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U.S. Congressman Engel Says Serbia, Kosovo Can Now 'Look Forward To Future'

People hold a banner reading "Kosovo" during a protest against the agreement about the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo in Belgrade on May 10.
People hold a banner reading "Kosovo" during a protest against the agreement about the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo in Belgrade on May 10.
Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representative’s Foreign Affairs Committee, has long taken a close interest in Balkan affairs and offered strong praise for the agreement Serbia and Kosovo reached in April. RFE/RL Balkan Service's Pristina bureau chief, Arbana Vidishiqi, spoke to Engel about the agreement and the prospects for reconciliation between Serbia and Kosovo.

RFE/RL: Congressman Engel, Kosovo and Serbia reached an agreement on April 19 on the normalization of their relations but both parties have now missed the deadline in drafting the implementation plan. Do you think the process of normalization is at risk?
U.S. Congressman Eliot Engel (Democrat, New York)
U.S. Congressman Eliot Engel (Democrat, New York)

Eliot Engel: No, I don't. I think when you have a process of normalization like this, there is always going to be things that get in the way, there is always going to be obstacles; but I think if both parties are determined to reach an agreement, which they have, and carry out the agreement, I think, things will be fine. This is obviously a serious situation. Both sides have a lot of trepidation or doubt about whether this is a good thing, but I think that this is a necessary step that has to be taken and I believe will work out. The EU, of course, is right there and the United States will always stand by the people of Kosovo every step of the way.

RFE/RL: The agreement seems to allow for the possibility for the establishment of a so-called mini-state -- similar to Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- in northern Kosovo. Does it?

Engel: No, it doesn't. These are very difficult negotiations. There are a lot of opinions in so many different ways. There has been hostility for so many years. 1999, obviously, is still fresh in everybody's mind -- at least on Kosovo's side -- and I think that this agreement is a necessary agreement. I think that, in an agreement, no side gets everything they want. And an agreement is a compromise. And a compromise is one side gets some of what they want and the other side gets some of what they want. And as a result, neither side is totally satisfied, but both sides feel this is in the best interest because they can move on from here, they can put the past behind them or attempt to put the past behind them and look forward to the future.

For me, it's very simple -- do the people of the Balkans want to always look to the past where there was always bloodshed, and fighting, and centuries old aggravations and grudges? Or do they want to look forward to try to build a better life for their future and a better life for their children? I think that in this agreement Kosovo got a good deal out of it because for the first time Serbia has a de facto recognition of Kosovo and that the government in Pristina will control all of Kosovo -- not a partitioned Kosovo, not breakaway parts, but all of Kosovo. And I think that is an important principle to have so the government in Pristina is in charge of all Kosovo, be it North Mitrovica, be it South -- wherever. In exchange for that, the Serbs in North Mitrovica have a degree of autonomy.

I think that's a good tradeoff because I think that autonomy isn't the worst thing in the world. You know, Kosovo had autonomy originally, supposedly, under the old Yugoslav system. It didn't work because [former President Slobodan] Milosevic revoked the autonomy in 1988. But if this is truly autonomy and the EU and the United States and everybody else recognizes that Kosovo is whole -- not split, not divided, not partitioned -- in exchange for Serbs having some kind of autonomy, I think it's a pretty good deal for Kosovo and for the government in Pristina.

RFE/RL: There are different opinions. For example, your colleague from the U.S. House of Representatives, Dana Rohrabacher, suggests a territorial exchange between Kosovo and Serbia as a solution. Do you disagree?

Engel: Well, I disagree. Let me say that I think my colleague Dana Rohrabacher is a very thoughtful man, and I think that he has the best interests of Kosovo at heart. I have worked with him for many, many years on this and we are friends. But I don't agree that partition of Kosovo is the way to go. Kosovo is in the Balkans. Where does it end? If you are going to move borders in the Balkans, you are going to partition Kosovo. What happens when Republika Srpska wants to be part of Serbia? What happens when parts of Macedonia want to change? What happens with Bosnia? There is no end to it and I am afraid this would be unsettled for another hundred years.

I would rather take a settlement like this when it was agreed to in the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia and try to build on that as a way to look forward to the future. I think once you start moving borders, it's a sure ticket to disputes of the past; it's a sure ticket for different parties feeling aggrieved and wanting to be on this side of the border or the other side of the border. If we could just quickly change Kosovo with parts of Serbia and nothing would happen, then I'd say, "OK, maybe it's something to think about." But it's not possible to have that happen without having repercussions elsewhere in the Balkans. And that's why I don't think it's a good proposal.

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