to liberate their entrepreneurial spirit, their rich cultural heritage, and so much more.

“Let’s finish the work we began when I first entered Congress. Let’s stand with the people of this region. And, let’s lead the international community and complete the job of bringing every country of the Balkans into the heart of Europe.”

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