The EU Needs a New Balkan Strategy

Russian and Chinese influence in Serbia is growing. The EU needs to step up its game to avoid being sidelined.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic in Sochi on December 4, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic in Sochi on December 4, 2019. SHAMIL ZHUMATOV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

On June 27, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was due to meet his Kosovar counterpart, Hashim Thaci, at the White House for talks brokered by U.S. special envoy Richard Grenell. The aim of this summit was to normalize relations between their two countries, which have been locked in a state of frozen conflict ever since Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

But then, just three days before the planned meeting in Washington, the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague announced that it had filed a 10-count indictment with the Kosovo Specialist Chambers charging Thaci, a former guerilla leader, and several of his associates with war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) forces against civilians, including ethnic Serbs, during the 1998-99 Kosovo War.

Thaci, who was a senior figure in the KLA, promptly canceled his trip to the United States, and the White House meeting quickly disintegrated. Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti traveled to Brussels to meet separately with the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, instead.

The peculiar timing of the announcement immediately unleashed a wave of speculation that the European Union was actively trying to derail the U.S.-brokered talks. Normally, accusations of this nature veer dangerously close to conspiracy theory, but in this particular case they’re entirely plausible: Ever since the meeting was first announced in mid-June, there have been fears in European capitals that Grenell—who did not exactly endear himself to EU leaders during his stint as U.S. ambassdor to Germany—was planning to push through a controversial land swap proposal that would resolve the Serbia-Kosovo standoff by redrawing the two countries’ borders along ethnic lines. Both Vucic and Thaci support such a resolution, but the EU fears that it could lead to a return to violence and bloodshed in the Balkans by triggering other sectarian border disputes across the region.

Persuading Serbia to formally recognize Kosovo’s independence is a top geostrategic goal in the Balkans for both the U.S. government and the EU, but these Western powers are fiercely divided over how this should be achieved.

Persuading Serbia to formally recognize Kosovo’s independence is a top geostrategic goal in the Balkans for both the U.S. government and the EU, but these Western powers are fiercely divided over how this should be achieved. The prevailing view in Brussels is that this should be done by giving Serbia incentives to accept the status quo and willingly relinquish its claim to the breakaway province—an approach that the government in Belgrade has repeatedly rejected.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, on the other hand, is far more flexible and has said in the past that it will recognize any “mutually satisfactory settlement” between Belgrade and Pristina, which would presumably include border adjustments. Such a deal would go firmly against Brussels’ interests, which is why some believe that the timing of the charges against Thaci was not entirely coincidental.

First proposed in August 2018, the prospective land swap would transfer four Serb-majority municipalities situated north of Kosovo’s Ibar River to Serbia in exchange for the Presevo Valley, which sits along Kosovo’s eastern border and is home to a predominantly ethnic Albanian population.

The EU has consistently refused to countenance such a settlement, and the bloc’s special envoy to the Balkans, Miroslav Lajcak, reiterated Brussels’ opposition to the plan in May, telling the Austrian Press Agency that a land swap “is not on the agenda and should not be on the agenda” and that “we need an agreement that calms the situation … this would be the exact opposite.” The Trump administration, by contrast, seems willing to wave through any resolution that it can hold up as a foreign-policy win for the president ahead of November’s election.

Grenell’s meeting with Vucic and Thaci may have been called off for now, but the fact that it was ever scheduled to take place at all should serve as a wake-up call for Brussels. Over the past decade, the EU has been so absorbed by its own overlapping crises that it has had little capacity to engage with the Balkans. This retreat has caused Europe’s influence in the region to wane and left a power vacuum that is increasingly being filled by China, Russia, Turkey, and the Persian Gulf states. If the EU wants to avoid being sidelined in its own backyard, it needs to take a more muscular approach to Balkan affairs by edging out its rivals and coercing regional leaders—particularly Vucic—into compliance with its aims.

Although Thaci appeared open to the idea of a land swap, the plan has largely been propelled by Serbia. Indeed, in his eight years in high-level government posts, this is the only concrete proposal that Vucic has shown any willingness to engage with, and he doesn’t appear to be in any urgency to resolve the issue: In March, Vucic told Foreign Policy that “if you ask the vast majority of people in Serbia, they would prefer a frozen conflict to any single solution.”

Even if Vucic doesn’t identify with that majority, he contends that the only deal that he can sell to voters back home is one that “would be a defeat for both sides.” A land swap fits this criterion because it goes against the current status quo, which many in Serbia regard as a Western-dictated settlement that unfairly favours the Kosovars. Vucic knows that he cannot reclaim the breakaway province for his supporters, but if he can claw back a small sliver of it and reunite its ethnic Serbian population with the rest of the country, he will be able to spin his deal as an improvement rather than a capitulation.

It won’t be easy to move Vucic from this position. What’s often overlooked in Brussels is that the Serbian president doesn’t have the freedom to cave in to Europe’s demands even if he wanted to. That’s because, aside from satisfying his own electorate, Vucic also needs to negotiate a deal that will be approved by Moscow.

Russophilia is widespread in Serbia for historical and cultural reasons, but it has been further strengthened in recent years by Russia’s unwavering support for Belgrade over the Kosovo issue. Opinion polls  from 2018 showed that Russian President Vladimir Putin is the most popular foreign leader in the country and, according to the Serbia expert and Foreign Policy contributor Vuk Vuksanovic, the Russian president has the power to sink any agreement negotiated by the government in Belgrade: “Vucic is aware that if Putin were to veto any deal that Serbia negotiates on Kosovo, it would be his political downfall as the Serbian public would perceive that situation as indicating that the Russian leadership is more mindful of Serbia’s national interests than the Serbian leaders themselves,” Vuksanovic wrote on Medium.

The stakes are high for Vucic, which is why the EU will have to apply considerable pressure to make him acquiesce. Brussels’ strategy in the Balkans has always relied on using the prospect of EU membership to tempt Serbia into compliance over Kosovo. However, Vucic can see just as well as anyone that the bloc is suffering from enlargement fatigue and is unlikely to be welcoming new members anytime soon, which means that he has little incentive to compromise.

But even if this weren’t the case, the Serbian president claims that he would reject the offer of EU membership if it meant accepting the status quo: “In reply to a possible offer [to Serbia] to recognize Kosovo and that Kosovo enters the U.N., and we receive nothing in return, except EU membership, our answer would be ‘no,’” he told reporters ahead of his aborted meeting in Washington.

It would be a mistake to dismiss this comment as the bluster of a politician playing hardball. Although he styles himself as a pro-European, Vucic is no believer in European values. During his time in power, he has methodically dismantled Serbia’s democracy to the extent that the political watchdog Freedom House recently downgraded the country from a “semi-consolidated democracy” to a “hybrid regime” in its annual Nations in Transit report.

Without serious domestic political reform, there’s little chance that Serbia would ever be allowed into the European club. Vucic knows that he will first have to surrender the autocracy that he has painstakingly built up over the past six years before Serbia is ever admitted into the EU, and there is good reason to doubt whether he sees much value in taking his country into the bloc at all. EU membership certainly isn’t in his own interests: Throughout his time in office, the Serbian president has ruled his country like a personal fiefdom, using his power to the benefit of those around him, such as his brother Andrej who has allegedly been at the center of a number of shady deals. It is fanciful to think that he would surrender this privilege willingly.

Russia is not the only obstacle to European objectives in the region. The prospect of EU membership may have tempted Serbian leaders in the past, but the growing presence of China in the Balkans has significantly dampened its appeal. Over the past several years, Vucic has managed to devise an alternative to EU membership by building closer economic and political ties with Beijing—a partnership that has helped him secure some $4 billion in direct investments and $5 billion in loans and infrastructure projects for his country.

He has also found that by moving closer to the Chinese, he is able to extract greater financial benefits from the EU: At the peak of the coronavirus crisis, Vucic used a press conference to lambaste Brussels for banning the export of essential medical equipment to non-EU countries, heaping praise on China for sending medical aid while angrily proclaiming that “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper.” This caused such panic in Brussels that the EU drew up a 93 million euro support package for Serbia within days.

Like the former Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito, Vucic evidently sees the benefit of nonalignment. By sitting between the East and the West, he is able to prey on EU fears that China is looking to expand into its sphere of influence and use his ties with Beijing as leverage against Europe for Serbia’s economic benefit, an outcome that helps offset the disadvantages of remaining outside of the bloc. Vucic seems more than happy with this arrangement, and his government’s propaganda machine has already created a distorted perception among Serbian citizens that the country receives more economic aid from China than the EU.

Brussels has always viewed Vucic as a man that it can do business with, but it is becoming increasingly evident that the Serbian president is actively sabotaging the EU’s aims in the Balkans. The current strategy of appeasement has clearly failed, and if Europe really wants to get its way over Kosovo, it needs to stop showering Vucic with the economic and political support that sustains his government and redirect it towards civil society groups.

One recent proposal pointed to aid agencies such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation as a model to imitate: “By establishing such agencies, the EU would also find it easier to channel funds to, say, reformist mayors or hospitals rather than mismanaged governments,” its authors wrote. This would allow Brussels to put pressure on the Serbian government while still supporting the Europeanization of the Serbian state.

As things stand, nonalignment is working too well for Vucic; Brussels needs to put him in a position that forces him to level with the Serbian people and pick a side.

Aleks Eror is a Belgrade-born journalist whose work has been published by the Guardian, the New Republic, Vice, Slate, the Telegraph, and others. Twitter: @slandr

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