WASHINGTON – Derek Chollet, U.S. State Department counselor, and Gabriel Escobar, U.S. special envoy for the Western Balkans, faced questions from members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the progress of their efforts, which is part of an international diplomatic push to bring countries into the European Union and the transatlantic alliance.
Some senators expressed skepticism about overall progress against corruption and crime in the region and the process toward normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, Radio Free Europe reported.
Chollet said the countries of the Western Balkans had come a long way since the wars in the 1990s and had tremendous potential for greater prosperity, “but they need our help to overcome still considerable obstacles.”
Among these are anti-democratic leaders, corruption, weak rule of law, lack of independent institutions, dependence on Russian energy, and disinformation, he said, calling on leaders in the region to show political courage to overcome them.
According to Voice of Amerika (VoA) when Mendez asked Chollet about the incriminating article about Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in the “New York Times” magazine on the link between the government and Veljko Belivuk’s criminal gang, Chollet said that the US administration believes that the reporting “New York Times” is credible. He did not speak about the details of the article but said that the US will test that.
“Our eyes are open, we call President Vučić and his colleagues to account for corruption and other activities”, Chollet said.
Committee Chairman Robert Menendez expressed concern about “not-in-good-faith actors,” with regard to the tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, as well as attempts to resolve diplomatic issues in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In response, Chollet pointed to significant efforts in the area of anti-corruption, which he said was the most important thing holding back progress in the region. He also noted that he supported recent legislation codifying the Biden administration’s executive order calling for sanctions on individuals opposing the fragile peace created by the Dayton agreement.
He said this would provide negotiators more tools to combat corruption in the region.
According to RFE, Chollet also said the United States was focused on the challenges in Bosnia, where “pervasive corruption, democratic backsliding, and increasingly inflammatory rhetoric by ethno-nationalist leaders are deeply troubling.”
He cited the threat of secession by the Serb-dominated entity in Bosnia and attempts to limit civil society and media freedoms as destabilizing and an attack on the foundations of the Dayton agreement that ended the 1992-95 Bosnian War.
“We have made clear that we oppose such actions and will impose consequences,” he said without referring directly to Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, who has already been targeted by sanctions from the United States and Britain over alleged corruption and destabilizing actions, such as repeated threats to pursue independence and union with neighboring Serbia.
Chollet emphasized the importance of Montenegro’s parliamentary elections in June, where the U.S. hopes to see additional fair and free representation, as well as a greater commitment to EU integration.
When it comes to the situation in North Macedonia, Chollet cited recent positive statements by Dimitar Kovachevski, the prime minister, regarding EU integration as evidence of hope for greater progress in the country.
“The politics are tough, but the political will is there,” he said, RFE reported.
Escobar agreed that to make progress toward EU expansion to include Bosnia, targeted constitutional changes would be essential, and though those discussions have begun, getting all parties to agree to a single interpretation of the Dayton agreement would already pose a significant challenge.
He said a consequence of the failure to make progress has “allowed Russia to play a spoiler role against Serbia’s strategic goal of European integration — which the Serbian people strongly desire, and we strongly support.”