In an exclusive interview with Voice of America, US Senator Jeanne Shaheen said she shares the US Embassy’s concerns about the new governing structure in Montenegro and the possibility that “someone in Montenegro will share with the Russian president what’s going on in NATO”.
Shaheen, who recently visited the Western Balkans with her Democratic colleague Peter Welch, said she was most concerned about the unresolved issue of relations between Serbia and Kosovo and the rhetoric of Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Democratic Senator from New Hampshire and Chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation stressed that, despite the crisis in the Middle East and Ukraine and the fact that America is entering the region, Congress has the capacity to focus on the region.
Voice of America: You recently visited the Western Balkans and then spoke about the growing security challenges. Where do you see the biggest security challenge, if not threat?
Shaheen: There are two challenges. One is the current issues between Kosovo and Serbia. We know about the incursion into Kosovo on 24 September, when a Kosovo police officer and three Serbs were killed. There are serious concerns about this border and how to resolve these issues in the future. I had the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister (Albin) Kurti and President (Vjosa) Osmani to express my concern about everything that has happened and to express my condolences. I have also called on Prime Minister Kurti to return to the negotiating table and resolve the issues with Serbia. I had the opportunity to speak to the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, on the telephone, to express my concern to him and to urge him to do the same – to return to the negotiating table, because normalisation of relations between the two countries is the only way to resolve these problems.
I am also very concerned about Bosnia and Herzegovina and the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric of Mr (Milorad) Dodik, who talks about the secession of Republika Srpska from the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Voice of America: When it comes to Serbia and Kosovo, we know that the two leaders returned to the negotiating table last week and this round of dialogue was not successful. Has the dialogue failed and is time running out to deliver what has been agreed?
Shaheen: I think time may be running out for the opportunity they have been given. I know that Kosovo and Serbia have said that it is in their interest to join the European Union and to become part of the Atlantic Alliance, because of the economic opportunities that it opens up and, frankly, the security opportunities. We know that (European Commission President) Ursula von der Leyen was in the region this week and that the topic of discussion was economic incentives for countries that are implementing reforms that bring them closer to the EU. This opportunity may not be everlasting, given the challenges that Europe is facing – from the war in Ukraine and the Russian invasion of that country, to the challenges in the Middle East and the potential conflicts in the world. The EU is trying to help countries that do not want to be autocratic, that do not want to support a dictator like Vladimir Putin. It is trying to help them move towards democracy. However, I do not think that this opportunity will last forever. And I hope that Serbia and Kosovo will manage to come to an agreement and find a way to live together. I understand that they may not recognise each other, but at least to ensure that their citizens do not live in conflict, in fear, with nothing to worry about, seems very important to me.
Voice of America: The EU demands de facto recognition of Kosovo from Serbia and the creation of a Association of Serb-majority municipalities from Kosovo. How to encourage or perhaps even pressure both sides to do so?
Shaheen: Well, I think that’s why it’s important that Ursula von der Leyen was there, that Senator Welch and I went there to express our concern about everything that’s going on, why it’s important that they hear from the US and the EU that this is an opportunity for them and that they need to work to overcome their differences. The proposal that is before them is the one that was agreed in the Ohrid Agreement. And I hope that they are thinking about how to go back to that. Those who are responsible for the events of 24 September (in Banjska) must be held accountable. And we must make sure that this never happens again. We must have a secure border. Such conflicts on the border between Serbia and Kosovo are in nobody’s interest.
Voice of America: As part of your visit to the region, you were also in Montenegro, where this week they elected a parliamentary speaker known for his anti-NATO and pro-Russian views. The coalition of which he is one of the leaders – and which the US considers to be anti-Western – is part of the new governing structure. The US Embassy has reiterated its concern about this and urged caution. Do you share this concern?
Shaheen: Yes, absolutely. I don’t understand how anyone can look at what Vladimir Putin has done in Ukraine, invading, killing civilians, destroying infrastructure – and this because this country wanted to be part of the EU and democracy. I do not know why any party in Europe would think that its future lies there.
Voice of America: Given that Montenegro is a member of NATO, how vigilant should the US administration be about the activities of the new Montenegrin government and parliament? How vigilant should Congress be?
Shaheen: I think we should be careful. And we should tell them that their future is not there. I am very worried about what someone in Montenegro might say to Vladimir Putin about what is happening in NATO, especially in view of Russia’s attempts to overthrow the Montenegrin government. You would think that this would worry every political party in the country.
Voice of America: You also mentioned Bosnia and the rhetoric of the leader of the RS, Milorad Dodik, which is only escalating. He recently said that Republika Srpska, Serbia and Montenegro should be united into one country. Sanctions have so far had no effect on this rhetoric. What more can be done? In what other ways can the US Administration and Congress counter this rhetoric?
Shaheen: I think we should continue to encourage the EU to sanction Mr Dodik as well. So far, they have been hesitant to take this step. I think they need to sanction him as well, and to sanction him severely. The Office of the High Representative should continue to deal with Mr Dodik’s attempts to undermine the Dayton agreement. And now, for the first time in eight years, there is a hastily formed government that is trying to resolve some of the long-term issues in the country. And it is sad that Mr Dodik is trying to undo that.
Voice of America: This year, you have again tabled a legislative proposal on the Western Balkans. Do you expect it to make progress towards adoption?
Shaheen: I hope so. It is a proposal that is supported by both sides and envisages many things. One of them is to make sanctions part of the law. So far, they have been provided for by decree and they relate to corrupt officials in the Western Balkans. It also provides for technical assistance in the implementation of democratic reforms, and a large part of it relates to trade and economic activities, which is very important. And there is also a part that provides for support for new, young leaders in the Western Balkans. We have been working on this proposal for a long time. Roger Wicker, a Republican Senator who is very interested in the region, and I have worked on the bill in several sessions of Congress. We received a lot of feedback from the region, from the State Department and from other agencies that were working in the region, and they all made some suggestions. I hope that we have taken a comprehensive approach to solving the problem where we can help.
Voice of America: We know that America is entering an election year. You also mentioned the crisis in the Middle East, in Ukraine. Will the US Congress have the capacity to deal with the Western Balkans in the future?
Shaheen: I think it is crucial that we do, and that is why Senator Welch and I went there, because we know that there are unresolved issues. We have heard in North Macedonia that they really want to be in the EU. They have also changed their name because of concerns from Brussels. They are members of NATO and they want to continue on their path towards the Euro-Atlantic community. And they really need support and they need allies. We were there to tell them that there are many people who are following what is happening in the Western Balkans. Several Senators are very committed to the region and we want to do everything we can to support them. And I believe that we have enough people and enough capacity to do all that./VOA/