Biden in the Balkans

Fixing Trump’s mistakes in the region will be easy. Avoiding Obama’s will be much harder.

Shkumbin Gashi hangs a poster reading 'Congratulations Mr. President' at his bar in Rahovec, Kosovo on Nov. 6.
Shkumbin Gashi hangs a poster reading 'Congratulations Mr. President' at his bar in Rahovec, Kosovo on Nov. 6. Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images

In winter 2001, President-elect Joe Biden, then a senator, visited Visoki Decani, a Serb Orthodox Monastery in Kosovo, during a post-war trip to what was then a U.N. protectorate.

While there (according to Mike Haltzel, Biden’s long-time foreign policy advisor), Biden briefly met Ramush Haradinaj, who had until recently been a guerilla fighter in Visoki Decani during the Kosovo war and who would later become prime minister of the country. Biden, eager to ensure the protection of Orthodox culture, asked Haradinaj for his personal assurances that he would give special care to the monastery. When violence again erupted in Kosovo three years later, dozens of Serbian Orthodox churches were demolished, but the monastery remained untouched. Years later, Haradinaj reportedly asked Haltzel to tell Biden that he had kept his promise.

This story evokes two simple principles that should inform future European and U.S. policy in the region. First, instability often comes from the leaders, not the people. Interethnic tensions, which Western diplomatic missions continue to treat as “ancient,” are steered and controlled by leaders with very immediate agendas. There are divisions in the region, of course, but political leaders make a conscious choice to amplify or to tamp them down. In the case of Visoki Decani, an influential strongman reportedly kept things in check as other areas descended into a flash of violence.

Second, clear signals from Washington and European capitals can prevent problems on the ground. Biden asked for the monastery to be protected, and it was, at least in part because powerful leaders knew that Washington, the country’s most important ally, was watching. Similarly, in 2016, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hoyt Yee and his EU colleagues facilitated neighboring Macedonia’s (now North Macedonia) transition to democratic government by repeated and intensive engagement. The United States twice persuaded the EU, which had been mediating political disputes inside the country, to postpone elections on the grounds that they would not have been fair. Such uncompromising engagement between Washington and Brussels, when goals are shared and well defined, can yield large results.

The Trump administration fell short on both counts. It trivialized the complex political issues between Kosovo and Serbia and sought to claim quick credit for resolving ancient animosities in time for a campaign speech in North Carolina. Meanwhile, it snubbed allies and sent confusing signals, often trampling on the very democratic principles Washington had spent more than two decades promoting in the region.

It will be easy for Biden to avoid President Donald Trump’s mistakes. But it will be far less so to avoid repeating the errors made under President Barak Obama’s watch, when the United States disengaged from the region, leaving it for the European Union to handle and offering no clear signal about the readiness of the United States to defend its bipartisan legacy of institution building in the region.

Given all the foreign policy challenges the new U.S. administration will face, the Western Balkans will not likely rank as top priority. However, Biden did discuss it in his first phone call as president-elect with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The topic likely came up out of a desire to connect with Biden on an issue with which the incoming president is familiar, but it does show that the region will continue to bubble up. And with Berlin, Brussels, and Paris eager to mend relations with the United States after the past four years, the Western Balkans represents an opportunity for both sides to quickly show that a new era of transatlantic cooperation can produce results.

In particular, Europe and the United States could make a lot of progress in the region by focusing on fighting corruption, which will both signal that the United States does not view the Balkans through the lens of ancient hatreds and send a clear message about the West’s expectations for the region’s leaders and democratic governance.

Biden has made the fight against corruption and nepotism one of his domestic and foreign policy pledges. In his Foreign Affairs article, “Why America Must Lead Again,” Biden emphasized his intention to “tackle the self-dealing, conflicts of interest, dark money, and rank corruption that are serving narrow, private, or foreign agendas and undermining our democracy,” and to establish “combating corruption as a core national security interest and democratic responsibility”—at home and abroad.

Meanwhile, the European Union has likewise made the fight against corruption and organized crime the centerpiece of its efforts in the Western Balkans. The European Commission’s progress reports for 2018 show that all countries in the region are lagging on three key priorities: the fight against the corruption; tackling organized crime; and improving the judiciary. Some countries, including Bosnia, performed better on these metrics in the early 2000s than today. In turn, the region has lost 5 percent of its population in the past five years. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, a majority of those leaving cite corruption as a key factor prompting their exodus. Corruption, meanwhile, fuels organized crime and dumps money in the pockets of those who would foment unrest.

Biden could follow Obama’s lead and leave the Balkans to Europe, but for all the talk about EU strategic sovereignty, the bloc of 27 member states (all with distinct interests) remains unable to formulate an effective policy in the region. Take, for example, Bulgaria’s drive to block North Macedonia from joining the EU and Croatian obstruction when it comes to EU policy on Bosnia and Herzegovina. For better or worse, the most effective decision-making forum on the Western Balkans will not be the European Council, but a coalition of like-minded states, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and an EU representative. The United States, in essence, can help drive European coherence on Western Balkans policy—especially if it maintains a focus on corruption and organized crime, which underlies the region’s economic, political, and security problems.

By working together, the United States and Europe would each limit the investment they individually make to support the region. Decades of transatlantic cooperation on the rule of law in the Western Balkans means that the policy framework is already in place. What is missing is momentum to make use of the multiplicity of financial and policy instruments available. The United States has traditionally been more willing to use sanctions to deter or punish political obstruction and corruption, as was the case when it sanctioned Milorad Dodik (the Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina,) and Nikola Spiric (a Bosnian Serb politician). The United Kingdom has started to lean closer to the U.S. strategy, and EU leaders could follow suit. Sanctions are one of the most cost-effective mechanisms for deterring obstruction, but they have to be credible, which is hard for the EU to manage given its decision-making structure.

Finally, working together, the United States and the European Union could better coordinate international financial leverage with political tools. The IMF and the European Union have both committed a substantial amount of funding to the region. The IMF alone has earmarked 806 million euros for the region in emergency assistance for 2020, and the EU’s macro-financial assistance amounts to 750 million. The European Union’s recently announced Economic and Investment Plan includes further 9 billion euros in pre-accession funds and billions in loan guarantees to the Western Balkans. This money, though, needs to be leveraged properly, with strict conditions on financial accountability and a push for the rule of law. That’s something that will be easier to accomplish if the United States is part of the pressure campaign.

Instead of stepping away or trying to solve intractable frozen conflicts, United States—with the EU—needs to start tackling the actual problem of corruption. If corruption can be brought under control, governance and the region’s economy can improve. And that, in turn, will ease the Balkans’ brain drain and, potentially, reinforce the peace as well. The region’s nationalist spoilers depend on ethnic discourse to fuel their machine politics. And Western leaders need to make sure their loans and other funds are not used to that end. Rather, they should use their financial and political leverage to hold local leaders accountable through anti-corruption measures. They’ve mastered the art of manufacturing instability for the purpose of staying in power. The United States and Europe need to understand this game and parry back.

It is a game Biden, with his decades of granular experience in the region, knows well. Hopefully, his administration will, despite numerous other foreign policy and security priorities, set aside the modest political capital needed to rebuild the transatlantic credibility in the region.

Majda Ruge is a senior policy fellow with the Wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.