WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today gave the following opening remarks at a full committee hearing on assessing U.S. policy towards the Western Balkans. Witnesses included The Honorable Derek Chollet, counselor at the Department of State, and Mr. Gabriel Escobar, deputy assistant secretary for the Western Balkans at the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the Department of State.
Ranking Member Risch gave the following remarks:
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And thanks to our witnesses for appearing before the committee this morning. As the chairman has pointed out, we have a lot of challenges to deal with.
“The countries in the Balkans have made a lot of progress since the end of the terrible wars of the 1990s. But keeping the peace in that volatile region has proved to be very difficult, and the process of reconciliation has faced continued setbacks.
“Thankfully, there appear to be opportunities for progress. After years of effort, Montenegro and Albania are taking good steps towards greater integration with the West and realizing their goal of membership in the European Union.
“In efforts to advance its own EU aspirations, North Macedonia signed the Prespa Agreement and has made significant concessions to resolve its longstanding dispute with Bulgaria. It is now incumbent upon Bulgaria to honor its word and support a swift EU accession process for North Macedonia.
“The benefits of including the Balkans in alliances are now as clear as ever. In 2019, North Macedonia joined NATO and immediately began making important contributions. North Macedonia and many of our Balkan NATO allies have even contributed large portions of their military stocks to help Ukraine defend itself from Russia’s murderous conduct.
“There have also been signs of progress in bringing Kosovo and Serbia to an agreement that will help settle the simmering tensions that have persisted for over 20 years. I know both of our witnesses have spent a lot of time on this issue, and I look forward to hearing from you about the U.S. role in trying to resolve this conflict once and for all.
“I also want to hear from you about the progress that has been made in building energy security in the Balkans. This region has a historic dependence on Russia for its energy, but I am heartened by recent developments, such as the opening of the Greece-Bulgaria Interconnector, the success and possible expansion of the LNG terminal in Alexandroupoli, and the planned expansion of the Krk LNG import terminal in Croatia.
“But there is a lot more to be done. Proposed gas interconnectors to join North Macedonia with its neighbors Bulgaria and Greece have yet to come to fruition, and Kosovo’s electricity generation and distribution system remains shaky. Diversifying energy supplies away from Russia will help give the region more freedom from foreign influence.
“We must also help address cybersecurity threats in the region. Albania suffered debilitating cyberattacks last fall from Iran for continuing to host Iranian dissidents. The U.S. provided significant support, and I hope we learned useful lessons from this experience for our own cyber defenses.
“In Bosnia, there is still a lot of work to be done to improve political stability. Secessionist rhetoric and efforts to undermine government institutions send an alarming signal. The failure of the Bosnian Federation to form a government without yet another intervention of the EU High Representative does not bode well.
“The Biden Administration has taken some action by imposing sanctions on Bosnian politicians who propagate corruption and instability and by sending regular high-level visitors to the region. But more needs to be done. We want to hear your plans to advance U.S. engagement and what Congress can do to help support a more stable Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“Finally, I remain concerned about Russian and Chinese influence in this region. China is happy to provide money where many EU and U.S. investors balk. And Russia is happy to continue exploiting the many fissures in Balkan societies to manipulate public opinion for its own means. Where corruption exists, the US works to eliminate that corruption, whereas both Russia and China exploit corruption to spread their influence.
“The Biden Administration should continue to support our partners in the Balkans in their ongoing efforts to tackle corruption, including through the use of targeted sanctions against the worst actors.
“The U.S. also needs a proactive and competitive approach to economic and political engagement in the Western Balkans. I hope our witnesses can discuss the steps that the U.S is taking to help these nations increase their resilience and to provide investment mechanisms, like those in the DFC, to push back against China’s predatory practices.
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”
These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity. Witness testimony is available on foreign.senate.gov.