Day: June 1, 2015

Serbia and the US

Kurir, a Belgrade tabloid, published this Friday interview with me today:

1. These days we saw again some really bad situations in Former Republic of Yugoslavia Macedonia, do You think that it can be more dangerous for all region, and why it happened?

A: Two things have happened in Macedonia: a wire-tapping scandal and a police raid on alleged Albanian insurgents. It seems to me the two things are distinct. Some other commentators believe they are related, in that the police may have acted to distract attention from the wire-tapping scandal. If that is what happened, the distraction failed.

I don’t know why either thing happened. We have not had the benefit of an in-depth investigation of either the wire-tapping or the police raid. The former seems to me more a domestic Macedonian issue, though I suspect there are other countries in the region with wire-tapping issues and some people believe a foreign intelligence service is involved in Macedonia. The alleged insurgents were Albanians, some of whom may have come from Kosovo, but their objectives and support network are not yet clear to me.

2. Albanian politicians again speak about project of Big Albania and that they will start to make it real. Is it the real treat for other countries in Balkans (for Serbia specific)?

A: Greater Albania is a bad idea whose time will never come. It would threaten not only Serbia but also Macedonia and Kosovo, whose constitution explicitly prohibits union with other countries. I don’t think Kosovar politicians are ready to move their capital to Tirana, or Albanian politicians ready to move their capital to Pristina. The US has consistently opposed Greater Albania and will continue to do so.

3. How Washington see this situation and what kind of relationship exist between Serbia and US in this moment?

A: You will have to ask American officials for their definitive view on this subject, but relations with Serbia seem to me pretty good. People in Washington appreciate the more pragmatic direction Belgrade has taken in recent years and want Serbia to progress in its accession negotiations with the European Union. At the same time, there are outstanding issues: Washington has recognized Kosovo and will expect Serbia to do so in the process of establishing good neighborly relations. Washington will also be interested in whether Serbia intends to proceed beyond Partnership for Peace to open a Membership Action Plan for NATO.

4. Our prime minister Aleksandar Vucic travel to America on Monday and he will meet with Vice President Joe Biden. What can Serbia expect from that meeting? Why is it important in this moment and which topics will be in focus?

A: Again you will have to ask US government officials, but I expect Washington to ask for Serbia to help maintain stability in the region by encouraging Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo to integrate more into the country’s governing structures while continuing to enjoy the considerable benefits of decentralization in both countries. I imagine the Vice President may also ask about Serbia’s relations with Russia and NATO, especially in light of Russian aggression in Ukraine, and encourage Serbia to reduce its energy dependence on Russia. He will likely also ask about the ongoing investigation of the murder of the Bytyqi brothers, American citizens killed by Serbian security forces in 1999.

5. Does Mr. Biden help Serbia on its way to EU, and how?

A: I think the US has already been helpful in encouraging the EU to give Serbia candidacy and open accession negotiations. Mr. Biden has been particularly strong on these points, even before he became Vice President. Now it is up to Serbia to meet the requirements of the acquis communitaire as well as conform its foreign policy to European requirements.

6. How America sees relationship between Serbia and Russia?

A: Washington regards Serbia’s efforts to cozy up to Russia more with amusement than concern, except where Ukraine is concerned. That is a serious issue, one in which people in Washington think Belgrade should see clearly that Russia’s aggression is unacceptable and risks undermining Serbia’s own position on Kosovo. The “independence” and subsequent annexation of Crimea, as well as the supposed independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, should make Serbian officials think twice about their visits to Moscow.

7. Do You think that in one moment Serbia will turn its back to Russia and accept suggestion from Washington to supply itself with gas from Azerbaijan?

A: I don’t know. I imagine it depends in part on commercial terms to which I am not privy. But anyone in Belgrade should by now see clearly that excessive energy dependence on Russia undermines a country’s sovereignty and puts at risk its relations with the EU and the US. Serbia should be looking for long-term alternatives to Russian gas supplies and tying itself more tightly to the EU.


The Kurds’ new clout

Last month, the Middle East Institute’s (MEI) Turkish Studies program hosted a panel entitled “The Kurds’ New Clout in U.S. Ties with Turkey and Iraq” which focused on the challenges and opportunities in U.S. relations with Turkey and Iraq in light of the growing regional influence of the Kurds. This growing influence, with the Kurds emerging as a key player in the fight against the Islamic State, has put US relations with the governments in Baghdad and Ankara to the test.

How will US collaboration with Iraqi Kurdistan affect US-Turkish and US-Iraqi relations? What will the implications be for the future of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)?

Panelists included Mohammad Shareef, founding member of the London Kurdish Institute, Denise Natali, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, and Gönül Tol, founding director of MEI’s Center for Turkish Studies, with Daniel Serwer moderated.

Shareef outlined the regional, economic, and political factors that define Iraqi Kurdistan as an emerging regional power. The logical conclusion was apparent: sooner or later Kurdistan would achieve independence, as a natural consequence of its growing strength and importance.

Denise Natali believes, however, that Kurdistan’s success needs to be viewed in the context of the region’s increasingly complex and unstable environment, as well as America’s other relations in the region. There is no ‘clear cut’ US Kurdish policy, as Washington views Turkey’s Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) as a terrorist group, while the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces are fighting alongside the US in Iraq.

Notwithstanding that cooperation, the White House remains committed to the territorial integrity of Iraq. This became a point of contention during President Barzani’s recent visit to Washington, when it was made clear that US military support would have to pass through Baghdad.

Gönül Tol outlined Turkey’s changing relationship with the United States on issues such as ISIS, economic cooperation, and rapprochement with Turkey’s Kurds. Turkish fear that the US wants to break up Turkey was allayed with the 2008 Turkey-US security agreement. Ankara’s relationship with the KRG mirrors this progression. Turkey opened a consulate in Erbil and has expanded bilateral trade centered on the natural gas and oil.

Natali believes that the Kurds might have overstepped in their territorial acquisition in Iraq—will they be able to pay for the lands and administer effective control over these areas? Considering the KRG is 17 billion dollars in debt, this remains to be seen. Mohamad Shareef believes that the KRG can be economically viable. A highlight is the 2006 Liberal Investment Law, which has offered vast benefits for foreign investors.

Serwer agreed that perhaps the Kurds have taken on more land than they can realistically control, but this could result in a ‘land for peace’ exchange. Kurdish independence has been postponed due to ISIS, but this issue is sure to resurface in the next 2-3 years, as the Iraqi Kurdish people overwhelmingly support independence. But in the absence of agreement on the borders of Kurdistan, independence could lead to more war, not less.

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