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.
Hoyt Yee, the deputy assistant secretary of State whose bailiwick includes the Balkans, said yesterday in Belgrade that Serbia “cannot sit on two chairs at the same time.” He was referring to Belgrade’s efforts to both accede to the EU and maintain close relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. These goals are just too far apart, he suggested.
I agree, but the question arises: why would anyone in a country that needs economic and political reform latch on to Moscow? Russia has an economy the size of Spain’s (with Catalonia) and a political system that resorts to prosecution and assassination to eliminate competition. While the Russian military has enjoyed some success in its interventions in Ukraine and Syria, it has nowhere near the capacity the West has to protect its friends and allies. Russia is a declining regional power, one heavily dependent on hydrocarbons rather than a diversified economy.
There are nevertheless people in Serbia who feel they need “the warm embrace of the Russian bear,” as one of them put it to me. “When,” he asked, “was the last time an American president visited Belgrade?” I didn’t know it at the time, but the correct answer seems to be Jimmy Carter, in 1980. That is indeed a long time ago. President Trump has allegedly promised to visit next year.
What does the warm Russian embrace entail? While fundamentally a political link, Belgrade’s affection for Moscow also entails military cooperation, economic interests, and Slavic cultural affinity. The Russians have given Serbia MiGs, involved Serbia in military exercises, and established a “humanitarian” logistics base near Nis. They prevent Kosovo from entering the United Nations. They have also taken possession of much of the Serbian energy sector. Belgrade might prefer F16s, but Washington doesn’t give them away, and lack of appropriate pipelines hinders efforts to wean Serbia from Russian gas. Russia Today and Sputnik News are making big efforts to sustain the long history of Slavic brotherhood with Serbia, not to mention the efforts of the Serb and Russian Orthodox Churches.
The Russian embrace also entails acceptance of Putin’s governing norms. They include assassination. Last year, Moscow attempted to mount, through Serbia, an assassination plot against Montenegrin Prime Minister Djukanovic, a good friend of Vucic. To his enormous credit, Vucic not only helped to foil the plot but also provided vital testimony as to its reality. Fear of such an attempt in Serbia is motive enough for some politicians to hedge their bets.
But they have other reasons too. The reforms the European Union seeks as a condition for accession require political leaders to do difficult things that block at least some of the corruption endemic to the Balkans. At least one Balkan leader, Ivo Sanader (erstwhile prime minister of Croatia) found himself arrested, tried, and convicted as a consequence of the judicial reforms for which he himself was responsible. The “Sanader effect” has made other Balkan leaders extra cautious about judicial independence and anti-corruption prosecutions.
President Vucic, who has repeatedly won elections on a pro-EU platform, would make an enormous mistake not to opt for the EU chair, though in doing so he will need to give up his control of the press and accept a far more independent judiciary ready to take on corruption and other official malfeasance. Those are not easy things for a former Information Ministry in a Milosevic government to do. Some bad habits are so ingrained they are hard to break, even if you in principle want to do so. I even wonder whether the Serbian media and courts would believe Vucic if he were to signal clearly that he was surrendering his influence over them.
That however is what he needs to do, not to please me or Hoyt Yee but to enable Serbia to emerge as a real and liberal democracy politically more tied to the EU and far less to the Russian bear.
An interview I did for Arlinda Kqiku of the Pristina paper Zeri was published today:
- Months ago central institutions were formed. What is your impression about the work of Government and Assembly of Kosovo, for this period of about two months, and what would you consider as priorities of the new established institutions?
A: The new government and assembly have barely begun their work. I would hope the priority would be completing the sovereignty of Kosovo in a way that benefits all its citizens. That means improving its economy, strengthening the rule of law, expanding opportunities and political participation.
- Prime Minister Haradinaj during election period promised that after 100 days of ruling of the new government under his leadership, Kosovo would have visa liberalization agreement with European Union, but it looks like the situation is rather more complicated. Kosovo’s government has established a new commission for border demarcation, while Montenegro insists of being a closed matter. What would you consider as a solution that would please both parts?
A: I doubt there is one that will please both parties, but I also don’t think anyone will remember this dispute a year after it is resolved. For me, the important thing is visa liberalization, not the territorial question.
- Demarcation hardly will pass in Assembly and that is because coalition government can not make 2/3 of votes needed. Are the citizens of Kosovo being isolated as a result of irresponsible political class?
A: You are in a better position to make that judgment than I am.
- Days ago, President Thaci announced publicly disappointment that he has with European Union and required to President of Albania Ilir Meta the massive equipment of all citizens of Kosovo with Albanian passports. In addition Thaci announced that the European Union criterion is unfair. What is your opinion of such a requirement from President Thaci?
A: I don’t like it. Such a move would reduce Kosovo’s sovereignty, not enhance it.
- Is it possible for Kosovo citizens to get the freedom of movement toward European Union, through another country, or do you consider that the requirement was more as a threat of the first of the state for the EU.
A: I take it as a threat, not a serious proposal. Albania won’t do it, for fear of setting back its own EU prospects.
- In addition, President Thaci, weeks ago, declared that Special Court can’t provide justice, because, according to him Special Court will consider only the crime of UÇK [Kosovo Liberation Army], while it was him that years ago asked the deputies to vote pro this court. Why this change of course in relation to this international justice institution? Is it the reason that the Special Court can file an indictment to the senior state officials?
A: You’ll have to ask the President, but I think he has made himself clear: he expected much better treatment from the international community for Kosovo and has not gotten it. I am sympathetic with him on that score, though I don’t think it is a good reason to oppose the Special Court.
- When do you think that Special Court will approximately file first indictments and what is your opinion toward the movement against the Special Court that most of political parties of Kosovo, including here also the opposition are having?
A: I have no idea when they will file their first indictments.
Politicians do what they need to do to get elected, but I would hope some would speak up in favor of clarifying through the court’s proceedings at least some of the post-war violence in Kosovo, which was committed against Serbs, Albanians, and others. If the KLA wants to be remembered well, its supporters will not defend human rights abuses committed by its members.
- The Dialog between Kosovo and Serbia will be led by President Thaci and Vucic. How can this dialog continue when the President of Kosovo critizes the EU for injustice, while EU will be mediator of the dialog?
A: I don’t think criticism of the EU is any reason for the EU not to act as a mediator. We are all subject to criticism for what we do and don’t do.
- Do you believe that Kosovo and Serbia are able to come to a consensus through this dialog, a consensus that may be referred as consensus of the century, and as a result of it, Serbia would recognize Kosovo as a country, right before being an EU member?
A: No. I don’t think recognition should wait until just before becoming an EU member. I think it should happen sooner. It need not be bilateral recognition but could instead come in the form of UN membership and exchange of ambassadorial level diplomatic representatives.
- What is your thought of Kosovo’s perspective in EU?
A: My thought is that it depends on the willingness of Kosovo’s authorities to undertake the political, economic, and justice reforms required. More action, less complaining, would be my preference.
- This year, in Kosovo, some cases of attacks against journalist occurred. What would be the necessary reaction of responsible institutions to guarantee media freedom in Kosovo.
A: In addition to condemning these attacks, arrest and conviction of the perpetrators is what should be expected.
- On this Sunday, in Kosovo, local elections will be held. Which candidate for mayor you consider to be favored in this election?
A: I only discuss the outcome of elections after the fact. That way I don’t have to change my mind so often. May the best candidate win!
Ed Joseph, my colleague at the Johns Hopkins School of Advance International Studies, writes:
Can Rex Tillerson save his job? Even after his striking, defiant statement last week, reaffirming his loyalty to Donald Trump, the odds are against him. He committed the cardinal sin of publicly distancing himself from his boss (over Charlottesville). The President has repeatedly needled and undermined his Secretary of State in tweets. Aside from his travails with the White House, even Tillerson’s admirers have criticized his weak, rudderless performance at Foggy Bottom.
Though time is running short, it’s not too late for Tillerson to turn it around. To do so, he needs a clear, unadulterated victory – a smaller, more modest version of what Dick Holbrooke got at Dayton or what Madeline Albright achieved in Kosovo. As long as Tillerson cedes the credit to his boss, all will be forgiven (though not forgotten) provided he brings the Administration a triumph – particularly one that allows Trump to claim he prevailed where his predecessors failed.
And there is one international dispute tailor-made for Tillerson’s keen attention – an issue that has defied the efforts of prior Administrations, that confounds major European capitals, and that can be resolved swiftly, provided Tillerson is willing to expend political capital and take some risk: Greece’s longstanding objection to Macedonia’s name.
Since Macedonia’s independence in 1991, Greece has insisted that its northern neighbor’s name, ‘Macedonia’, is infringement upon Greek patrimony (stemming from Alexander the Great), and an affront to the Greek region which carries the same name. Athens imposed a punishing embargo on its fledgling neighbor for three years after independence. In 1995, the legendary Holbrooke negotiated an end to the blockade and extracted Athens’ formal commitment not to block Skopje’s membership in international organizations — provided Macedonia entered under its temporary name ‘former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.’
But in 2008, Greece blocked Macedonia’s entry into NATO as ‘fYROM.’ In 2011, the International Court of Justice ruled (by a fifteen to one majority) that, by doing so, Athens had violated its obligations. Greece has ignored the ruling. Macedonia – which has been willing to join NATO under its temporary name — remains marooned in the southern Balkans. Without a NATO or EU perspective, the country is left weakened and prone to crisis. A violent conflict that would draw in its neighbors is a clear possibility, particularly now that Russia is engaged in the country and poised to exert malign influence.
In short, solving the name dispute is a significant US interest. However, no envoy since Holbrooke has managed to make any progress on the question. George W. Bush and his State Department tried, and failed, to get Macedonia into NATO at the Alliance Summit in Bucharest in 2008. The Obama Administration ignored the issue, largely consigning the entire Balkans to indifferent Europeans who likewise failed to make any effort to resolve the name dispute.
Fortunately for Tillerson, circumstances are as favorable as they’ve ever been for a breakthrough. Both Greece and Macedonia are emerging from exhausting, multi-year crises that have sapped their countries’ respective appetite for drama. Neither country’s Prime Minister – Alexis Tsipras in Athens or Zoran Zaev in Skopje – is facing elections just yet. And while both leaders must inevitably cast a wary eye on the opposition, their real focus is on achieving the demonstrable progress needed to stay in office. What’s more, relations between the two capitals have improved. The Greek and Macedonian foreign ministers recently and cordially discussed the name issue — a clear sign the matter is potentially ripe for resolution.
The key to a deal is Greece, by far the more powerful party. Skopje has the law and international opinion on its side; otherwise, it is small, weak and the only side suffering from the dispute.
Thankfully, Washington has leverage over Athens. After three searing international bailouts obtained at the price of draconian reforms, Tsipras is desperate to rid Greece of the harsh financial supervision that has been imposed at the behest of its nemesis, Germany. However, the just-completed German elections have complicated that aspiration. Disappointing results for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party mean that she is now likely to bring hardliners into her government who adamantly oppose relaxing conditions on Greece.
Effectively, Washington has become a key player in this Greek drama. There is no chance for Greek debt relief unless Washington maintains its current level of funding to the IMF — something the Administration has yet to confirm. At the same time, Tsipras also wants a ‘Strategic Partnership’ with the US as another sign that the country has paid its dues, implemented difficult reforms and now deserves to be treated with respect. All this makes Tsipras desperate for a full-fledged summit with Trump this year, a topic already raised with Washington last month.
Tillerson needs only to convince his boss, Trump, author of ‘The Art of the Deal’, to exploit his leverage and insist on full resolution of the Greece-Macedonia name dispute as the price for the meeting and terms that Tsipras seeks. Tillerson should make it clear that the credit will rest with the President, while Tillerson does the heavy lifting.
And there is every reason to believe that Tillerson can succeed, as long he learns from the mistakes of his predecessors:
o Bush and his State Department failed to exploit the deadline of the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit. Tillerson can make it clear to Greece and Macedonia that ‘this is it’, i.e. that this issue will be resolved by the end of this year, full stop.
o Bush’s envoys failed to threaten Athens and Skopje with any credible penalties. Tillerson must make it clear to Athens that if it balks, Tsipras gets no meeting – and Washington will make Macedonian membership in NATO a core Administration priority, while giving Skopje privileged standing with Washington. If tiny Skopje dares try to take advantage of the situation, then the Secretary must threaten vulnerable Zaev with publicly naming and shaming him for screwing up Macedonia’s best chance to end its isolation.
o Tillerson should consult with the long-time UN negotiator on the issue, Matthew Nimetz, but make it clear that after more than two-decades, it’s time to bring the matter to a close. As long as Tillerson is personally invested – and agrees to meet with the parties personally –coordination will be easy. Nimetz will share the full range of solutions available to resolve the entire matter; Tillerson needs only to select one and sell it to the parties.
o Most of all, Tillerson should ignore the US Ambassador to Athens, or any former US Ambassador to Athens, or Greek officials or others who plead that that “this is not the time to press for a solution.” That attitude is precisely the reason this problem has festered for so long.
After a career in the oil business, few know better than Rex Tillerson that taking calculated risk can bring handsome rewards. To save himself from a humiliating return to Houston, it’s time for the Secretary to take some risk in the pursuit of a worthy, and plausible, objective.