An expert's point of view on a current event.
June 11, 2021, 4:34 p.m.
One or two standards for the Balkans? This is the question asked by US President Joe Biden, who will meet with NATO allies and partners of the European Union in Brussels next week.
The government this week expanded an executive order to combat corruption in the Balkans and obstruct peace agreements, democratic processes and human rights in the region. Biden went beyond legalism and dealt ruthlessly with the risks of corruption, noting that it "opens the door to our strategic adversaries". Foreign Minister Antony Blinken reiterated the government's "unwavering" determination to win this battle.
This stance represents a sharp break with the Trump administration, which promoted a value-free, unconditional “economic normalization” as a transformative step for the Balkans. The Executive Ordinance provides Biden with the catalyst to garner US allies' support at next week's EU and NATO summits and send a strong signal of Western unity ahead of the US President's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva . Unfortunately, the indolence in Brussels – and in the government's own State Department – is a major obstacle to realizing the principled vision of the US president and his secretary of state.
At the moment, the United States and the EU have a two-tier system when it comes to democratic standards in the Balkans – a privileged path that sees no evil for Serbia and a stricter path for Serbia's EU candidate. It is a dangerous paradox: the most democratic regime in the region, the Serbian government under President Aleksandar Vucic, receives the most favorable treatment from US and EU officials. In contrast to Cold War dictators like Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, whom the West supported, Vucic is a schiller for the western adversaries Russia and China. Belgrade practices and promotes the illiberal democracy of its most important EU ally, Hungary. Serbia's EU candidacy is largely a farce. While its neighbors are fighting over the right to start negotiations with the EU, Belgrade is hesitant, having completed only two of 35 chapters of the accession negotiations in its eight-year candidacy. Last year Serbia did not open any new accession chapters.
The unbalanced treatment of Serbia by the West is the most intriguing and significant element of the expanded executive order – and one of the greatest challenges to Biden's overall mission to win European support for democracy. Serbia has the most sophisticated and extensive form of corruption in the region. A leading Serbian academic, Dusan Pavlovic, calls this "institutional extraction". The looting of the Vucic regime is systematic, not just opportunistic. As Pavlovic explains, the resources extracted from the state coffers provide the regime with the power and resources to control the national narrative, marginalize and intimidate opponents and activists, and rule indefinitely. Elections become a travesty.
In short, Serbia is the best example in the region of the high risk of corruption highlighted by Biden – it "undermines trust in democratic processes". Yet not only have US and EU officials overlooked corruption in Serbia, but have repeatedly lauded the regime as "the political and economic leader in the region," a troubling vision for an overpowering capital that continues to destabilize its smaller neighbors. Rather than pushing the government to reform, US officials have urged activists to downplay their grievances and to work with the authorities who are harassing them. Officials have publicly called on the opposition to participate in totally unfair elections and deprived opposition leaders of their only form of influence – the boycott threat. Vucic can accurately claim that he has the support of the US and the EU as he revitalizes and enhances the electoral authoritarianism of former leader Slobodan Milosevic at home and revitalizes the vision of a destabilizing Greater Serbia in the region.
Meanwhile, Serbia's neighbors are regularly examined for corruption. For a long time Albania was refused to start negotiations on EU membership due to corruption and the associated relapse into democratic practices. The US has just sanctioned the former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who has not been in office for a long time.
So far, US sanctions have been imposed on obscure Serbian arms dealers and prominent Serbian figures in other countries such as the separatist Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik. But since the Belgrade regime, which sits on top of an institutionalized corrupt – and revisionist – system, itself escapes serious criticism, sanctions have had little effect. Indeed, over the past two months, Dodik has been stepping up his calls for the partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The new implementing regulation announces the possibility of urgently needed changes. But the first signals are mixed. While the US ambassador to Albania immediately tweeted the White House announcement and noted its application to Albania, the US ambassador to Serbia instead congratulated Serbian NBA star Nikola Jokic on his election as MVP of the league. The conflicting tweets illustrate the problem. Biden and Blinken have already made several strong, clear messages to regional leaders only to see them watered down by lower officials. In February Biden wrote to Vucic calling on the Serbian head of state to reform and recognize Kosovo. The US embassy quickly denied that this represented a change in US policy. Officials then stated that the recognition was merely an "ideal" that embraced the EU's watered-down position and discarded the usefulness of Biden's straightforward letter. In April, the State Department fought off "unwarranted speculation about a change in borders in the Balkans along ethnic lines" only to see a US official holding the door open to that very approach.
As Serbia escaped control of its corruption and attack on Serbian democracy, another paradox has emerged. Kosovo, led by the strongest anti-corruption fighter in the region with Prime Minister Albin Kurti, has come under greater international pressure in the EU-led dialogue with Serbia. Kurti is being urged, among other things, to enforce some form of autonomy for Kosovar Serbs – who are directly controlled by a hostile government in Belgrade – while that government refuses to recognize their sovereignty and borders. With recognition on the table, the Association / Community of Serbian Majority Municipalities could pave the way for creative collaboration between Serbian and Albanian majority municipalities such as has been achieved in neighboring North Macedonia. Instead, US officials have only made it harder for Pristina to comply with this demand for final status by weakening Biden's demand for Serbian recognition.
The source of these debilitating and dangerous paradoxes is not a mystery. Thanks to the divisions within the EU, Serbia has power over Kosovo – and the Kosovo negotiations – and is turning the West into supplicants for Belgrade. The Vucic regime has been given carte blanche on corruption and democracy because five EU countries – Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece and Cyprus – share its position and refuse to recognize Kosovo. If even four of them (excluding Cyprus, which is not a NATO member) recognized Kosovo, the dynamics would change as Serbia – and its supporters in Russia and China – could no longer block Kosovo's European path. Belgrade would finally be faced with a choice that it has carefully avoided: whether to accept the Western order and negotiate a dignified, stabilizing settlement with Kosovo or its limp EU candidacy, its false democracy and its false balance between the West and the West further explains opponents Russia and China.
Typically, the US's role is to empower its weakened European partners, as Biden and Blinken are trying to do. But lately it is Washington that has sunk to the lowest common denominator in Europe. What is even more surprising is that the EU has actually taken a stronger stance against dangerous border changes in the region than US officials, who blame Kosovo for resisting the division of its country and tacitly support Serbia's claim for Kosovo territory .
Fortunately, nobody understands all of these dynamics better than Biden. As a US Senator, he saw through the European divisions over the Balkans that were hampering Western politics and pushed for decisive intervention under American leadership. As Vice President, Biden visited the region and met a number of officials, including Vucic. In 2016, Biden delivered a memorable, conciliatory message to the Serbs in Belgrade, expressing condolences to the civilian victims of the 1999 NATO bombing. The United States and the EU have been steadfast in holding Kosovar personalities, not just Serbians, accountable for war crimes. For the first time in the region, an incumbent leader, Kosovar President Hashim Thaci, was forced to resign last November on charges of war crimes (and in other words, Biden has long stood for principled and fair US leadership in the Balkans – and against the manipulation of the West based on cowardly European poses or cheating games by regional leaders.
Biden and Blinken understand that the only way to mitigate the evil Russian and Chinese influence in the region is to take a unified Western stance on fundamental democratic principles. Of course, the EU remains divided on Kosovo, weak on the fight against corruption and insincere on EU enlargement. Brussels quickly ruled out joining the government's expanded anti-corruption offer. Nonetheless, the new executive order gives Biden an opportunity to persuade Washington's allies and partners to converge on key principles. At next week's NATO and EU summits, Biden should ask his counterparts to agree with Washington on three critical elements for the final communiqué.
First, there is and can only be one standard of conduct for all aspirants in the Balkans. In addition to reaffirming general support for EU enlargement, the EU communiqué should clearly state that all candidate countries in the region have equal sovereignty and that each candidate country will be held equally accountable for meeting its commitments to European standards and Comply with obligations to competitors. There is no “political and economic leader in the region”, nor will any country, including Serbia, be given carte blanche to abuse its neighbors or its democracy. Nor can countries in the region wage war in any other way, using political aggression to isolate Kosovo, as Serbia is doing through its non-recognition campaign against Kosovo, or as Kosovo is doing by promoting the unification of Kosovo and Albania, some form of aggression against Kosovar Serbs and Serbia, does.
Second, allies and partners should at least embrace Washington's assessment of the scourge of corruption. It is crucial that European capitals reflect Biden's link between corruption and the weakening of democratic processes and the path this offers for Western opponents. Even if the EU does not agree to the imposition of sanctions, Washington should try to get its partners to formally support the active US position against corruption in the executive order. This could open the door for individual European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands or Scandinavian countries or the NATO ally Great Britain to follow Washington's example.
Third, NATO allies should offer Kosovo membership in the Partnership for Peace. NATO could use a similar circumvention formula (for the four Allies who do not recognize Kosovo) that the EU used in formalizing its own Association Agreement with Kosovo. This will send a strong signal to Serbia to seriously negotiate with Kosovo in the EU-led dialogue.
Washington should recommend balancing this demand with strong Allied support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the five European countries that do not recognize Kosovo. Slovakia and Romania face active threats from Hungarian revanchism. Spain's multinational democracy is threatened by active separatist offerings. Cyprus remains divided by the Turkish-backed secession of Northern Cyprus.
Kosovo is not responsible or involved in any of these threats to territorial integrity. Kosovo's independence has not violated international law or served as an incentive for secession anywhere in the world. However, strong Allied support for the five non-recognizing countries could allay these nations' concerns about their relationship with Kosovo.
These plausible moves would bridge the gap between Biden's principled positions in the Balkans and his own government's reluctance to apply them equally. Bringing Europe and the United States together on core principles in the Balkans would also send a strong message to Moscow and Beijing and advance Biden's overall mission to garner support for democracy in Europe in the region where it is most tested. By aligning Western politics with Western values, Biden has the opportunity to finally end the three decades long drama in Yugoslavia and to exclude Russian and Chinese influence.