Interview With Ivana Brkic of Al Jazeera Balkans

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Dubrovnik, Croatia
July 7, 2012

QUESTION: Mr. Gordon, what is Tadic’s main news today here in Dubrovnik? Have you met him?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: First of all I want to say how delighted I am to be in Dubrovnik, as we sit here in such a lovely place. It’s my second visit to Dubrovnik.

The main news for me, the main purpose for me is to take advantage of this important summit to see all of the leaders of the region and to convey a message of the United States of support for the reform efforts that are going on here and our absolute conviction that all of the Balkans need to be part of the Euro-Atlantic community. That’s the headline for me. That’s what I’m here for. We appreciate the Croatians hosting this summit. We think that Croatia’s EU accession process is an important model for the region and I had a chance to congratulate President Josipovic on that process this morning because the message for us is Croatia’s entry into the EU should be a demonstration to all of the countries that you reform your economies, you make peace with your neighbors and you can be rewarded with what I think is the goal for everybody.

QUESTION: What about Mr. Tadic?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I haven’t seen Mr. Tadic. I understand that he was here. I’m actually scheduled to see him, I’m on my way to Belgrade from Dubrovnik and I’m scheduled to see him there. We saw him a number of times when he was President. He was an important interlocutor. I don’t know if I’ll come across him at the conference today, but of course I’ll talk to him.

QUESTION: What messages do you bring to officials in Belgrade?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Our message to Belgrade is really the same as it has been regardless of who the President and the government is, we want to see Serbia be a part of Europe in the same way that we want to see the entire region be a part of Europe. That means that like other countries that have applied to join the European Union or in other cases NATO, they need to reconcile with their neighbors, they need to reform their economies, they need to have transparent democratic processes. It’s up to Serbian people whom they want to elect. Serbia just had an election that I think was free and fair and transparent and they’ve chosen their leadership.

Our message to that leadership is we want U.S. relations with Serbia to be strong and sound and we want to see Serbia move on the course to Europe.

In the specific case of Serbia that also means coming to terms with the question of Kosovo. The U.S. position on Kosovo is absolutely clear and has been for some time. We support Kosovo’s sovereignty, territorial integrity. We stand strongly behind the emerging democracy. In just a few years what Kosovo’s done as an independent country is really impressive.

We don’t expect Serbia to recognize Kosovo tomorrow. They’re not going to do that. But we do underscore that Serbia really needs to come to terms with the reality of Kosovo. That’s why we support direct dialogue between the two sides. Even this sovereign independent Kosovo within its current borders, even in that Kosovo, the ethnic Serbs who live there in the north can have their full rights protected, their cultural rights, their religious rights, and that’s the future of Europe and within the European Union. We need to get beyond the nationalisms and focus on borders of the past and look to the future.

QUESTION: Some medias in the region speculate that the United States would like to see in Serbia a big coalition between Progressive Party and Party of Mr. Tadic. Is that true?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: You know, we’re not into interfering with or dictating the results of government formations in other countries. It really is up to the Serbian people and Serbian leaders to put their government together.

So it’s not a question of what we are looking for and what we’re interested in. We have certain principles and interests for the country and for the region. When the Serbian leaders via their electoral process have come up with a government we’ll engage with that government and they will hear the same messages regardless of who they are.

QUESTION: Is Dacic an acceptable choice for United States. Do you think he will be able to focus on stability of Serbia and the region?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Again, it’s not a question of being acceptable to the United States. What’s important to the United States is to see a free and open and democratic process lead to election of the leadership.

Do we care what the orientation of those leaders are? Of course we do. And this government will have to demonstrate, I think, that it is committed to the types of reforms and relations with neighbors that we think are necessary for Serbia to move forward. So of course in that sense it obviously matters. The current newly-elected leadership doesn’t have a track record, so we’ll be looking to them to demonstrate what their orientation is. But we want to give them every opportunity to do what we consider to be the right thing. Again, that’s why I’m going there so soon because I want to carry that positive message of desire on behalf of the United States to see Serbia with strong relations with the U.S. and with Europe.

QUESTION: Regarding the Balkan region, which countries are in your opinion progressing and which of them are staying behind?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I won't do a country by country report card. I think there have been a number of signs of progress in the region, even in the few years I’ve been doing this job. I mentioned already Croatia’s EU accession process, a hugely positive development both for Croatia and for others.

I think the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, while it hasn’t progressed to the point that we would like and the agreements haven’t been implemented to the degree we would like, is in itself a positive development in the region, to see Kosovar leaders and Serbian leaders sitting down at the same table and talking about the practical issues that affect the everyday lives of real people. That’s a positive development that we want to support and build on.

QUESTION: Do you think those negotiations should be called by Prime Ministers, like Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said that it should be?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Look, it’s for the two countries to choose their representatives in that dialogue. If they want to upgrade the level and do it at a higher, more political level, that’s their choice and it’s fine by us.

On the contrary, we want to see more dialogue and direct talks between and among the leaders of this region at all levels. So far be it for us to oppose the notion of leaders of these countries talking. They need to. They need to come to terms with these issues and they owe it to their people to find a way forward on these practical issues.

QUESTION: Do you see a good region in NATO, and Macedonia and the issue of the name?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Two separate things. The first point, NATO’s door remains open to the democratic countries of Europe that meet the criteria and can contribute to NATO’s common security. It’s up to them to decide if they want to. Some decided they’re very interested in joining NATO; some already have -- Albania and Croatia; others are on track in their Membership Action Plans -- Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Macedonia’s in a unique place. It’s readiness for NATO membership has already been agreed by NATO members and we support that. But NATO members have also made clear that it will only take effect once the name issue has been resolved on a mutually agreed basis between Greece and Macedonia. We support that process. We’d love to see it happen.

We were disappointed that it didn’t happen before the Chicago Summit. I think President Obama would have been delighted to welcome Macedonia into the Alliance in Chicago. But they weren’t able to finish an agreement on the name.

QUESTION: Do you see that coming soon?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: It would be difficult to say that with confidence, given how long the process has gone on and how difficult it is for both sides. It should come soon. It can’t come soon enough as far as we’re concerned. It’s an unfortunate obstacle between the two countries. It stands in the way of the trade and investment and people-to-people contacts that could occur. Goodness knows Greece needs all of the economic interaction it can with its neighbors. Macedonia would benefit from stability and investment. It would be a positive thing for the cooperation of different ethnic groups within Macedonia. It would only be a good thing. And I think once it was agreed people would stop obsessing over precisely what the formal name of the country was and they would get on with it as in so many other cases around the world. It would be only a good thing if the two sides could agree on a name.

QUESTION: What do you think about the current situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina? Do you think a political crisis is there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: There have been some positive signs, but also some back-tracking. They finally agreed on the form of government after all too long. They agreed on budgets for 2011 and 2012. They reached, the party leaders reached at least a tentative agreement on resolving the defense property issue which was a key to activating their Membership Action Plan. All of that is positive, but as so often in Bosnia, it gets tripped up by party leaders putting their narrow issues above the interest of the country as a whole. Sadly, so long as that is the case, the country as a whole is not going to move forward in the way its citizens really deserve.

QUESTION: Croatia is almost an EU member. When will Croatia no longer need visas for the United States?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Visas to the United States is a tricky issue across the board. We have a visa waiver program, but it has very rigorous conditions. Those conditions are set by the Congress, and Croatia, like others, can take the measures necessary, and when they’ve done so they would have a visa-free regime with the United States like other countries.

QUESTION: They said it would be in 2011, then 2012, but nothing has happened yet?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I don’t have a date for it. It’s a question of meeting the rigorous criteria that are set by Congress.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: It was nice to talk to you.