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The Fallacy of US and EU Policy in the Western Balkans

U.S. President Joe Biden’s walk across a sunlit plaza of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery alongside his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on the eve of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine sent a powerful signal to the Kremlin. Biden’s footsteps, while air-raid sirens screeched over Kyiv, carried the message his administration has sought to project since February 2022: that in the fight against Russian aggression, the United States is committed to helping Ukraine defend its democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.

Yet, while the United States has gone to historic lengths to ensure that Ukraine can defend itself, U.S. policy, with its European Union partners, has taken a very different approach in the Western Balkans – another region of Europe that NATO has identified as a flashpoint of potential conflict with Russia — largely coddling Russian satellites whose actions have increasingly destabilized the Western Balkans.

Dangerous Western Policy in the Balkans

The war in Ukraine offered a unique opportunity for the West to breathe new life into completing the integration of the Western Balkans countries into the Euro-Atlantic structure – a move that would permanently protect the region – and Europe – from reignited conflicts.

But U.S. and European Union policy towards the Western Balkans in the past year suggests the West has given up on the political transformation needed in the region. Instead, in order to balance Russia in the Balkans and achieve at least a chimera of “stability,” the West has focused instead on the appeasement of regional autocrats, above all those close to Moscow, purportedly to pull them out of the Kremlin’s orbit.

This approach has primarily identified Serbia and Croatia as regional “heavyweights” who must be placated to secure peace and security in the Balkans. However, placating only eases the realization of their ultimate goals — the unification of all ethnic Serbs and all ethnic Croats in the Western Balkans within separate lands through the establishment of Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia, ideas that have been historical constants for Belgrade and Zagreb. This is a dangerous path that aims at securing regional hegemony by grabbing pieces of territory and weakening institutional sovereignty in neighboring countries. Though Montenegro has seen a series of crises led by Serb nationalists and pro-Russian forces, the dangers of the appeasement approach are most acute in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo.

Appeasement in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The threat to Bosnia and Herzegovina was illustrated vividly yet again at the beginning of this year, as secessionist authorities in the Republika Srpska (RS) entity organized a celebration for an unconstitutional holiday marking the Bosnian Serb declaration of their own state at the start of the war that began in 1992 and ultimately killed 100,000 people. The accompanying ceremony featured paramilitary marches by pro-Russian radical motorcycle gang Night Wolves, a medal of honor for Putin in absentia, and activities essentially glorifying the Bosnian Genocide.

These illegal events once again demonstrated the determination of Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik to break up the Bosnian state and the support he garners from the governments of Serbia and the Russian Federation. The dominance of Russian themes and the presence of high-profile Russian and Serbian officials and an assortment of far-right European figures illustrates the sophisticated network of actors working jointly to undermine European values and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

That was followed in February with a visit by the president of the RS National Assembly to the Russian Duma. The Bosnian Serb delegation was greeted with a standing ovation for their steady support of Russian actions, another example of this symbiotic relationship. Furthermore, earlier this month Dodik took a new step in his drive to illegally seize Bosnian state properties in the RS, in direct contravention of a recent ruling by the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dodik further vowed that if the property is not handed over, he would initiate a formal secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), a threat he has issued repeatedly.

Yet the international community has treated these threats and provocations lightly. Christian Schmidt, the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, an office created by the 1995 Dayton Agreement to implement the accord and ensure adherence to the new Constitution, has instead focused on election law changes he imposed in October last year. OHR’s imposition essentially cemented a voting system that subordinates individual citizens’ rights to the priorities of the country’s three major ethnic groups, in contravention of a series of European Court of Human Rights judgments that Bosnia is obliged to implement for EU membership.

Schmidt’s changes have only worsened the ethnic divide, while producing deeper discrimination by gerrymandering ethnically identified political units. The United States and the EU, though not all of its member states, have directly supported Schmidt’s move with the argument that it would promote stability and ease ethnic tensions. In reality, the move caters to a single Croat ethnonationalist party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ BiH), whose president, Dragan Čović, previously advocated for changes that assign more value to the votes of Croats from areas dominated by HDZ BiH.

Furthermore, this imposed solution was devised in direct collaboration with HDZ leaders in neighboring Croatia. In a brazen example of meddling in the internal affairs of a neighboring country, Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenković has used numerous occasions to openly boast of working with OHR to implement Croatia’s singular foreign policy goal — the imposition of the tailored election law in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As a result,  High Representative Schmidt has drawn criticism for “bending to the interests of outsiders,” having links to the hardline sectarian regimes in Zagreb and Belgrade, and praising their governments as having a “moderate and calming influence” on the peace process in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He has been called to explain his views before foreign affairs committees in both the EU and U.K. Parliaments, with both hearings having generated more criticism. All this has led to an irreparable damage to the credibility of the OHR’s mission to safeguard peace and security in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while also eroding the rule of law and democratic integrity.

The U.S. and EU’s support for OHR’s decision in appeasing two anti-Bosnian actors represents a significant strategic blunder of Western policy in the post-Dayton legacy for several reasons. First, the move reaffirms the notion that the U.S. with some of its EU partners has doubled down on ethnic oligarchy as a guiding principle for Bosnian society. Second, Dodik and Čović are proven Russian allies and have received Moscow’s support for their goals in the past. OHR’s appeasement of the duo risks Bosnia and Herzegovina’s forced surrender to the Russian sphere of interest and in that process separates it from the NATO and EU paths.

As previous experience in the Balkans shows, the political appeasement that Schmidt is offering with U.S. and EU backing leads to more crises, not less. Strengthening Belgrade and Zagreb’s proxies in BiH through Dodik and Čović will enable Serbia and Croatia even more control over Bosnian internal affairs, making Bosnia and Herzegovina permanently subordinate in relations with its neighbors. Just Security author Kurt Bassuener observed as much at the UK Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last month, saying “the West is effectively treating Bosnia and Herzegovina as a condominium of Serbia and Croatia, which is what the nationalists always argued during the war.”

The establishment of a dysfunctional constitutional regime in the Dayton Agreement has entrenched two decades of systematic threats to Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region. Current instability only reinforces the clear need for a revision to that regime. That the U.S. and EU have resisted addressing these threats in a sustainable way will only hinder Bosnia and Herzegovina in carrying out the reforms necessary to join the Euro-Atlantic world and free itself from the chains of Russian-backed ethno-national politics. The result is already eroding the Bosnian public’s historically positive image of the West.

Same Mistakes in Kosovo

The Franco-German proposal for normalization of relations between Pristina and Belgrade is having a similar effect on Kosovo. By forcing Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti to accept the formation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities (ASM) in lieu of a just resolution of the dispute with intransigent Serbia, the United States and the EU are essentially shifting international pressure from Serbia to Kosovo. Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić are due to meet for a new round of the negotiations tomorrow in North Macedonia’s lake resort of Ohrid.

The ASM plan implies the establishment of an exclusive mono-ethnic Serb areas in specific parts of Kosovo. This kind of territorialization of ethnic exclusivity does not fully comply with the spirit of Kosovo’s Constitution, and its implementation would only widen the ethnic divide. More so, despite the Parliament’s ratification of the initial proposal that makes the ASM plan an international obligation, concerns have been raised that implementing the plan is akin to forming a new RS in Kosovo, an outcome that has proven detrimental for the stability and security of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dodik even said directly that the ASM arrangement in Kosovo should resemble the RS.

The geopolitical and strategic effects would be disastrous, essentially creating a parallel structure in Kosovo, as exists in the RS now in Bosnia, with its own executive powers and becoming an institutional lever to perpetually destabilize Kosovo. It also would chip away part of Kosovo’s sovereignty and de facto hand parts of its territory to Belgrade’s control under the umbrella of “Greater Serbia.” More so, it would offer an entry point for continuous Serbian meddling in Kosovo’s internal affairs – again, with Russian support. Moscow has maintained that Kosovo remains part of Serbia, a declaration it can exchange for Serbia’s support on other issues. And much like the chaos that Dodik and the RS have sown in Bosnia, this constellation of impacts in Kosovo will hurt, not smooth, its Euro-Atlantic integration.

Instead of advocating for solutions that would eliminate further ethnic division in the region, U.S. and EU policy is centered on appeasing Vučić. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently met Vučić at the Munich Security Conference, conveying appreciation for “Serbia’s continued support for Ukraine,” even though Serbia remains the only country in Europe (barring Belarus) that refuses to impose sanctions on Russia, and whose citizens actively support the Russian invasion. State Department Counsellor Derek Chollet also pushed the ASM as a “key issues that must be resolved,” a position shared by EU officials. However, it was Deputy Assistant State Secretary Gabriel Escobar, the main U.S. interlocutor for the Western Balkans, who proclaimed that if Kurti doesn’t form the ASM, the United States will find other partners – “and there are many partners,” he said — in Kosovo to do so, essentially signaling readiness to circumvent a democratically elected government of Kosovo. In Brussels, despite regressing on EU policies in the past year, the EU has decided to reward Serbia with a €600 million grant, the largest ever given to the country.

The Price of US and EU Appeasement

Considering the regrets of Dayton Peace Accord negotiator Richard Holbrooke in returning too much advantage to RS and pressuring the Bosnian government to accept it, the question is why would the United States with its EU partners repeat the same mistake with Kosovo? Similarly, if appeasing actors who are destabilizing Bosnia and Herzegovina has led to a worse political and security situation, with the country on the brink of breaking up, what guarantees a different outcome this time in BiH?

The willingness of the United States and the EU to bully pro-democratic forces across the Balkans, in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, to adopt and calmy accept principles and solutions that essentially hand over parts of their sovereignty to Belgrade and Zagreb, will lead to neither long-term peace nor prosperity. Rather they represent “quick-fix” solutions based on faulty presumptions on both sides of the Atlantic – presumptions that offloading the responsibility for peace and security to regional powers will somehow bring them into the Western orbit and counter Russia’s influence. This approach will inevitably lead to the degradation of sovereignty of the Western Balkans countries at risk, namely Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, while further eroding U.S. and EU credibility in the region.

To avoid this, the United States and the EU should re-examine their position of appeasing regional autocrats who serve as Russian proxies. Instead, it should adopt a tougher policy of isolation of these actors, and provide Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo the necessary means — institutional, political, diplomatic, economic, and military — to fend off those who align with Moscow. The U.S. Congress, together with European legislative partners, should leverage their positions within their respective executive branches to adopt a principled approach in the Western Balkans. The West has rightly supported Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It should stick to the same standard in the Western Balkans.

IMAGE: Kosovan Albanians walk past a monument that usually spells “Newborn” and has been rearranged to spell “No New BR” for “No New Broken Republic” in Pristina on Feb. 27, 2023. The monument represents a different message each year for Independence Day and this year is painted in the blue and yellow of Kosovo’s flag. The European Union and the United States are turning up pressure on Kosovo and Serbia to reach a deal intended to lead to normalized ties between the foes, but critics say the agreement would divide the country ethnically between its ethnic Albanian majority and Serbs. (Photo by ARMEND NIMANI/AFP via Getty Images)

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