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Engel Remarks on Threats to Peace and Stability in the Balkans

May 17, 2017
Press Release


- As Delivered –

WASHINGTON—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today made the following remarks at the House Foreign Affairs Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats Subcommittee hearing on threats to peace and stability in the Balkans:

Rep Engel: “Thank you very much Mr. Chairman, and thank you for those kind words.  We have worked together for a long, long time.

“Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the Ambassador of Albania to the United States, my friend Floreta Faber.  She’s here, I want to recognize her.  Thank you for coming.

“And of course, I want to welcome Deputy Assistant Secretary Hoyt Yee, who works so hard and so long.  Hoyt, it’s always good to see you, and I’m grateful for working so closely with you through the years.  And thank you for your service.

“I agree with Mr. Cicilline about how we are in awe of people in the Foreign Service that work so hard on, on what I consider a shoestring, and do such wonderful work.

“So, if we take away a message, one message, from today’s hearing, it’s that our work in the Balkans is not over.  The project that began in the 1990s with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia still requires active engagement by the United States and by our allies in Europe.

“First, the good news:  There’s been real progress in the Balkans.  Two countries—Slovenia and Croatia—have joined the E.U.  Three—Slovenia, Croatia, and Albania—have entered NATO.  And a fourth—Montenegro—is on the way.  That’s good. 

“Since the brutal wars of the 1990s, peace and democracy have, indeed, been the norm in the region.

“But all is not well. The democracies established with each country’s independence are now fraying on the edges.  Press freedoms are narrowing in Serbia.  Macedonia has not yet been able to form a government—although today I hear there’s real progress.  And Albania’s opposition Democratic Party is refusing to take part in next month’s parliamentary vote.

“Kosovo’s elections next month, spurred by a parliamentary no-confidence motion, seem relatively normal in comparison.  But Kosovo’s troubles remain right around the corner as Serbia remains unwilling to normalize relations and recognize its neighbor, Kosova.

“On top of the regional concerns, Vladimir Putin has added Balkan countries to the list of targets where he is stoking tensions and undermining confidence in democracy. 

“The Kremlin attempted a coup in Montenegro, which fortunately failed.  It is selling advanced weapons to Serbia, including MIG-29s and T-72 tanks.  And it’s getting involved in Macedonia’s domestic politics, aiming to prevent a resolution to the governing crisis in Skopje. 

“So Hoyt, I’m glad you’re here to help us understand what’s going on and what the United States is doing to get the region moving forward again.  I’d like to make a few, a few points.

“First, President Trump’s State Department and foreign assistance budgets will devastate America’s ability to promote our interests and protect our security. This is as true in the Balkans as it is anywhere else.

“Since the wars of the 1990s, we have invested billions in the Balkans and we have made progress.  It would be foolhardy, at best, to squander that investment simply to further an ideological drive to make deep cuts throughout the government. 

“Secondly, I was taken aback at the initial United States opposition to Kosovo’s plans to form an army.  If our recognition of Kosovo as a sovereign and independent democracy means anything, it means we, we must stand by Pristina when it pursues policies well within the bounds of what’s accepted for any other normal country. 

“And saying Kosovo’s development of a military should take place gradually just doesn’t cut it anymore.  Kosovo is in its tenth year of independence.  We’re past gradual–we’re now approaching glacial.

“Rather, let’s help the Kosovars consult with their domestic constituencies, their neighbors, and the international community so that they can formally establish their non-threatening defensive force.

“Once again, Mr. Chairman, our work is not done in the Balkans as you well know.  We need to keep the region on the path toward democracy and the rule of law.  We need to continue to integrate the countries in the North [Atlantic] community.  And we need to ensure that Europe’s soft underbelly does not become a low hanging fruit ripe for Putin’s picking. 

“This means that the United States must step up our engagement in the region and support each nation as it continues its path forward.  Anything less will risk bringing further instability and difficulties back to a region that deserves a real chance at freedom and prosperity.

“So I guess I’ll just ask you to comment on anything I said or, or might say, and I also want to ask you about the, the, the name of, of Macedonia with Greece.  So problems there.  Have been any changes or thawing in terms of the name for, for Macedonia?”

Deputy Assistant Secretary Yee:  “Thank you, Mr. Ranking Member, for your statement and your, your questions.  I, I agree largely with everything you’ve said sir with one possible clarification I wanted to make about Kosovo and its military.

“We do in fact support Kosovo’s aspirations to create an army.  We have agreed with Kosovo since 2011 on a strategy.  The Security Sector Strategy Review that includes a number of steps that Kosovo will undertake before it transforms its security force into an army.

“That strategy includes having onboard all of the parties in the, in the country, and the government also including the minority Serbs.  The Kosovars have agreed that, for reasons of stability, it would be much better to have all of the different peoples in the country supportive of the step before it happens.

“So what we’re asking for is for Kosovo to follow the strategy that we’ve laid out and agreed together.  That we, that Kosovo honors its commitments to its partners, because after all Kosovo is a, while it is a sovereign country, also has the presence of a NATO-led peacekeeping force, K-4, which expects Kosovo to, to meet its, its commitments.

“So in other words, if Kosovo is going to ma-take any step that will possibly affect the conditions for the NATO-led peacekeeping force or for security in general, these, these steps need to be coordinated in advance.

“And where we did make clear to the Kosovars we thought they needed to return to the strategy, was when it appeared a couple of months ago that Kosovo was going to proceed with formation of an army outside of the framework of the agreement that it had agreed with us, and with other NATO partners.

“So we do support formation of an army, but it should be in accordance with the strategy that we have already agreed with them, and it should be done in a way that does not upset the security situation which might lead to a weakening of support from NATO allies for the Kosovo security force, the K-4, the peacekeeping force led by NATO.

“And in general on, on Russia, I just want to add again what I mentioned earlier sir, that we, we believe it is very important to stand up to Russian malign influence, and we are engaged in many different a-efforts to strengthen the ability of all the countries in the Western Balkans to resist illegal or ill-intended efforts by Russia to increase its influence, including in Kosovo, including in Albania, in places which have traditionally been more or less thought to be immune from this kind of influence, and now we’re beginning to see where it could in fact be coming into play.”

Rep. Engel: “Thank you Mr. Chairman.  If you could just indulge me, I would like to ask one, one more question and say that I am deeply concerned with the lack of justice for murders and crimes committed by the government of Serbia during and after the Kosovo war.

“There have been no charges brought against anyone for the three American citizens, the Bytyqi brothers, despite widespread understanding of who was behind them.

“On January 31st of this year, the respected Humanitarian Law Center of Belgrade released a dossier called: ‘The cover-up of evidence of crimes during the war in Kosovo: THE CONCEALMENT OF BODIES OPERATION.’

“This report described mass graves in Serbia containing the bodies of 941 Kosovo Albanians, mainly civilian killed outside combat situations in Kosovo during 1999. 

“According to the report: ‘The evidence corroborated the decision to conceal evidence of crimes committed was planned as early March 1999, at the highest level of the Serbian government.’

“And on top of this, Belgrade has not brought to justice those responsible for attacking and setting fire to the U.S. embassy in 2008.

“I want to know when Belgrade will face facts and bring to justice the people, including high officials in its government, who are behind these very serious crimes.  The murder and mass burial of almost a thousand innocent civilians is a crime against humanity, but the perpetrators have since gone unpunished.

“At the same time, the European Union has looked the other way and has been willing to proceed with Serbia’s ascension process.  This has to stop, and stop now.  Until Serbia brings those who have committed these crimes to justice, the EU should not move ahead with Belgrade’s accession.  And the United States should think twice before advancing our relations with Serbia.

“I also think that Serbia should stop throwing roadblocks in Kosovo’s way, in Kosovo’s attempt to, to join the European Union.  If both of them are to join the European Union, and I have no objection to that ultimately, then I think that each should help the other join the Union, not resist and make it almost impossible by throwing roadblocks.

“So I would like, Mr. Chairman, to have unanimous consent to put in the record HLC’s one-page summary of the dossier I just mentioned.  And I thank you for your indulgence.”