Tag: European Union

Questions about unraveling

A few questions have come up about my report for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on preventing The Unraveling of the Balkans Peace AgreementsI’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.

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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.


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Two chairs

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.

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More sovereignty, not less

An interview I did for Arlinda Kqiku of the Pristina paper Zeri was published today: 

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!

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Beyond absurd

Others have already picked apart President Trump’s speech on Iran, showing it to be inaccurate, vacuous, mendacious, illogical and just plain dumb. Try Paul Pilar at Lobelog, for what will rank as one of the best critiques.

On the central issue–the Iran nuclear deal–Trump is illogical. The justification the President offered for “decertifying” the nuclear deal to Congress is the assertion that the benefits to the United States are not sufficient to justify the sanctions relief Iran obtained. That is ridiculous. Iran today would have a nuclear weapon (or two) without this deal. Blocking all routes to that end is precisely what Trump claims he wants and would be giving up if he decided to renounce it.

That he did not do. His bark is consistently worse than his bite, unless you are Puerto Rico, a minority, someone who needs health insurance, or otherwise disadvantaged. Instead, Trump threw the hot potato to Congress, without any clear direction on whether he wants it to impose new sanctions (hoping that will cause the deal to collapse) or just let things muddle through. Judging from his past performances (read TPP, DACA, Obamacare, and likely soon NAFTA), he’ll opt for trying to cause collapse.

For now, that is not the case. But this decertification ploy, empty as it is of any substantial diplomatic content, has serious long-term implications.

Trump has stabbed our European allies in the back. They regard the Iran nuclear deal as a big European achievement, for good reason. The EU3 (UK, France and Germany) played important roles in applying the sanctions that made it work, keeping the process moving, and getting it to a successful conclusion. They clearly intend to maintain the deal as long as Iran maintains its side of the bargain, which it is doing. Any move by the US to unilaterally impose new nuclear sanctions or otherwise renounce the deal will not make it collapse, but simply divide Washington further from Brussels and improve Tehran’s standing in Europe.

Trump’s failure to acknowledge the benefits of the nuclear deal undermines US credibility with both Iran and North Korea. In Iran, it hurts President Rouhani, who by all reports had a hard time selling the nuclear deal to the Supreme Leader. How would an Iranian who wanted a follow-on deal that maintained the restrictions on the nuclear program now sell that idea to the Supreme Leader (likely the next one, not this one)? The American President said this one wasn’t worth what he paid for it, so how could the follow-on be? Nor would any other country, let’s say North Korea, be prepared to strike a deal with the United States after it failed to maintain its part of the bargain, at least to the point of acknowledging well-documented compliance with a prior deal.

Trump is a bad negotiator who always considers his own alternative to a negotiated agreement and likes to bluster that he prefers that, hoping to get a better deal. But he never considers the adversary’s alternative, which in this case is to proceed to get nuclear weapons. Trump has already convinced Kim Jung-un that continuing in that direction is his best guarantee of regime security. I’d find it hard to argue otherwise. Yesterday he did a great deal to convince more people in Tehran, and maybe other capitals as well.

The global nonproliferation regime America helped to build has demonstrably slowed the spread of nuclear weapons for decades. If it survives the next three plus years, it will be in spite of the United States. That really is beyond absurd.

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What to do in Syria now

Ibrahim al Assil, a founder of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, and a nonresident fellow at the Orient Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, wrote a notable op/ed for the Washington Post this week. Here is his email teaser, which he has kindly given me permission to publish: 

Syria entered a new reality in the last few months. However, there are significant misconceptions that can alter the future of Syria if not taken into consideration. I’m writing to share my piece for the Washington Post today, titled Syria’s civil war is a long way from over — and here’s why that’s important. I discuss the ideas below:

– Assad has not yet won. What he has done is to prevent anyone else from winning.

– Syria can’t be stabilized under Assad’s leadership. The conflict will erupt again unless a political settlement is achieved.

– Aid to Syria should be sent directly to local communities and those who are in need. This will prevent Assad from weaponizing the aid, and it will ensure that the aid actually reaches the people who need it most.

– The military campaign is not enough to defeat ISIS. Without addressing the root causes that brought about the rise of the terrorist movement, any “defeat” is only short-term. The US should help stabilize those areas and support the civil society and local governance initiatives.

– The US and the EU should help Syrians start to rebuild their communities after ISIS while preventing Assad from cashing in on his Pyrrhic victory.

This to me makes a lot of good sense. It also runs contrary to US inclinations. President Trump has made it clear he wants to defeat ISIS militarily and get out, without taking any responsibility for the state-building required to prevent it from returning. 

Self-defeating would be my term for that approach: it would allow Assad to attempt to retake, with help from his Russian and Iranian allies, those areas in the north, east, and south that are still out of his control, it would allow the Turks to attack the Kurds who have been vital to America’s success against ISIS, it would virtually ensure the reignition of a rebellion against Assad’s heavy-handedness. 

Protecting the remaining opposition-controlled areas and enabling them to govern inclusively and effectively would, by contrast, illustrate to Syrians a realistic political alternative, counter the Iranian expansionism, and help to prevent a return of jihadi extremism. Too sensible by half for Trump, but a real option the US could be contemplating. 

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