WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today delivered the following opening statement at this morning’s full Committee hearing: “Assessing U.S. Policy Towards the Western Balkans.” Testifying before the Committee were Department of State Counselor Derek Chollet and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Balkans in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Gabriel Escobar.
“To my mind, the crux of stability in the Western Balkans rests with the resolution of the conflict between Kosovo and Serbia,” said Chairman Menendez. “This region remains a stark reminder of how a lack of engagement allows the brewing of ethno-nationalist tensions. But we know that when we are engaged, good things can happen. And if we are clear eyed and pragmatic in our approach, we have the opportunity to make real progress across the Western Balkans.”
“This hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will come to order.
Nearly 30 years after the Dayton Peace Agreement, we have yet to see its full potential bear out.
While we have welcomed two thirds of the Western Balkan countries as NATO allies, European Union membership seems ever-elusive.
Economic growth is uneven across the region and certain power-hungry leaders still rely on ethno-nationalist grievances to undermine democracy, the rule of law, and lasting stability.
The war in Ukraine has reinvigorated the imperative of supporting European countries’ efforts to make the necessary reforms and commitments to join the European Union.
We must seize this moment to promote new inroads with partners with whom Russia has traditionally held significant political, military, and economic influence.
To my mind, the crux of stability in the Western Balkans rests with the resolution of the conflict between Kosovo and Serbia.
We need responsible leaders willing to make and uphold significant commitments for their populations.
Kosovo must seize this opportunity of renewed engagement and work with European partners to move forward.
However, I personally do not believe we have equal participants acting in good faith.
In February—as part of the ongoing Brussels-facilitated dialogue—Serbia and Kosovo verbally agreed to an agreement negotiated by the European Union.
Shortly thereafter Serbian President Vucic made a public speech disagreeing with the contents of the agreement and refusing to sign because he still does not recognize Kosovo’s independence.
This is part of a pattern of Vucic saying one thing to placate Western leaders and saying another to the Serbian people through his state-controlled media.
Controlling the information space and cracking down on civil society, President Vucic continues to embrace nationalist Serb narratives perpetuating his vision of ‘Sprski svet’ a great Serbian nation, much like Putin’s visions of greater Russia.
Indeed, Serbia’s President has boasted about his close personal ties with Putin.
He has flown to Moscow for trade talks and refused to join European partners in imposing sanctions on Russia.
So today I would like to hear from our witnesses on what the plan is going forward.
Most of what I see is pressure on Kosovo for the Association of Serb Municipalities, which I do recognize Kosovo had previously agreed to.
But it seems to me there is little to no pressure on Belgrade.
Nor any real plan or guarantee that the Association of Serb Municipalities would not become another Republica Srpska that we are seeing the dangerous implications of in Bosnia and Herzegovina right now.
I see little pressure on a leader about whom New York Times Magazine recently painted a scathing picture of violence and deep interconnectedness with Serbia’s organized criminal gangs.
So I hope you can help me understand what the plan is.
I would also ask that you speak frankly not only about Kosovo and Serbia’s path to normalization.
But about normalization of North Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina as well.
In Bosnia, I worry that the Office of the High Representative’s recent electoral reform could be reinforcing rather than diffusing ethnic tensions.
We need to make sure that the rights of Jews and Roma and other minorities are protected.
Because while local leaders engage in destabilizing rabble-rousing to further their own power, Moscow has long worked to exploit the historic ethnic fault lines of the Balkans for its own advantage.
If Serbia is ever going to join the European Union, it is going to need alternatives to escape Putin’s weaponization of energy.
Indeed, one of the best ways to help the Balkans and Central and Southern Europe to become energy independent from Russia, is to capitalize on the clean energy potential of the Eastern Mediterranean.
That means continuing support for interconnectors that run straight through the Western Balkans and fostering unified regulatory regimes.
Of course, as we work with our partners to move them away from Russia we do not want them to run towards China in the process.
The United States should not take a back seat here.
This region remains a stark reminder of how a lack of engagement allows the brewing of ethno-nationalist tensions.
But we know that when we are engaged, good things can happen.
And if we are clear eyed and pragmatic in our approach, we have the opportunity to make real progress across the Western Balkans.
With that let me turn to the Ranking Member Senator Risch for his opening statement.”
Remarks edited lightly for clarity.