Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Thanks, Lara, it’s great to be back. Thanks to Minister Vesna Pusic and all our Croatian hosts for gathering us in this beautiful, historic place. Croatia has come so far since this forum began ten years ago – now a member of both NATO and the EU, today Croatia is a net exporter of regional and global security and development, from Afghanistan, to Kosovo, to West Africa. The United States is grateful for the strong alliance between our two countries.
As we sit here in this Dalmatian paradise, it is hard to believe how far the whole region has come. Just twenty years ago – a little over three hundred kilometers from here – the tragedy of Srebrenica was unfolding while the world stood by and watched. Tomorrow, we will honor the victims and remember the horrific cost of a Europe divided. But we must do more than that. Memory is not enough. We owe it to those who lost their lives in the Balkan wars to ensure that history never repeats itself – that we bury, once and for all, the hatred, criminality, greed and despotism that flourished here, and build in its place a Balkans whole, free, prosperous, and at peace.
So today, I want to appeal to leaders and citizens alike across this region to finish that job, and to resist the forces seeking to unwind the progress you have already made. That will require Balkan leaders and citizens to do three things: first, complete the democratic map of this region by finally turning the page on old hatreds and new rivalries; second, kick-start prosperity and growth by connecting the countries of the region with new roads, rail-links, ports, and energy infrastructure; and third, join forces to make the Balkans a no-go zone for today’s most pernicious threats to strong statehood and individual liberty: violent extremism, corruption and criminality, and the sleazy autocrats and oligarchs who come bearing gifts that promote their own interests, not yours. As you tackle these issues and do so together, the United States and the rest of the Trans-Atlantic community will stand with you.
Let’s start with the democratic map. The countries of this region have made great progress. Today, three Western Balkan states are NATO members, two are EU members, four have EU Stabilization and Association Agreements (SAA) in effect, one more is on the path towards one, and three more aspire to join NATO. And yet, despite all this progress, in this region, too much time is still wasted feuding instead of building.
Take Bosnia-Herzegovina. Twenty years after Dayton, it is unconscionable that the unity of the state is still publicly questioned by those seeking to block reform and putting IMF assistance at risk. The EU has offered Bosnia-Herzegovina a membership perspective, and last month activated its SAA, but politicians continue to put ethnic and party interests ahead of the basic social, economic, and political reform needed to advance.
The United States joins the EU, the IMF and the World Bank in urging Bosnia-Herzegovina’s leaders to make crucial reform decisions now, or risk being left behind for another twenty years.
Our message to Macedonia is equally tough: every opportunity for unity and prosperity awaits you; NATO and EU membership await you. But the major political forces must stop squabbling and get on the path to democratic reform sketched out by EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn with US support, and then move on to settle the name issue with Greece. Again, don’t squander this moment.
Meanwhile, with EU High Representative Federica Mogherini’s strong, patient guidance, Kosovo and Serbia are making progress in healing their past wounds and creating the arrangements to live as good neighbors. But the job is far from finished. We want 2015 to be the year that advances the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue so the EU can open chapters for Serbia and sign the SAA for Kosovo. But that will take courageous decisions in both Pristina and Belgrade. Again, together with the EU, America says: seize this moment and we will help.
It is not just governments that need to act. Civil society, independent media, and private citizens all need to make their voices heard and shape necessary reforms. They need to keep asserting their rights to freedom of expression, representation and peaceful assembly.
This brings me to the second set of challenges: regional development, integration, and energy security to promote prosperity and growth. The countries of this region will only reach their full potential when they replace old rivalries with cooperation, and embrace regional projects that bring jobs, investment and clean business practices to the whole region.
The United States strongly supports Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Berlin Process, and we have reached out to the EU to see how we can bring the International Financial Institutions, U.S. development assistance, private investment, and risk insurance to key road, rail, port, and energy projects.
We are also working closely with EU Vice President Maros Sefcovic and Energy and Climate Commissioner Arias Canete to advance crucial energy projects that will turn this region into the energy powerhouse it should be for all of Central Europe. These include investments in Krk Island LNG, key interconnectors to Hungary, Bulgaria, and Serbia, and new offshore exploration all along the Adriatic.
As we redouble our efforts to bring growth to the entire region, we must also be vigilant defenders of our democratic values. We stand for free trade, free markets, and free peoples. We gain strength when our governments are clean and serve their people. We aspire to set the global gold standard for religious and ethnic tolerance and pluralism. In everything we do, we must support the sovereign right of nations to chart their own democratic futures; we must root out the cancer of corruption that eats away at livelihoods, democracies, and security; and we must work together to halt the spread of violent extremism and foreign fighters.
Corruption remains a major impediment to progress in this region. It is the cancer that saps strength from our democracies and drives up unemployment and civil unrest. More than that, it opens vulnerabilities that autocrats, petro states, and violent extremists exploit. All those who seek to stir up trouble here find an easy gateway when dirty money can buy corrupt politicians and undercut democratic governance and the rule of law.
To improve rule of law and close space for anti-democratic forces, we are partnering with Central and Eastern Europe as a part of the Emerging Donor Challenge Fund.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, we are supporting a network of civil society organizations in their push to implement a new whistleblower protection law, and we are partnering with Romania to train prosecutors in identifying, investigating, and trying corruption cases.
In Macedonia, we are partnering with Slovenia to train civil servants in internal auditing and financial management to increase accountability and efficiency in the public sector.
In Serbia, we are helping the government explore energy supply options to diversify energy sources, strengthen its economy, and prevent energy from becoming a weapon of political influence and corruption.
In Albania, we are partners in building a regional network to counter violent extremism, and we commend the recent regional conference in Tirana on this subject.
The issues before us – democracy, prosperity, and values-based governance – are not new. We’ve been working on them here and throughout the Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe for more than two decades. But today, with severe security challenges to Europe’s south and in its East, this region sits in the balance.
Either the work of the last twenty years can be completed with wise decisions by courageous leaders and people pushing for a better life, or this region can fall prey once again to the risks, hatred, and outside interference that brought it grief so many times before. And as you make that choice, other nations with similar struggles from Tunisia to Ukraine will watch to see if you succeed, and if you can help show them how it’s done. The United States continues to stand with its partners in the Trans-Atlantic community in support of a Balkans finally whole, free, at peace and prosperous. The choices ahead are yours.