Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many observers expected that Putin’s proxies in the Western Balkans would face hard times, yet the opposite seems to be occurring. Instead of punishing Kremlin’s long-standing allies, the Biden administration has chosen to appease these actors in order to drive a wedge between Russia and its supporters. This abrupt change in U.S. policy can best be seen in countries such as Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia, and it sets a dangerous precedent as it helps facilitate conditions for the next conflict in the Balkans.
Kosovo and Montenegro have been unwavering U.S. allies for decades, yet both are facing pressure from Washington to make concessions to Serbia, the utmost pro-Russian country in Europe. Kosovo is publicly being pressured by the U.S. State Department to change its constitution in order to create a Serb-run para-state structure in the north of its territory, conspicuously named the Association of Serb Municipalities. Kosovo’s Constitutional Court already ruled in 2019 that such a structure is not permissible, yet American officials are adamantly requesting that Albin Kurti, Kosovo’s prime minister, introduce such changes in order to appease the Serbs.
Last year, Montenegro signed the so-called “Basic Agreement” with the Serbian Orthodox Church, giving it considerable power compared to other religious communities. The controversial agreement came under scrutiny from numerous pro-Western political parties, human rights activists, as well as Montenegro’s president, Milo Djukanovic. Their main concerns rest not only on the lack of transparency surrounding the agreement, but that it is being used as a tool within Montenegro to foster closer ties with Russia and Serbia. While the EU adopted a resolution outlining concerns that the Orthodox Church promotes Russia in countries such as Montenegro, Serbia, and Bosnia, the United States has been notably absent on the topic.
In Bosnia, pro-U.S. allies were caught by surprise last October when the U.S. supported controversial changes to Bosnia’s electoral law that were imposed by Christian Schmidt, the High Representative of Bosnia. In an alarming move, Schmidt changed the country’s electoral law minutes after the general election polls closed. The imposed law was praised by the government of Croatia, as it favors the HDZ political party. Croatian foreign minister Gordan Grlic Radman tweeted that the government of Croatia was satisfied with the outcome and pleased that their efforts and arguments were recognized. This open admission of interference into Bosnia’s internal affairs evidenced that the United States and EU gave in to the demands of Croatia and the HDZ at the expense of Bosnia’s democracy. As a result, some of the key positions in the country’s newly formed government are filled by politicians that are currently sanctioned by the United States, such as Marinko Cavara, the speaker of the House of Representatives.
Despite the Biden administration’s best efforts to entice pro-Putin supporters away from the Kremlin, the last few months have proven that the change in policy has not been effective. For example, on January 9, Milorad Dodik, the president of Bosnia’s smaller entity known as Republika Srpska (RS), broke the law once again by celebrating an illegal holiday. Dodik’s military parade invoked fear and violence as he once again called for the secession of RS from Bosnia. He went on to award Vladimir Putin with a medal of honor, in hopes that RS can further strengthen its cooperation with Russia. And while the United States has placed sanctions on Dodik and engages in anti-corruption efforts in places like Bosnia, no such initiatives or pressure can be seen in Serbia or Croatia.
A year into Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic has yet to join the West in sanctioning Russia, choosing to tacitly ally himself with Putin instead. Late last year, he once again stroked tensions in the region by placing Serbian troops on the border with neighboring Kosovo, exacerbating an already tense situation. In the last few years, Vucic has gone to great lengths to militarize Serbia by increasing its defense spending by 70 percent, and purchasing state-of-the-art offensive military equipment from both Russia and China.
However, the pro-Putin support in the Balkans does not end with Dodik and Vucic but can be seen in Croatia as well. Zoran Milanovic, the current president of Croatia was recently condemned by Kyiv for questioning the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He has gone on to say that Ukraine has no place in NATO and objects to Zagreb sending military aid. Further, he sparked further outrage when he publicly denied the Srebrenica Genocide and claimed that Kosovo was forcefully taken from Serbia.
The Biden administration’s decision to appease pro-Putin actors in order to try and draw a wedge between the Kremlin and its Western Balkans proxies is a dangerous and short-sighted policy. First, it sends the wrong message to the world, and signals that the United States does not seem to stand for its principles or its longstanding allies. Second, by rewarding and empowering pro-Putin actors, the U.S. can be seen as betraying not only its allies, but the Western norms that have helped democratization efforts in that part of the world for the last three decades.
Governments and actors that are led by strongmen have no interest in embracing democratic values. Rewarding such actors is not rooted in the American tradition of promoting democracy abroad. A then-Senator Joe Biden often echoed this sentiment when he pushed the Clinton administration to counter Serbia’s aggression against its smaller neighbors. In the 1990s, Serbia’s irredentist policies culminated in genocide against Bosnia’s Muslim population and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s non-Serb population. However, President Biden has chosen to provide support to Serbia’s president, who served as a high-ranking government official in the Milosevic regime.
The collateral damage of the current U.S. policy towards the Western Balkans will only work to erode the decades of trust and friendship between the United States and pro-Western people of the region. Further, it is important to note that the small nations of the Western Balkans have relied on the United States and NATO security umbrella for decades, however, if they become unable to rely on that security, they will have no choice but to try to seek out new alliances in the East, as well as develop their own defensive capabilities. As a result, this may lead to instability and further tensions in the region.
The Biden administration needs to revisit the lessons from the past and re-think the current U.S. policy towards the Western Balkans. If history has taught us anything, it is that the United States should not abandon its principles for a temporary advantage. If the U.S. is seeking to win the hearts and minds of the people in the Balkans, it should maintain principled, consistent, and reliable policies that do not reward those that seek to undermine the core Western democratic values. President Biden’s administration should take (Senator) Biden’s advice about the Western Balkans.
Reuf Bajrovic is the Vice President of US-Europe Alliance and a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Ajla Delkic is the President of the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina (ACBH) and co-chair of the Southeast Europe Coalition.