Washington’s desire for Balkan stability has overtaken its support for democracy, the rule of law, and anti-corruption
Eliot L. Engel, the former chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served in the House from 1989 to 2021.
Dielli Editorial Note: The expert’s point of view published previously by Foreign Policy online
As the former chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee and during more than 30 years in the House of Representatives, I closely followed United States policy toward the Balkans and have been pleased by Washington’s support for democracy, the rule of law, and anti-corruption efforts there. But although I generally back what President Joe Biden’s administration is doing at home and abroad, I have concerns with the State Department’s handling of the ongoing dispute between Kosovo and Serbia.
The United States and most of Europe recognized the Republic of Kosovo in 2008, when the small country declared independence from Serbia. Less than a decade earlier, the United States and NATO halted former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s vicious ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population. It was a major foreign-policy success for the West, and it was followed by years of robust U.S. support for Kosovo. But since then, Serbia and Russia have blocked Kosovo’s effort to join the United Nations and gain full recognition around the world, and the U.S. State Department has recently seemed less willing to support Kosovo’s exertion of sovereignty throughout its own territory.
Within the past year, Kosovo has sought to carry out the normal functions of government within its borders only to be faced with condemnation and even punishment by the United States. When Kosovo tried to have all of its citizens, including ethnic Serbs in the north, use its license plates rather than those of Serbia, the State Department firmly criticized Kosovo. When Kosovo sought to have duly elected mayors, who happened to be ethnic Albanian because ethnic Serbs boycotted the vote, begin work in their northern Kosovo offices—a basic and normal function of a democratic government—U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken “strongly condemned” the young republic and slapped punishments on the country.
Did Washington condemn Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic for pressuring Kosovo Serbs to boycott the election? No. Did it condemn the small group of Serbs who attacked NATO’s Kosovo Force, wounding 30 peacekeepers? Barely—it condemned the violence but did not call out the attackers. Did it condemn Serbia for stoking ethnic Serb citizens of northern Kosovo to aggressively reject using license plates of the country where they live? No. Has it condemned Serbia’s actions against ethnic Albanians in south Serbia, which, according to the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, amount to “ethnic cleansing through administrative means”? Again, barely, if at all.
I have reluctantly reached the conclusion that in the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia, Washington has been appeasing a semi-autocratic bully—Vucic—and has become a bit of a bully itself, pushing around and intimidating the smaller, more vulnerable Kosovo. It’s behavior that’s beneath the United States, and it’s time to reset the approach.
Serbia has been drifting away from democracy and the West ever since Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) came to power in Belgrade more than a decade ago. According to Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that tracks human rights and civil liberties around the world, the ruling SNS “has steadily eroded political rights and civil liberties, putting pressure on independent media, the political opposition, and civil society organizations.” In addition, the U.S. Defense Department reported in 2019 that “[f]ollowing Serbia’s 2012 election, the SNS took steps to increase its military relationship with Russia.” Since then, the Moscow-Belgrade connection has persisted. Indeed, Serbia has still not imposed sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine—which every other country in Europe (except Belarus) has done.
So what’s going on? Why is the United States so quick to condemn Kosovo and so averse to calling out Serbia? And how do we end this downward spiral and restore some good sense to U.S. policy?
I believe that in light of the war in Ukraine, Washington’s desire for stability in the Balkans has overtaken its support for democracy, the rule of law, and anti-corruption. The U.S. president deserves enormous credit for how his administration is leading the West in support of Ukraine. But his fervent desire to maintain stability in Europe has skewed his administration’s view of the long-standing conflict between Serbia and Kosovo. Washington is now placating Vucic in an attempt to tamp down his incendiary tendencies.
Of course, the United States wants to see both Serbia and Kosovo join the key Euro-Atlantic institutions, including the European Union and NATO, as peaceful and democratic states. But right now, the Biden administration should be backing Kosovo as it strengthens its democracy and consolidates sovereignty. Instead, its blocking Pristina out of fear that semi-autocratic Belgrade could stoke nationalist flames and set fire to the powder keg it has cultivated in northern Kosovo.
U.S. diplomats argue that if only Kosovo would implement the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities (ASMM)—a proposed community association with some ability to coordinate local activities—in its north, then all could move forward. Yes, Kosovo promised to set up the ASMM in the 2013 Brussels Agreement, and it should do so. But the ASMM won’t solve the basic problem—Serbia’s aggressive opposition to an independent Kosovo—which is only bolstered as Washington indulges Vucic’s misdeeds. At the end of the day, whether the ASMM is created, the same parties will have the same interests and will pull the same levers to achieve the same goals. And Vucic will keep stoking separatism and inciting violence.
Of course, it’s good that the United States and the European Union have been trying to advance normalization between Serbia and Kosovo through the EU-facilitated dialogue. Still, normalization means rather different things to each side.
In the meantime, appeasement of Serbia is not working, and it’s time to change course. The Biden administration took the first step in that direction last week, when the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Serbia’s spy chief, Aleksandar Vulin, for having “advanced corruption … including involvement in a drug trafficking ring” and using “his public positions to support Russia, facilitating Russia’s malign activities that degrade the security and stability of the Western Balkans.” But those activities have been going on across the Serbian government for years, and it’s time to make a real break with the past.
The United States needs to support democracy, the rule of law, and the free press, as well as oppose corruption. Those features are in decline in Serbia, but they are in the ascendance in Kosovo. I urge the Biden administration to return to basics: Refocus on U.S. values and stop bullying Kosovo. And it needs to rebalance its policy in the Balkans to support those who embrace those priorities and stand up to those who don’t.