Tag: Balkans

My Balkans Q and A

Albatrit Matoshi of Pristina daily Zeri asked questions last week. I replied:

  1. Not even two months after the parliamentary elections in Kosovo, the central institutions can not be formed as a result of political disunity. Is Kosovo losing ground to international institutions as a result of this political stalemate?

A: There are surely costs to the political stalemate, but “hung” parliaments happen. Even in much more experienced democracies, politicians often take months to form a new government. In the meanwhile, there is a caretaker in place. I trust it is doing the ordinary and necessary business of government.

  1. The Coalition PAN (PDK-AAK-NISMA) has emerged the largest in the June 11 elections, but it faces lack the necessary numbers to form the Assembly and the Government. In the absence of the necessary votes, this coalition is not participating in Assembly sessions, despite the invitation of the US, Germany, France, England, Italy to attend the Assembly. Should political representatives find compromise solutions, as the country risks again to go to extraordinary elections?

A: I hope people will make every effort to come to a compromise solution rather than new elections, but that decision is up to Kosovars, not foreigners.

  1. Should President Hashim Thaçi give the mandate to the second party, in this case to the “Vetëvendosje” candidate for Prime Minister Albin Kurti, if Ramush Haradinaj fails within the legal deadline to form the Government?

A: I am not a lawyer, but the Kosovo Constitution says the President “appoints the candidate for Prime Minister for the establishment of the Government after proposal by the political party or coalition holding the majority in the Assembly.” It seems to me Vetëvendosje would get a mandate if it can propose a government with support of the majority in the Assembly.

  1. In the absence of the Assembly and the Government, Kosovo has not yet ratified the demarcation agreement with Montenegro. If Ramush Haradinaj is elected prime minister, who has mostly objected to this agreement, do you expect that this issue will be resolved?

A: You will have to ask him. I know of no reasonable basis on which to continue opposition to demarcation.

  1. Is the EU likely to abolish visas for Kosovo if the demarcation agreement is sent to international arbitration?

A: You’ll have to ask the EU.

  1. If demarcation is voted in the Assembly, how many months will be needed until the start of the visa-free travel to the EU, given the fact that there are elections in some member states?

A: Again: this is a question for the Europeans.

  1. The new Kosovo government, if formed by a simple parliamentary majority, will face a strong opposition and at the same time will be dependent on the votes of Serbian MPs working under the directives of the Government of Serbia. How stable will be such a government, which will not really have the votes to pass the demarcation agreement, the Association of Municipalities with Serbian Majority, etc.?

A: That doesn’t sound like a formula for stability, but we’ll have to wait and see.

  1. It has been announced that dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia can take place at the level of presidents. How realistic is the move of the dialogue at such stage?

A: The Presidents have established a mutually respectful rapport, which should be sustained. But certainly political instability on the Pristina side could make the dialogue difficult. On the Belgrade side, things look pretty stable for now, even if some contest the validity of the last election.

  1. Serbia’s President Vucic has announced an internal debate on Kosovo. Do you expect the leadership in Belgrade in the framework of the Euro-integration process to remove Kosovo from its constitution?

A: I expect Serbia in the framework of the Euro-integration process to accept the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo, including (but not only) by removing it from the constitution. Kosovo UN membership and exchange of diplomatic representatives at the ambassadorial level should follow. The question is whether this will be done at the last moment before EU accession, when the negotiating leverage will be entirely on the EU side, or earlier, when Belgrade can hope to get a better deal. I think it is better to do it sooner rather than later, but of course that is up to Serbs, not foreigners, and will depend on the outcome of the internal debate the President has proposed.

Marija Jovicevic of Montenegro daily Pobjeda also asked some questions last week. I replied: 

  1. Serbia will be host of a NATO army exercise in October 2018. Do You think that Montenegro entering NATO is a signal for all other countries in region that Alliance has no alternative?

A: No, I think other countries have a choice to make. There is nothing inevitable about NATO, which only accepts those who are prepared to make the necessary reforms and to contribute positively to the Alliance. Serbia will want to consider all its options.

2. Do you see all of the Western Balkan region in NATO?

A: I might hope for that, but so far only Macedonia and Kosovo have committed to eventual NATO membership, once they meet the necessary requirements. Bosnia and Serbia are hesitating, for obvious reasons. NATO will be fine without them. The question is whether they would be better off with NATO and whether they are prepared to make the necessary commitments.

3. Do You think that Montenegro can be host of a NATO base in future?

A: Best to ask NATO about this possibility. I am not aware of any Alliance requirement for a base in Montenegro right now, though I suppose all of Montenegro’s bases are now in some sense “NATO.”

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What Vučić wants

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on Monday published an op/ed in the Belgrade daily Blic on “Why we need an internal dialogue on Kosovo.” While there have been both skeptical and welcoming reactions to this overture, I think the President’s views on merit reading by all those who seek peace in the Balkans. Blic has given me permission to publish the full text in English. I am grateful to SAIS graduate Marko Grujicic for the translation: 

Why I asked the Serbs and other citizens of Serbia to talk about Kosovo and Metohija? Why do I consider this dialogue decisive for the future of our country and the people? Why open this topic at all if we all learned to be silent and against everything, as any solution would assume that every politician who dares to search for it would pay the price. On the other hand, all others would pretend to be those who know about Kosovo much more than they really do, that they had much better solutions but nobody asked for their opinion.

Therefore it is important, now more than ever, to look into the mirror and to boldly and clearly see all the scars, wounds and shortcomings on our own face. At the same time, we have to try to cure what is possible while not giving up in desperation, due to the problem which we have been grappling with.

It is time that, as a nation, we stop burying our heads in the sand like ostriches and to try to be realistic; not to allow ourselves to lose or give to someone what we have, but also not to wait for what we have long lost to arrive in our hands. When Shimon Peres, the man I had the privilege talking with several times, was once asked why he insisted so much on negotiations with the Palestinians, he said: “Because it will open the seaports of peace throughout the Mediterranean. It is the duty of a leader to pursue the kind of freedom that gives peace and to endure such freedom constantly, even when faced with hostility, suspicion and disappointment. Just imagine what could happen if it does not work.” Even today, when I need to answer about the need for the dialogue with Pristina and the internal, Serbian dialogue, on Kosovo, the end of this quote contains the essence of the whole story – “Just imagine what could happen.” If suddenly everyone remains silent; if we stop talking. After many years dealing with politics in this region, I know this answer very well. Since 1878, since the creation of the so-called Prizren league we, the Serbs, did not want to be responsible enough to understand the strength and aspirations of the Albanians. On the other hand, it is a great mistake of the Albanians, for which I am grateful, that they lack the understanding of Serbian state and national interests and underestimate them; even worse, an attempt to sweep them under the rug because someone thinks this is possible with the support of the great powers.

It is time for us, as a nation, to stop burying our head in the sand as an ostrich and to be realistic

Serbia is not to be underestimated, despite the fact that the Albanians in the implementation of their national ideas have the significant support from most Western countries. Today’s Serbia is not as infectious as it was, Serbia is not as weak as it was in 1999, 2004 and 2008, but Serbia is not, nor should it be, conceited and arrogant as, not rarely, it used to be.

Silence means we no longer care about the answers to anything. Silence means we have nothing to ask for; that we have ceased to hope; that we are ready for the last option, for the conflict – both our inner one but also with everyone around us.

Silence is the quality of those who think only they are right. Those who do not want to listen to anyone else. Those who are convinced that they are the smartest, have nothing more to learn, are superior to all the others, and that they have nothing more to talk about with anyone else. This is the modus operandi of tyrannies – always ready to spill someone else’s blood. At the culmination, silence is the end. After the silence no one speaks and the only sound is a long, uneven scream. I cannot see myself in this business of silence nor in such a numb Serbia. If that happens, not only will my policy be a failure, but also my whole life and the lives of all of us. That is something I will never agree on, no matter who thinks I am too vociferous, I ask too many questions, I talk more than I should. Just imagine what could be, if it is different? If I were one of those silent who bring people into conflict and war, just to teach them the geography of their own country? Or if I were one of those who would, in response to tapping on the shoulder and candies given by some of the Western embassies, agree to deliver all Serbian hearths, thus becoming, as they say, a great reformer. Read more

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I am getting inquiries about Serbian President Vučić’s meeting yesterday with Vice President Pence. The White House readout is short but includes some detail:

Vice President Mike Pence met today with President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić. The leaders agreed on the importance of the bilateral relationship and expressed the desire to deepen the partnership between the United States and Serbia. The Vice President expressed U.S. support for Serbia’s efforts to join the European Union, the need for continued reforms, and further progress in normalizing the relationship with Kosovo. The leaders discussed the Vice President’s upcoming trip to Podgorica, Montenegro, where he will participate in an Adriatic Charter Summit with leaders from across the Western Balkans region. The Vice President also announced that the United States will provide an additional $10 million contribution to the Regional Housing  Program, an internationally funded, joint initiative by Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro that provides housing to those displaced during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Vučić has emphasized establishment of a direct channel with the Vice President.

None of this is particularly new or interesting. It is easy enough for the US to support Serbia’s EU prospects, the necessary reforms, and the dialogue with Pristina. A “direct channel” can mean many things: Washington has direct telecommunications links (that bypass the State Department and Foreign Ministries) with a number of countries, but it could also just mean a commitment to answer the phone.

Likely more interesting is what Belgrade and Washington haven’t yet said. There is the specific issue of the three Kosovar American Bytyqi brothers, apparently murdered by Serb police after the war in Kosovo. Vučić long ago promised prosecutions of those responsible but hasn’t delivered. Did Pence raise this case? There is also the general issue of Belgrade’s relationship with Moscow, which has included establishment of a Russian logistics base in Nis, exercises with the Russian military, free Russian arms transfers, and refusal of Serbia to go along with EU sanctions levied because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While President Trump himself is soft on Russia, for many Americans Serbia’s behavior towards Moscow raises questions about its suitability as a US partner.

The most important aspect of this meeting is likely that it occurred at all. No doubt Vučić sought it now primarily because Pence is heading for Montenegro in early August for a multilateral meeting at which Serbia will only be an observer. No Serbian president would want to be upstaged, least of all by Belgrade’s erstwhile junior partner. The Americans likely saw reason in making it clear they want a good relationship with Serbia as well.

But it is also significant that the meeting was with Pence. The Trump Administration apparently wants to continue Obama’s habit of keeping the Vice President out front on Balkans issues, leaving the President to more important tasks. Plus ça change…

PS: Whether or not the White House is interested in the Russia connection, the House of Representatives is. It is requiring the Pentagon to report on Russia/Serbia military cooperation.

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The world in 2394 words

I spoke this afternoon at the 10th Summer School for Young Diplomats in Kolasin, Montenegro. Here are the speaking notes I prepared on “Global Security Challenges: New Developments and Future Trends.”


  1. It’s a pleasure to be here, especially in these beautiful mountains. While I’ve been to Montenegro a few times in the past, this is my first visit since it became a NATO ally. That betokens enormous progress. I can only wish all your countries as much success as Montenegro has had over the past twenty years or so.
  1. That teaches an important lesson in international affairs: if you keep going in the right direction, you will eventually get there.
  1. I’ve been asked to talk about geopolitical challenges. I’ve got my own ideas about what they are, but I’d like your ideas as well. So let me ask you to write one on each stickie—no more than a phrase is needed.
  1. My own list of current geopolitical challenges from a Washington perspective is this: the United States, the Middle East, Islamist extremism, Russia, and China as well as nuclear nonproliferation and climate change. That should keep us busy for the next hour and a half.


  1. First Washington. It is a geopolitical challenge for many countries, because of its global political and economic influence, its enormous capacity for power projection and because of its still ongoing political transition.
  1. Many of you will wonder how the new Administration will affect your country’s interests. I can’t hope to cover the entire world, but let me say a few things that may help you to work out the implications for your own country.
  1. President Trump was elected on an explicit promise to “make America great again,” which implies greater attention to American interests in dealing with the rest of the world.
  1. It also implies reduced attention to American values, especially democracy and human rights. The Administration appears to be applying a double standard: if you are America’s friend, you need not fear Washington will criticize your internal political behavior.
  1. Presidents Erdogan, Sisi, and Duterte can testify to that, as can Kings Salman of Saudi Arabia and Abdullah of Jordan.
  1. But if you are President Castro of Cuba or Supreme Leader Khamenei, you can anticipate sharp rebukes from the U.S., and possibly sanctions or other restrictive measures.
  1. The new Administration has also prioritized the use of military instruments over diplomacy and international aid. While its budget proposal was dead on arrival in Congress, where at least some aspects of diplomacy and aid have strong supporters, you can still expect less diplomacy and less money.
  1. The only exceptions to this rule so far have been North Korea, where the conventional artillery threat to Seoul and much of South Korea makes American military action unlikely, and the Middle East, where the president has committed his son-in-law and two of his personal lawyers to negotiating peace. I don’t know anyone in Washington who thinks they will be successful, but they may make some progress on confidence-building measures. I’ll return to North Korea later.

Middle East

  1. As I am already wandering into the Middle East, let me go there. It has been clear for some time, though few will say it out loud, that American interests there are declining. We need less oil from the Middle East while other countries are taking more, the top non-proliferation issue there is under control for a decade or more, and our allies there want military assistance but not much more.
  1. By far the most important interest the U.S. has today in the Middle East is terrorism. The current Administration wants to deal with it as a military problem: the objective is to kill Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and get out.
  1. This was precisely the approach intended by George W. Bush in Afghanistan: kill Al Qaeda and get out. It failed because we couldn’t find all of Al Qaeda. The President changed his mind because we were sure it would return if we left.
  1. In Syria, this approach faces the same difficulty, as it virtually guarantees that there will be a continuing Sunni insurgency, not to mention its metastases elsewhere in the world.
  1. That’s where all of you come in: with ISIS on the verge of defeat in Iraq and Syria, it is not attracting so many foreign fighters, who were the focus of much attention in recent years. Nor is the question of terrorist financing as important as once it was.
  1. The bigger issue is now home-grown terrorism, perhaps inspired or encouraged by fighters returning from Iraq or Syria. In the Balkans, for example, I would now regard this as a big problem, as it is in Europe and the U.S. as well.
  1. There are two important strategies in dealing with homegrown terrorism: making sure that people are not marginalized but rather have a stake in their own governance and society; and not overreacting to terrorist threats or attacks, as overreaction is precisely what they intend to provoke.
  1. Right-wing terrorism kills more Americans than Islamic extremism, even counting 9/11.
  1. We need to avoid the kind of overreaction that the Administration’s travel ban on 6 Muslim countries represents.


  1. In the Middle East, the Americans will focus next on the Iranian threat.
  1. That threat is real. Iran has vastly expanded its influence in the region, not so much because of the nuclear agreement but rather due to its support for proxy forces, which long predates the nuclear deal: Hizbollah in Syria as well as Lebanon, Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Palestine.
  1. The reaction, led by the Saudis, has also been vigorous, making much of the Middle East a battleground for sectarian conflict and even splitting the Gulf Cooperation Council. Qatar just won’t give up the good relations with Iran that enable both countries to exploit the largest natural gas field in the Middle East.
  1. Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood leadership has chosen to side with Qatar and Iran, undermining the American effort to construct an anti-Iran alliance that includes the majority Sunni states of the Middle East as well as Israel.
  1. To sum up on Iran: it has gained a lot of ground in recent years, not least due to the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the civil wars it has exploited in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The Americans have not yet figured out what they want to do about it, though my best guess is that they will in due course want to confront Iranian ambitions.


  1. Russia is another geopolitical challenge, not only in the Middle East.
  1. Putin’s Russia is using all the instruments of national power at its disposal to challenge the Americans and re-assert its status as a superpower, except for a direct force-on-force military clash that Moscow knows it would lose.
  1. The Russians are sending ships and planes to provoke NATO allies and sympathetic neutrals, they have invaded Ukraine with only a thin veneer of deniability, they are bombing Syrian moderate opposition, they are selling weapons to Egypt, supporting General Haftar in Libya, and using Sputnik News and Russia Today as propaganda tools.
  1. They are also interfering in elections, conducting cyberattacks, and plotting and conducting assassinations.
  1. None of this has provoked much reaction yet from either the Americans or Europeans, apart from Ukraine-related sanctions and a few tit-for-tat aircraft incidents.
  1. Inexplicably to me, Putin has a lot of admirers in the US, especially among the Republicans and certainly in the Trump Administration, which has made no secret of its desire to get along better with Moscow.
  1. We’ll have to wait and see what comes of the first Trump/Putin meeting on the margins of the G20 Summit tomorrow and Saturday in Hamburg.
  1. The American receptiveness to Putin may surprise many of you. It surprises me. I can’t really explain it in conventional national interest terms.
  1. I think it is related to ethnic nationalism: Trump is what we are calling these days “white nationalist”; Putin is a Russian nationalist. The two admire each other.
  1. But Russia is a declining regional power with an economy no larger than Spain’s and based largely on energy resources whose value has declined dramatically. It’s only real international capability is to make life difficult for people who want to run serious democracies.
  1. We are going to need to learn to live with that, responding to it in ways that block the worst consequences and nudge Moscow in more productive directions, but at the same time not accepting the Russian claim to superpower status.

China Read more

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A delicate balance

The Western Balkans: A Delicate Balance

The collapse of Yugoslavia twenty-six years ago unleashed brutal wars and a huge humanitarian catastrophe. Today the delicate order in the Balkans is under threat again. Serbia aspires to join the European Union, but is strengthening its ties with Russia, despite the growing strains in the West’s relationship with Moscow. The relations between Kosovo and Serbia are tense. Unable to embrace necessary reforms, Bosnia is on the edge again, while Macedonia and Montenegro suffer from deep divisions. Continued recovery and peace in the Balkans require sustained Western engagement and the prospects of integration into the European Union. But Europe is tired of enlargement and its authority in the Balkans is weakening. Meanwhile, the influences of Russia and radical Islamist ideology are growing in the region. Join us at the Wilson Center as experts discuss the challenges in the Western Balkans and the policy options for preserving the region’s fragile order and recovery.


Ross Johnson
History and Public Policy Fellow, Wilson Center
Visiting Scholar, Hoover Institution
John R. Lampe
Senior Scholar, Wilson Center
Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland, College Park
Daniel Serwer
Senior Fellow, Center for Transatlantic Relations
Professor, School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University
Marta Vrbetic
Wilson Center Global Fellow, Global Europe Program
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Monday, June 26th, 2017

5th Floor Conference Room


Wilson Center
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The KLA isn’t the only winner

A coalition led by three parties that trace their origins to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) won a plurality in Kosovo’s parliamentary election yesterday. Running for the first time together, the winning KLA coalition has promised the prime minister’s post to Ramush Haradinaj, who was acquitted twice by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The Self-Determination Movement (Vetëvendosje), which advocates a referendum on union with Albania, came in second, with former Prime Minister Mustafa’s coalition a close but disappointing third.

Ramush was serving as prime minister in 2005 when ICTY first indicted him. He resigned and went to The Hague to defend himself, successfully. He was indicted again in 2011 and acquitted again in 2012. French authorities detained him in January of this year at the request of Serbia but freed him in April. His appointment as prime minister will complicate relations with Serbia, whose laws he unquestionably broke during Kosovo’s armed rebellion in 1998 and 1999, and Montenegro, as he for several years has opposed demarcation of its already agreed border with Kosovo. Ramush’s brother and supporter Daut was convicted in 2002 of murdering members of a KLA rival group. He was also involved in a short-lived but violent Albanian insurgency in Macedonia in 2001.

The emergence of a KLA government will complicate an already complicated situation. It will harden attitudes among Serbs, both within Kosovo and in Belgrade, where a former deputy prime minister to a Milosevic-supporting government is now president, elected on a pro-European Union platform. The EU and US will try to revive implementation of a Brussels agreement that provides for reintegration of Serb-majority northern Kosovo with the rest of the country, in exchange for more Serb autonomy. Ramush has the kind of authority required to reach such an agreement with the Serbs, but he will want in exchange needed Serb support for conversion of Kosovo’s lightly armed security forces into a small NATO-compatible army.

Having more than doubled its vote in percentage terms, Self-Determination is also a big winner and will be the new government’s main opposition. Using so far non-lethal violence both on the streets and in parliament to make its points, it opposes Kosovo statehood, preferring to make the country a part of Albania, and the talks with Belgrade. It also criticizes both the winning coalition and the outgoing government for corruption and abuse of power, a charge that resonates strongly in a country disappointed in the economic benefits of almost a decade of independence. Self-Determination’s mayor of Pristina, Shpend Ahmeti, has acquired a good reputation for managing the city well.

The big loser in this election is the political party derived from Kosovo’s peaceful protest movement of the 1990s, led then by Ibrahim Rugova. Coming in third, its fragile ad hoc coalition will have a difficult time influencing events in a political scenario dominated by the out-sized personalities of Ramush, Self-Determinatio leader Albin Kurti, and President Thaci, another former KLA leader.

Many will feel trepidation about domination of Kosovo by former KLAers and Self-Determination, both of which are led by consummate showmen. They seem more likely to compete for attention, often appealing to pan-Albanian  and anti-Serb nationalist sentiment, than for prizes in good governance. But we all need to respect the outcome of truly democratic elections, which these seem to have been. Ramush and his government can always prove their critics wrong. I wish them well in meeting the real needs in today’s Kosovo: economic and social improvement as well as good relations with its neighbors.

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