After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many observers expected Putin’s proxies in the Western Balkans to face tough times, but the opposite appears to be happening. Instead of punishing the Kremlin’s longtime allies, the Biden administration has chosen to appease these actors in order to drive a wedge between Russia and its supporters. This abrupt shift in U.S. policy is best seen in countries like Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia, and it sets a dangerous precedent as it helps facilitate the conditions for the next conflict in the Balkans.
Kosovo and Montenegro have been steadfast allies of the United States for decades, but both face pressure from Washington TO DO concessions to Serbia, the most pro-Russian country in Europe. Kosovo is publicly being pressured by the US State Department to amend its constitution to create a Serb-led para-state structure in its northern territory, ostensibly named the Association of Serbian Municipalities. The Constitutional Court of Kosovo already ruled in 2019 that such a structure was not permitted, but US officials are adamantly demanding that Albin Kurti, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, introduces such changes in order to appease the Serbs.
Last year, Montenegro signed the so-called “basic agreement” with the Serbian Orthodox Church, which gives it considerable power compared to other religious communities. The controversial agreement has been closely scrutinized by many pro-Western political parties, human rights activists, as well as the President of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic. Their main concerns include not only the lack of transparency surrounding the deal, but also that it is being used as a tool in Montenegro to foster closer ties with Russia and Serbia. While the The EU adopted a resolution expressing concerns that the Orthodox Church promotes Russia in countries like Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia, the United States has been noticeably absent on the subject.
In Bosnia, pro-American allies were taken by surprise last October when the United States supported controversial changes to the Bosnian electoral law imposed by Christian Schmidt, the high representative of Bosnia. In an alarming move, Schmidt changed the country’s election law minutes after the general election closed. The law imposed was welcomed by the Croatian government, because it favors the HDZ political party. Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Grlic Radman tweeted that the Croatian government was satisfied with the result and happy that its efforts and arguments had been recognized. This open admission of interference in Bosnia’s internal affairs shows that the US and EU have given in to the demands of Croatia and the HDZ at the expense of Bosnian democracy. As a result, some of the key positions in the country’s newly formed government are occupied by politicians who are currently sanctioned by the United Stateslike Marinko Cavara, the speaker of the House of Representatives.
Despite the Biden administration’s best efforts to keep Putin’s supporters away from the Kremlin, the past few months have proven that the policy shift has not been effective. For example, on January 9, Milorad Dodik, president of the smaller Bosnian entity known as Republika Srpska (RS), once again breaking the law by celebrating an illegal party. Dodik’s military parade sparked fear and violence as he once again called for secession from the Bosnian RS. He went to Vladimir Putin Prize with a medal of honor, in the hope that RS can further strengthen its cooperation with Russia. And even though the United States has placed sanctions against Dodik and engages in anti-corruption efforts in countries like Bosniano such initiative or pressure is visible in Serbia or Croatia.
A year after the start of the Russian attack on Ukraine, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has not yet joined the West in sanctioning Russia, choosing instead to tacitly ally with Putin. Late last year, he once again stoked tensions in the region by place Serbian troops on the border with neighboring Kosovo, exacerbating an already tense situation. In recent years, Vucic has made great efforts to militarize Serbia by increase its defense spending by 70 percent and purchasing cutting-edge offensive military equipment from Russia and China.
However, pro-Putin support in the Balkans does not stop at Dodik and Vucic but is also observed in Croatia. Zoran Milanovic, the current president of Croatia was recently condemned by Kyiv for calling into question the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He added that Ukraine had no place in NATO and was opposed to Zagreb sending military aid. Furthermore, he sparked even more outrage when he publicly denied the Srebrenica genocide and claimed that Kosovo had been forcibly taken from Serbia.
The Biden administration’s decision to appease pro-Putin actors in an attempt to drive a wedge between the Kremlin and its Western Balkan proxies is a dangerous and shortsighted policy. First, it sends the wrong message to the world that the United States does not appear to be standing up for its principles or those of its long-time allies. Second, by rewarding and holding pro-Putin actors accountable, the United States can be seen as betraying not only its allies, but also Western norms that have supported democratization efforts in this part of the world over the past three decades. .
Governments and actors led by strongmen have no interest in adopting democratic values. Rewarding such actors is not rooted in the American tradition of promoting democracy abroad. A then-Senator Joe Biden has 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 the genocide against the Muslim population of Bosnia and the ethnic cleansing of the non-Serb population of Kosovo. However, President Biden chose to support the Serbian president, who served as a senior government official during the Milosevic regime.
The collateral damage of current U.S. policy toward the Western Balkans will only erode decades of trust and friendship between the United States and the region’s pro-Western peoples. Furthermore, it is important to note that small countries in the Western Balkans have been dependent on the security umbrella of the United States and NATO for decades. However, if they can no longer count on this security, they will have no choice but to try to seek new alliances in the East, as well as to develop their own defensive capabilities. As a result, this could lead to instability and further tensions in the region.
The Biden administration must review the lessons from the past and rethinking current U.S. policy toward the Western Balkans. If history has taught us anything, it is that the United States should not abandon its principles for temporary advantage. If the United States seeks to win the hearts and minds of the people of the Balkans, it must maintain principled, consistent, and reliable policies that do not reward those who seek to undermine core Western democratic values. President Biden’s administration should follow Senator Biden’s advice regarding the Western Balkans.
Reuf Bajrovic is vice chair of the United States-Europe Alliance and a member of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Ajla Delkic is Chair of the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina (ACBH) and Co-Chair of the South East Europe Coalition..