Argument

How Trump Lost the Balkans

The administration’s see-no-evil diplomacy has produced a dangerous unraveling across the region.

A man works on a wooden statue made to resemble US President Donald Trump in the village of Sela pri Kamniku, about 20 miles northeast of Ljubljana in Slovenia, the home country of Trump's wife on August 28, 2019.
A man works on a wooden statue made to resemble US President Donald Trump in the village of Sela pri Kamniku, about 20 miles northeast of Ljubljana in Slovenia, the home country of Trump's wife on August 28, 2019. JURE MAKOVEC/AFP via Getty Images

In the Balkans, the voice of a superpower counts for a lot. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s cavalier words in June 1991—“We don’t have a dog in that fight”—helped set off the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia. A similar dynamic is underway today.

The see-no-evil economic agenda of the Trump administration has contributed to the sharpest deterioration in relations since the region’s wars ended two decades ago. The administration brags that President Donald Trump has accomplished “flipping the script” in the Balkans with his focus on economics and disdain for political engagement—and he has. No fewer than six mostly quiescent countries—Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, and North Macedonia—are now experiencing dangerous levels of interethnic toxicity, all on the Trump administration’s watch.

In the latest graphic example, senior U.S. officials this month unwittingly encouraged one NATO ally, Bulgaria, to threaten military intervention against another, North Macedonia. On Oct. 6, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper met with his Bulgarian counterpart, Krasimir Karakachanov, a strident nationalist with a long record of bombast against neighboring North Macedonia. Last month, amid escalating pressure from his government, Karakachanov reiterated Sofia’s threat to block Skopje’s long-postponed negotiations for European Union membership—a pillar in the trans-Atlantic strategy to stabilize the Balkans.

Rather than press Karakachanov on his provocations and seek restraint, according to the U.S. Defense Department’s own readout, the Bulgarian minister was plied with whiskey and praise in Washington, as officials negotiated a 10-year “road map for defense cooperation” and the sale of eight F-16 fighters. Without a hint of concern over Bulgaria’s diktats, Esper saluted Karakachanov, who reciprocated with his own salute to Trump. The bonhomie in Washington was followed by a visit to Bulgaria on Oct. 20 by a senior State Department official, R. Clarke Cooper, who unequivocally expressed “the United States’ gratitude to Bulgaria for its commitment to the Alliance.”

Two days later, Karakachanov shocked the region by openly threatening to send Bulgarian troops into North Macedonia. Compounding the ultimatum was Karakachanov’s claim that North Macedonia was threatening “the territorial integrity of Bulgaria,” implying that Sofia had a casus belli. Not only did the Trump administration fail to send any meaningful signal before this outburst, but the United states has said little in the aftermath. It fell to North Macedonia’s defense minister, Radmila Sekerinska, to issue the appropriate, dignified reprimand: “Bulgaria is a member of NATO, and we are a member of NATO, and this is not the way members of the alliance communicate or should communicate.”

The United States’ silence is inexcusable. Many prominent Bulgarians themselves have assailed their government’s bullying of the Macedonians over identity disputes, noting that it will harm Bulgaria itself. To wit, Sofia last week blocked North Macedonia’s entrance into Frontex, the European border management agency, weakening Skopje’s ability to stop illegal migration and check transnational crime on the border it shares with Bulgaria. Sofia is isolated within the EU, which bars—but can’t prevent—member states from importing bilateral disputes into the EU negotiating framework. Karakachanov’s unrepentant assertion that the Bulgarian forces would be “welcomed” by Macedonians has only compounded the affair.

The U.S. sale of F-16s to Bulgaria is no excuse for Esper’s silence or that of his State Department colleagues; a competent administration can sell F-16s to one NATO ally (Bulgaria) without selling out another (North Macedonia). U.S. officials could easily have reminded Karakachanov of his own words, uttered last month before a parliamentary committee, concerning tensions between Greece and Turkey: “Knowing the history of relations in the Balkans … contentious issues between neighbors should be resolved through negotiations and dialogue and not through use of threats and military force.”

As in Bulgaria, Trump’s shortsighted diplomacy has imposed another dangerous cone of silence, this time over Serbia. At the much-ballyhooed Oval Office summit between Serbia and Kosovo on Sept. 4, the president hailed the sides’ two-page collection of commitments as “historic” and a “major breakthrough.” At rallies, Trump has insisted that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, given that his initiative is “stopping mass killings between Serbia and Kosovo.”

In fact, Trump’s hyperbole, and his administration’s solitary focus on economic matters, has had three deleterious consequences. First, the “economic normalization” deal has alleviated pressure on the intransigent party, Belgrade. By participating in the White House initiative, Serbia’s autocratic president, Aleksandar Vucic, another staunch nationalist, has burnished his image without pressure to make significant concessions to his adversary.

Trump’s special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo, Richard Grenell, has repeatedly emphasized that Washington is focused on economic arrangements and will only turn to the essential question of mutual recognition (which Vucic wants to avoid) after the economic provisions take hold. Predictably, the EU-led dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo—which centers on the thorny political questions—has faltered. This is a particular problem for isolated, unrecognized Kosovo because, under U.S. pressure, it has given up the right even to apply for membership in international organizations—yielding more recriminations between Belgrade and Pristina.

Second, because the Trump administration is so invested in the image of success, Belgrade, like Sofia, knows that it can promote its noxious brand of nationalism without fear of American reproach. In calculated provocations, Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin has repeatedly employed a highly offensive epithet for the Albanian people in official communiques. Then-Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic issued a sinister threat against Serbs who assist in the EU-led process to identify missing persons—the unfinished business from the mass killings of the 1990s that Trump referenced. Like a mafia don, Dacic asked television viewers menacingly, “What will we do with Serbs who show Albanians where the bodies are buried?” (Dacic has since been appointed Speaker of Parliament.)

While U.S. officials have remained mute, the invective provoked a fierce reaction in Pristina, from the government and opposition. Kosovo’s speaker of parliament, Vjosa Osmani, said the remarks were proof that “Serbia is still led by … genocidal minds”—hardly the relaxation of relations that Trump administration officials had touted.

Finally, because the administration has already proclaimed instant success, it has turned a blind eye to Serbia’s chiseling on commitments. Within days of the Oval Office signing, Serbian officials were walking back the prohibition against the use of 5G equipment from “untrusted vendors”—a euphemism for Huawei. Within two weeks, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic was opening a Huawei innovations and development center in Belgrade, praising the company as “one of our biggest and best partners” in “the digital transformation of our economy,” in 5G and beyond. Meanwhile, China continues to expand its relations with Serbia, Beijing’s European “anchor.” Defense Minister Vulin recently attended a live-fire exercise of recently acquired Chinese drones, noting that Beijing had transferred associated technology to Serbia.

Vucic this month promised the Russian ambassador to Serbia that a gas pipeline would be completed this year, amid other projects in the energy sphere, contravening the White House commitment to diversify energy supplies away from Russia. After receiving a humiliating rebuke for his servility at the White House, Vucic was made to recite a servile list of pledges to the Kremlin, including for Serbia never to join NATO, never to change its view on the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, never to impose sanctions on Russia, and to continue its friendly, kindred, and independent policies toward Russia despite EU criticism. Vucic has just launched the legal process for the opening of a Russian Defense Ministry mission in Belgrade, deepening the military relationship with Moscow.

The big surprise of the administration’s deal-making—the inclusion of Israel—may bring Israelis closer to Albanians and Serbs—but not Serbs and Albanians closer to each other. Preoccupied with its own tormented relations, Israel has no ambition or ability to foster reconciliation between the parties.

In sum, Trump’s braggadocio about a “major breakthrough” has seen a breakdown of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. There are no signs that the administration’s diplomacy has done anything to arrest Serbia’s growing, multifaceted relationship with China or its long-standing dependence on Russia. Indeed, Moscow and Belgrade are exultant over election results in Montenegro at the end of August that propelled pro-Russian, pro-Serbian, and anti-NATO forces into a stunning election victory.

The administration was caught flat-footed once again by its emphasis on “trade diplomacy” at the expense of attentiveness to subversion from Moscow and Belgrade. Officials largely ignored the State Department’s own report in June, citing the fears of analysts and the Montenegrin government of a “coordinated campaign of disinformation, propaganda, and provocation, some of which coming from third countries, seeking to fan ethnonationalistic divisions and provoke conflict through the protests.”

With a hybrid disinformation campaign that some analysts have compared to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, Serb and Russian actors heavily influenced preelection narratives and sharpened polarization of the Montenegrin electorate. While Serbian bots infected social media with fake news, Russian media promoted the crusade of the Serbian Orthodox Church against the Montenegrin government’s new law on religious property. When Serbian Orthodox priests refused to abide by Montenegro’s COVID-19 restrictions, Moscow flamboyantly stood by the priests, claiming anti-Christian discrimination. Throughout the months-long campaign, the Trump administration was complacent, failing to call out the meddling from Serbia and Russia.

In the aftermath of the elections, triumphant Serb nationalists in Montenegro targeted Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), as graffiti popped up celebrating the Srebrenica genocide. Within neighboring Bosnia itself, interethnic relations continue their downward trajectory. Aware of U.S. disinterest, the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, a client of both Moscow and Belgrade, has escalated his threat to engineer the secession of the Serb entity. Dodik has received no admonishment for his provocative claim that recognition of Kosovo would demand recognition of Republika Srpska as well.

With Balkan countries facing a crisis of depopulation as their citizens continue to flee in search of better opportunities, now is not the time for myopic grandstanding on the economy while ignoring political tensions that threaten to reopen conflict. Interethnic strife is the death knell for economic reform, foreign investment, and job creation. As the Germany-based Bertelsmann Stiftung think tank concluded in a recent study, “Ultimately, economics can only provide part of the answer to how to advance regional integration, the normalisation of relations, and the EU accession of the Western Balkan countries.” Even the “mini-Schengen” provision in the Trump economic agreement—which aims to reduce barriers to speed up the movement of people, goods, services, and capital—brings complications. Smaller countries with big trade deficits like Kosovo worry that it will seal the dominance of Serbia’s substantially larger economy.

The EU has just anted up 9 billion euros ($10.6 billion) to develop, modernize, and connect the economies of Southeastern Europe. Washington’s job isn’t to outdo and outspend the EU with flashy, uncoordinated projects that may end up wasting taxpayer money. The crucial American role is to supply a consistent voice of authority, principle, and urgency, ensuring that neither Brussels nor Balkan capitals like Sofia and Belgrade stray from the difficult task of resolving the region’s political disputes.

Edward P. Joseph teaches conflict management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.  He served on the ground for a dozen years in the Balkans, including with the US Army, and as Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.

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