I naturally agree with large parts of the Atlantic Council report on “Balkans Forward: A New US Strategy for the Region,” even if I think the title overblown. It’s more like a course correction they have recommended, but that presumably wouldn’t have satisfied the donors. I in particular agree that the US needs to return to a more activist approach on some issues in the Balkans, because EU leadership in a period of big strains on its unity and coherence has failed to resolve some key issues.
That said, I disagree with some of the specific recommendations and will try to clarify why. I also wonder why it highlights corruption and offers no recommendations to deal with it, apart from avoiding excessive reliance on “Big Men.”
A permanent US military presence
I would be prepared to consider a permanent US military presence in Southeastern Europe, but I can’t agree that “Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo is ideal for the purpose.” It is not. It lacks the 10,000-foot runway that a serious US base would require, and building one would be difficult given the topography. There is also no need for one, since an F-16 doesn’t know much difference between Aviano (in northern Italy) and Bondsteel.
More important: a US base anywhere should serve US purposes, which are heavily focused on the Middle East and North Africa. We’ve got bases much closer to those theaters than Bondsteel. The Pentagon has long wanted to close Bondsteel, because it doesn’t serve US purposes well.
Nor do I think we can assume that we will always be welcome in Kosovo. Young Kosovar Albanians don’t understand why the country doesn’t have an army. NATO is starting to be seen as a barrier to getting one, and Bondsteel in particular plays looms large in that regard: some internationals don’t think Kosovo needs an army because it has a NATO presence. That won’t fly forever with the country’s citizens. Better to fix the problem than wait for them to protest.
Pursue a “historic rapprochement” with Serbia
This has long been a Belgrade talking point: Washington does not sufficiently embrace us. I’ve been hearing it every since Slobodan Milosevic was defeated at the polls in 2000. The truth is that the US normalized relations with Serbia quickly after that, removing sanctions and instituting cooperation on a wide array of issues. I’ve never seen us do it faster.
From the American perspective, today’s barriers to a closer relationship are on the Serbian side. The Atlantic Council mentions the difficulty that Serbia’s relations with Russia pose. But that is not the only barrier. There are others: Belgrade’s restraints on the press, its failure to establish a truly independent judiciary, its increasing inclination to normalize those responsible for war crimes (and failure to prosecute people responsible for killing Albanian Americans), and its slow approach to normalizing relations with Kosovo. There has been serious backsliding on several of these issues in recent years, which makes it difficult for a US president or vice president to embrace Serbia more warmly.
Regain the United States’ reputation as an honest broker
I don’t think we’ve lost it, though I also think we are more power broker than honest broker. We just haven’t used whatever it is lately. Nothing in the report convinces me otherwise.
Bet on the region’s entrepreneurs and youth
Sure, bet on them but for what? This is the eternal recommendation of all think-tank reports when confronted with lingering problems in post-war countries. Economic development will fix it. But it won’t so long as the politics don’t allow it to happen. In all of the Balkan countries, there are too many resources under the control of political parties for normal free market capitalism to operate effectively. That needs to change, through internationally supervised privatization and liquidation. Only politicians can make that happen.
As for youth, there are a lot of indications that in several Balkan countries the past 20 years has seen ethnic tension passed on to the next generation, sometimes in more virulent forms than the last. I wouldn’t want to bet on some of the region’s youth, because they want to take the region backwards not forward.
The report is a competent analysis of many current issues in the Balkans, but it offers nothing like a new US strategy for the region. Nor is one needed. What we need to do is complete the strategy we adopted around 2000: get all the countries of the region that want to enter NATO or the EU qualified as quickly as possible and admit them to membership whenever the political winds blow in the right direction.
- Private Sector Engagement in Afghanistan | Monday, November 27 | 1:00 – 3:00 pm | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Register Here | Private sector development in Afghanistan is a crucial topic for U.S engagement in the region. Between 2002 and 2010, about 57 billion US dollars of official development assistance (ODA) was disbursed to Afghanistan for purposes of reconstruction and development. More recently, the Trump administration committed to extending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan into the foreseeable future. Military resources alone cannot achieve U.S. foreign policy goals in Afghanistan: it is important to look at the role that the private sector plays in consolidating Afghanistan’s future prosperity and growth. Afghanistan is doing well in fiscal policy, inflation, access to credit, and some aspects of human capital investment (i.e., health expenditures and primary education expenditures). However, to promote private sector growth, Afghanistan needs to tackle political rights, fight corruption, uphold the rule of law, build effective governance, and reform business regulations, to name a few. Fostering a solid private sector in Afghanistan is important for long-term sustainable growth and improving the quality of life for its citizens. Leveraging the private sector to build a robust economic foundation in Afghanistan is a necessary and timely discussion. Panelists will include Gregory Huger of USAID, Mozhgan Wafiq of the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Jeffrey Grieco of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, and Hussein Ali Mahrammi of Federation of Afghanistan’s Craftsmen and Traders. They will be joined by CSIS’s Romina Bandura, Earl Anthony Wayne, and Daniel F. Runde.
- What’s Next for Lebanon? | Wednesday, November 29 | 1:00 – 2:30 pm | Arab Center Washington DC (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here | Join us to discuss the implications of the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the increased belligerent rhetoric against Iran and Hezbollah by Saudi Arabia. This event will feature Joseph Bahout of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Joe Macaron of the Arab Center Washington DC, and Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute.
- Raqqa After the Islamic State: Governance Challenges in Post-ISIS Syria | Wednesday, November 29 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | With the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s hold on Syrian territory vastly diminished, the campaign to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) enters a new phase. The fall of Raqqa—the capital of ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate—marked a powerful strategic and symbolic loss for the extremist group. Yet the success of the counter-ISIS campaign will ultimately be determined not by battlefield wins, but instead by what follows. Please join the U.S. Institute of Peace to discuss the complex governance challenges in Raqqa and how the United States and the international community can constructively address them. In a recent USIP Special Report, Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor for Syria, the Middle East and North Africa at the Institute, examines the critical governance challenges in Raqqa after the Islamic State. Her report highlights the ethnic, tribal, and strategic complexities that will affect this new phase. To sustain security in the territories freed from ISIS, a broad approach to stabilization will be vital. That approach will have to ensure effective and inclusive governance that is responsive to the needs of the local population. This event’s speakers include Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Nicholas A. Heras of the Center for a New American Security, Mona Yacoubian of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and moderator Sarhang Hamasaeed of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
- A Coming Storm? Shaping a Balkan Future in an Era of Uncertainty | Wednesday, November 29 | 9:00 am – 6:15 | Atlantic Council | Register Here | Although the Western Balkan region has made significant progress in its efforts to integrate into the wider transatlantic community, inspired and guided by its commitment to eventual membership in the European Union (EU), NATO, and other global institutions, that progress is now at risk. The conference will seek to generate new ideas and policy-relevant proposals to craft a way forward for the Balkan region, firmly embedded within the transatlantic community. This conference will engage the highest levels of transatlantic decision-makers, bringing together over 100 participants, ranging from regional leaders to decision-makers from both sides of the Atlantic and top experts in the field, to spotlight what is at stake and spur support for a reenergized Balkans policy in the United States in partnership with the European Union. The all-day event will include five panels and a keynote address.
- How to Help Vulnerable States Prevent Their Own Crises | Thursday, November 30 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | The European Union recently has added a new priority to its foreign and defense policies: Help countries vulnerable to crisis build their resilience against catastrophic events, notably violent conflict, which has uprooted 65 million people worldwide. The EU’s shift is part of a growing global focus on the importance of preventing civil war and its devastation. The United Nations, World Bank and U.S. government are among the organizations taking up this agenda. On November 30, USIP gathers U.S., European and World Bank officials to discuss how governments and international organizations can better coordinate the implementation of this broad new approach to halting violent conflicts. The European Union issued its new framework for policy this year as the World Bank and United Nations are completing a broad study on ways to catalyze the international community to better prevent violent conflicts. Concurrently, the State Department and other U.S. agencies are reviewing the United States’ efforts to help states struggling for stability in the face of warfare. As governments and international organizations improve these strategies, where are the obstacles to better coordination? Christian Leffler of the European Union will open this discussion by laying out the new EU policy framework. Other speakers will include Nancy Lindborg of the US Institute of Peace, Franck Bosquet of the World Bank, Raphael Carland of the State Department, and moderator Joe Hewitt of the US Institute of Peace.
- Public Opinion in a Conflicted Middle East | Thursday, November 30 | 12:00 – 1:30 | Middle East Institute | Register Here | The Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Arab American Institute (AAI) are pleased to host James Zogby (AAI and Zogby Research Services) for the presentation of fresh polling results from across Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, and Turkey. The report examines opinions from 7,800 respondents about the U.S. and other regional states’ roles in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. It also looks at Trump Administration policy, political Islam, prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Iran nuclear deal, and the region’s refugee crisis. Joining Dr. Zogby to discuss the poll findings will be Yousef Munayyer (MEI & U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights), Barbara Slavin (Atlantic Council; Al-Monitor), and Gönül Tol (MEI). MEI senior vice president Paul Salem will moderate the event. The poll and resulting report were commissioned by the Sir Bani Yas Forum, convened annually in the United Arab Emirates on the initiative of H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the U.A.E. Foreign Minister. The findings are being made available for use by the public.
Ratko Mladic was convicted today in The Hague. The sentence is life imprisonment for genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws and customs of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s. He will presumably appeal.
Re-reading the Mladic indictment is a terrifying reminder. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) originally accused him in 1995, but the trial that ended yesterday was based on an indictment in 2011 of participating in a joint criminal enterprise responsible for the removal of Bosnian Croats and Muslims, the years-long siege of Sarajevo, the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims after his military seizure of Srbrenica, and the taking of UN personnel as hostages. It has taken 22 years for this first conviction.
International justice today is agonizingly slow, meticulously detailed, procedurally complex, and ultimately decisive. I attended an afternoon of Mladic’s trial a few years ago. It was dull. The prosecutor would read volumes of detailed eye-witness testimony of atrocities to a Mladic underling who would deny that anything like that happened. Mladic sat silent. His defense lawyer would occasionally intervene, but to little avail. I could well imagine that this orderly process, involving years of hearings in which to air his denials, would not satisfy his victims.
In fact, the Tribunal is not looked on favorably in the region. Each ethnic group resents the indictments of its own military heroes. No group thinks its tormentors have been adequately punished. The procedural niceties are largely lost in a flood of self-justifying nationalistic fervor. There has been little reflection, at least in popular culture, on the villainy of one’s own, only of the others. Leading politicians exploit the popular sentiment. Few acknowledge their own group’s culpability or laud accountability.
I would nevertheless judge the Tribunal a success, less for its jurisprudence and more for its political impact. Even when it did not capture war criminals right away, indictments sooner or later forced wartime leaders out of the political arena. Had that not been the case, politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia would have been far more fraught. Mladic and his political counterpart Radovan Karadzic were forced into hiding. Slobodan Milosevic was defeated at the polls and extradited. Had they remained politically active, or even just present in their respective political environments, Sarajevo and Belgrade would have been far more fraught.
That is less true for the Croatian, Bosniak, and Kosovar indictees, not least because their top political leaderships were never indicted. Croatian President Tudjman and Bosnian President (Alija) Izetbegovic are dead. Kosovo Prime Minister Haradinaj was indicted but acquitted. He is again prime minister now. He, Kosovo President Thaci, or other KLA fighters could still be indicted, by a Kosovo “special court” staffed with internationals convened in The Hague to deal with post-war crimes.
Some will say the failure to hold more Croat, Bosniak and Kosovo political leaderships accountable, and the acquittal of some of their military leaders, proves that ICTY is biased against Serbs, or implemented only victor’s justice. I find some of the acquittals difficult to understand, but it is important to remember that a court like ICTY that follows best practices in contemporary criminal procedure is more likely to acquit the guilty than convict the innocent, which is as it should be.
There is however no question of innocence in Mladic’s case. The evidence presented at trial was overwhelming and compelling. Someone else unjustly getting off is no reason to doubt Mladic’s guilt. He will now have ample opportunity to appeal, but odds are he’ll spend the rest of his life incarcerated in a fairly comfortable place, telling himself he was right to protect Serbs by murdering and expelling Muslims and Croats, firing at civilians in Sarajevo, and taking UN peacekeepers hostage. It’s an unsatisfying outcome, but the best available.
A few questions have come up about my report for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on preventing The Unraveling of the Balkans Peace Agreements. I’ll try to answer some of them here.
Q: Was the report requested by the Congress or the Administration?
A: No, though it has been briefed to both.
The report originated in a call to me last spring from CFR prevention director Paul Stares, a former colleague at the United States Institute of Peace. I had done two previous reports for Paul, both on Libya, but he was of course aware of my interest in the Balkans and had noticed the increasing alarm about the Balkans in the US and European media.
Q: Why did you write about changing borders in the Balkans? Doesn’t doing so give that idea legitimacy/credibility?
A: CFR rightly requires that its authors treat a full range of options to deal with the potential contingency in question. Changing borders has been widely discussed in the Balkans, Europe, and the US. I felt I had to deal with the idea.
I did so by looking at it from the perspective of US interests and values. It failed on both counts. It would require both heavy diplomatic and military commitments from the US, EU and Russia that are not available. It would also boost President Putin’s misbehavior in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, not to mention undermine the US position on Kurdistan’s independence referendum. It would also vitiate liberal democratic values, which are based on equal rights regardless of ethnicity, not trying to herd people on to the “right” side of a border.
Q: The report suggests a special envoy for the Balkans in order to reassert US leadership on some key issues. Secretary of State Tillerson is not keen on special envoys. Isn’t there another way?
A: Yes. I mention in the report that the current institutional setup could be used, a deputy assistant secretary, provided she or he has good connectivity with upper levels of the US government. Another option, one I wish I had included, would be delegation of authority for the Balkans to Vice President Pence, who has already begun to take the lead there. A formal delegation with key objectives outlined would likely be a better solution than a special envoy, but I’m told it is also unlikely.
Q: What has been the reaction to the report?
A: Positive from those who agree with me. Others don’t communicate as much, but instead use my mention of border changes to suggest falsely that is my preferred option. Let me say again: I see no way to change borders that is feasible with the resources available and oppose the idea in principle as well as in practice. Democracy and rule of law are the answer, not ethnic tribalism.
Donika Krasniqi of Gazeta Express asked some questions; I responded:
Q: US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hoyt Yee said during a roundtable, which you attended as well, that the West should be more direct with the corrupt Balkan leaders by not inviting them to Washington and Brussels.
How serious do you think his remarks are and is this a new policy of the US State Department with immediate effect or it is merely an opinion expressed in a discussion panel?
A: He sounded serious to me. And I suspect that some otherwise difficult-to-explain moves, like Dodik’s cancellation of dates for referenda, might be related.
Q: How do you see the demarcation issue between Kosovo and Montenegro now that Ramush Haradinaj is in office? We saw that as soon as he took office he set up a new committee to measure the demarcation line, as the pressure from Brussels and Washington to adopt the deal continues to mount on Kosovo officials.
A: This is an issue that Ramush should have abandoned as soon as he took office. Kosovo has little to gain and a great deal to lose if it continues to resist demarcation.
Q: Mr Haradinaj seems to be a leader with his hands tied, so which do you think should be the solution? Is there any advice you would give to Mr Haradinaj?
A: My advice is to get out of this rabbit hole as quickly as possible. Kosovo has far bigger and more important issues to worry about.
Q: Serbian officials have never spared their bellicose statements towards Kosovo. Just recently, head of Serbia’s government office for Kosovo Marco Djuric said that Serbs were ready to fight against Kosovo. Do you believe there could be a new conflict in the Balkans?
A: Mr. Djuric should know better. There will be no fighting for Kosovo so long as the NATO-led forces are there. I hope they will stay until complete normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, including UN membership for Kosovo and exchange of diplomatic representatives at the ambassadorial level. Djuric’s remarks make me wonder whether he is the right guy to be conducting an internal Serbian dialogue on the subject. Serbia needs introspection and realism, not fantasy and threats
My Council on Foreign Relations report on preventing the unraveling of the Balkan peace agreements was published yesterday. It speaks for itself, except in one respect. The report recommends that the US appoint a special envoy to do some heavy diplomatic lifting in the Balkans, including normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, enabling Macedonia to enter NATO, and Bosnian constitutional and electoral reform, as well as blocking Russian trouble-making.
On reflection, there might be a better solution, but I thought of it too late to get it into the report: delegation of responsibility for all these things to the Vice President, who has already informally taken the lead on Balkans policy with a trip to Montenegro. Vice President Biden had such a formal delegation, but so far as I know not the explicit responsibility for the particular issues I cite. Empowering Vice President Pence to seek these goals would ensure high-level political attention, which is what they all need. None of the current problems in the Balkans are insoluble, provided the US and EU are prepared to use their leverage in a coordinated and forceful way.
What if there is no special envoy appointed and the vice president is not formally delegated responsibility? Should we give up hope? No. the things I have suggested can be handled, as they have been in recent years, by a Deputy Assistant Secretary and his staff, but he will need access to higher levels of the US government. That has been lacking, especially during the transition from President Obama to President Trump. It is high time that connection was strengthened. People in the Balkans need to know that the top levels of the US government are backing the person–no matter what her or his title–who seeks to complete the regional peace processes, which were all negotiated with strong backing at high levels.
Visits are one way to demonstrate that high-level backing, but they require real progress on real issues. People in Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia are all asking for visits from the President, Vice President, as well as the Secretaries of Defense and State. What they have not always done is to make the kind of progress that got Montenegro a visit from the vice president after its accession to NATO. Political and economic reform are their own reward, but they will also attract positive attention from others and prevent the unraveling of peace agreements that have brought enormous benefits to a region once in turmoil.