In an exclusive interview for European Western Balkans and Tanjug we spoke with Hoyt Brian Yee. He is a career member of the United States Senior Foreign Service, currently assigned to Washington, D.C. as Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, responsible for U.S. relations with the countries of Central Europe and South Central Europe. Before assuming his current duties in September 2013, he was Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Zagreb, Croatia from 2010 to 2013.
European Western Balkans: What are the key issues you were discussing with the Serbian officials? What is your message with which you came to Belgrade?
Hoyt Brian Yee: My main purpose in coming to Belgrade today was to meet with my colleagues in the Embassy but also the officials in the Government to talk about issues of mutual concern, of issues that affect both Serbia and the United States and our common goals for the bilateral relationship but also for the region and even beyond. I was here about a year ago and the last time I saw the Prime Minister (Aleksandar Vučić) was in September in New York. It has been a while since we had a chance to talk face to face. This was an occasion to catch up. The main subjects were about how we can strengthen already very strong cooperation we have between our two countries, across wide range issues – commercial, trade, political, security, military. There is always a challenge, when there are good relations, how to go to the next step. This was what we were looking for – how can we strengthen our cooperation.
The key message is that we continue to value very much the relationship we have with Serbia and Serbian institutions, that we would like very much to find a way to work with Serbia, not only in a bilateral sense, but also in helping to advance common goals we have, especially in the Western Balkans where both countries have a real interest in more prosperous, more democratic, more stable region, a place where there is the rule of law, where there are a more effective fight against corruption and organized crime, where there are more opportunities for young people to find jobs, where there are educational opportunities, where there is more free professional media, where there is professional judiciary. Generally, a place where people are present with more opportunities, where they are more likely to stay where they are now instead migrating to other parts of Europe or to the United States. We are always very glad, of course, to see people from Serbia or the region in the United States, but we believe it is important for any country and democracy in transition to have its educated, talented young people in their home countries so that they can contribute to the democratic development.
EWB: How would you asses the Russian strategy towards the Western Balkans? The special status of Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Niš is broadly discussed in Serbian media and among Serbian politicians. What do you think about this issue as well?
HBY: First, we have made clear from our President to Secretary of State to National Security Advisor McMaster, Secretary of Defense, that the United States wants to work with Russia where we have the common interest and common ground. We want to find a way to improve our relationship with Russia. But where we have differences, where we are not seen eye to eye and where we have might have conflicting goals, the United States is going to very actively defend the interests and values of the United States.
For example, in Ukraine where Russia attempted to annex Crimea, where it continues both directly and through its proxies to destabilize Ukraine, we are going to hold Russia accountable to what it agreed under Minsk Accords, to respect the international law sovereignty of Ukraine.
Where we have seen in the Western Balkans, Russia had attempted to discourage countries like Montenegro from pursuing its legitimate goal of joining NATO, where we have seen Russia attempting to increase dominance over energy supply to this region, but also to wider Europe.
We are going to work with our partners and allies to help them achieve their goals whether is to integrate with Euro-Atlantic institutions, to diversify their energy supplies and create greater energy independence. We are going to try help and provide solutions. We will respect the sovereign rights of countries to have relations with Russia and we respect Russia’s right to seek through legitimate, legal means, to increase its contacts and influence whether it is in the Western Balkans or elsewhere.
We have seen from the examples I mentioned, whether it is Ukraine or Montenegro, that it is very important that we hold Russia accountable to its obligations under international law, to be very careful and watchful about what Russia is attempting to do whether it is in the Western Balkans or Eastern Europe.
We understand the long, historic record and tradition of close relations between Russia and Serbia. Of course, we are not trying to come between Serbia and Russia. Our message to Serbia is that it needs to be vigilant and understand what Russia is attempting to do, why it, for example, wants to create a so-called “humanitarian center” in Niš. I think it is not obvious what Russia is up to and I can’t tell you what its strategy is. But what we see though are recent attempts by Russia to prevent countries from pursuing their own national strategies whether it is integration with the EU or integration with NATO or simply to have independent, diversified energy sources.
EWB: The statements on Greater Albania are common lately, especially in the statements of some Albanian, Kosovar and even some ethnic Albanian politicians from Serbia. It is considered in Serbia that those statements on Greater Albania would not be possible if the U.S., as a country that has a huge influence on the Kosovo’s officials, would send clear condemnation of it. Do you think that is true and do you consider those statements seriously and possible?
HBY: Frist, I do not believe there is any serious Greater Albania movement or any desire by the ethnic Albanian populations whether it is in Macedonia or Montenegro or Albania itself, to somehow unify and become a new country or movement or force in the Western Balkans. The official policy and I do believe it is sincere policy of political parties in Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania are to integrate with the European Union, to join NATO when possible as part of countries which they currently inhabit, not in changing borders, not as supranational entity, but within the sovereign borders of the countries which they now inhabit.
I know there has been some rhetoric, we believe irresponsible and provocative rhetoric by some politicians around the region which have not been constructive and it has created suspicions. We realize that, especially during a political campaign, there are slogans and statements that should be not taken out of the context of the political campaign. That is not to justify them, not to excuse them. We certainly did speak out against this kind of rhetoric, both publicly and privately. I would also say it is important to overreact, not to take literary some politicians, especially during the political campaign.
What is very important for all the countries is to respect the sovereignty of their neighbors, to work together to resolve any misunderstanding or potential conflicts through dialogue and cooperation and not to react immediately through the media.
Basically, our belief is that in the Western Balkans there is a genuine desire by the citizens of all the countries to move towards greater integration with Europe, many of these countries with NATO as well as with the European Union. All leaders understand that this will not happen through any change of borders. The change of the borders would be a major setback to any effort, national or otherwise, to join the European Union.
EWB: It looks like that you were the key factor for resolving the political blockades in Albania and Macedonia Does that mean that the U.S. has tremendous influence in the region, much larger than the EU’s?
HBY: I wish I and my country had as much influence as some media have generously accorded to us. I have to say that the efforts recently I have been engaged in have been very closely coordinated with the European Union, with both the Commission and the European External Action Service. There is very little that we, the United States, do in the Western Balkans that is not at a minimum coordinated with our friends in Brussels and that is simply because we share the same goals – we want to see the region integrated with the Europe and European institutions. We, the United States, do not have the authority to chart that course or to give the final advice to countries on how to do it, that really have to come from Brussels. We were working close together, it has been a team effort.
The success really goes to leaders of the countries that were able to make difficult decisions – whether it is Macedonia where President Ivanov decided to give the mandate to the coalition in the Parliament that has the majority so that they can form a government or the opposition in Albania which took a bold decision to reverse it position and decided to participate in the elections which were postponed, and for the Government, Prime Minister Rama had to find a flexibility necessary to convince the opposition to come back. It was first and foremost of benefit to Albania itself and Albanian situation and for Macedonia that is of great importance to the people of Macedonia.
The countries, the political parties, leaders are the ones who really deserve the credit. We are very glad that we were able to participate and support the solutions they found.
EWB: How do you comment the fact that some media, tabloids in the country (usually pro-government oriented) call Ambassador Scott an enemy of Serbia? Do you have any comment regarding the recent controversy surrounding Ambassador Scott’s criticism of the Informer newspaper?
HBY: Ambassador Scott is the United States’ ambassador to Serbia, he is the personal representative for President Trump in Serbia, he has the full confidence of the United States Government and he is, I would say, the best friend of any individual, the best friend in the U.S. Government of Serbia. I am absolutely sure that Ambassador Scott is working as hard as anyone can to strengthen the relations between Serbia and the United States, that he has very best interests with both countries in mind as he works to increase the amount of investment from the United States in Serbia, to promote people-to-people exchanges, to strengthen our military-to-military ties, to promote our cooperation both in Serbia but also in the region.
As far as what newspapers say, I think that it is from our standpoint important for Serbia and other countries that are in transition to have professional, free, responsible media that report factually on what is happening in the country. I think we know that in all other countries, mine included, there is newspapers of varying quality, reliability, commitment to factual reporting and it is the right in any country where there is free speech, and there should be free speech and free media in every democratic country. But also, responsibility – responsibility to report accurately what people say.
That is our basic message here in Serbia, in the Balkans, in the other countries in transition – for democratic development, for the commercial and business prospects of the country, a reliable report is very important. Where there is misinformation or fake news or dishonest reporting, that is or can be harmful to a country, especially when the reporting paints a false or misleading picture about who are the friends of Serbia, which are the countries that are helping Serbia economically, in terms of security. If these countries, and I include the United States, are miscast as enemies of Serbia or as countries that are trying to undermine what Serbia is trying to do, then, of course, that makes our job much more difficult, and that is not in Serbian interest we believe.
EWB: It looks like that a number of Western officials neglect warnings of the opposition and NGOs about the state of democracy in the country, state of media freedom, the rule of law. How would you asses Serbian democracy at the moment?
HBY: I think we, like other observers whether journalist or diplomats follow closely the indexes that are published annually by the Transparency International, the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, Freedom House, and generally, Serbia is relatively steady in terms of the Freedom House index and it has stats as “free” where I think about year ago it was, maybe, “partly free”. The trend is positive. I think in terms of perception of corruption, Serbia has not improved tremendously and it is still, I think, lower from where it should be. That is one of the reasons why we provide assistance along with the European Union. We provide assistance to help strengthen transparency, fight against corruption because we think it is important for people of Serbia to have a better and more transparent governance, but also for businesses in order to attract investors and other business partners, there needs to be stronger rule of law.
I think Serbia is making its progress, definitely. But it still has more work to do. We are not only saying this, we are providing the assistance in order to help the country.
EWB: How would you asses the future of the EU-led Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue? Do you think it will change after the elections in Kosovo and after the formation of the new government in Serbia?
HBY: I hope it does change for better. There has been, I think, significant progress in implementing Brussels agreement signed in 2013, but since last few months, there has been a slower pace of progress. I think that is, frankly, because the implementation is becoming more difficult, a lot of the issues that were agreed are controversial. It is natural to have somewhat of a slowdown. Because it is important for both Pristina and Belgrade to make progress and implement the dialogue in order to move closer toward to goal of joining the European Union, this normalization process needs to speed up in order to help both governments advance towards the goal they have.
Unfortunately, because of the elections in Kosovo, there will be a period where there will not be much progress, I assume, although we can always hope. Both sides will need to go find a way to accelerate once there is a government in Kosovo and the new government is formed in Belgrade. There needs to be a serious discussion between the leaders of both governments how they can accelerate. In the current pace, neither countries nor citizens will be satisfied with the pace towards normalizing relations and getting closer to the EU. This will require political courage because the decision will be difficult. It will require some expertise which the European Union, to some extent possibly we can help with. But first and foremost, it requires a decision byboth governments that they are going to do what is necessary in order to implement what has already been agreed back in August 2015, but also to get to the next step which, we think, involves thinking about the future, looking ahead – where the normalization is leading to.
EWB: Taking into the account all said above and because of the new U.S. administration, do you expect some major shifts in your country’s policy towards the Western Balkans in the near future?
HBY: I do not expect a significant change in the foreseeable future, not in Serbia nor in the Western Balkans in general. That is because our interests in this region are basic interests in stability and prosperity, democracy, the rule of law and that it is not going to change. We have known for at least the last two decades that if we do not help this region, if we are not engaged, then there can be problems. The European Union is also responsible for helping this region to move towards stronger democracy, stronger economies, stronger rule of law. Because we are partners, we are committed and we feel the responsibility to help Serbia and other countries in the region. Of course, the primary responsibility rests with the countries themselves and we count on the leadership to take the necessary reforms to strengthen the institutions that are necessary – judiciary, media, governments — to invest necessary resources by investing sufficient funds from the budget to help these institutions, and to make right choices – to make the strong partnerships with those countries that have the same goals as Serbia, as other countries in the region, and not to tolerate interference or form obligations and linkages with countries that wish to see the countries of the region held back from their strategic goals.
Nikola RISTIĆ, EWB Executive Editor