Biden’s Balkans Test Has Arrived
The U.S. president has taken a step toward getting tough on Serbia—but can he see the policy through?
One set of standards for the Balkans or two? That is a looming question for U.S. President Joe Biden as he meets NATO allies and European Union partners next week in Brussels.
The administration this week expanded an executive order tackling corruption in the Balkans, as well as obstruction to the region’s peace agreements, democratic processes, and human rights. Going beyond legalisms, Biden was unsparing about the risks of corruption, noting that it “open[s] the door for our strategic adversaries.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed the administration’s “unwavering” determination to win this fight.
This stance represents a sharp break from the Trump administration, which pushed values-free, unconditional “economic normalization” as the transformative step for the Balkans. The executive order provides Biden with the catalyst to rally support among U.S. allies at next week’s EU and NATO summits, sending a powerful signal of Western unity ahead of the U.S. president’s encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. Unfortunately, inertia in Brussels—and within the administration’s own State Department—presents a strong obstacle to realization of the principled vision set out by the U.S. president and his secretary of state.
At the moment, the United States and EU have a two-tiered system when it comes to democratic standards in the Balkans—a privileged, see-no-evil path for Serbia and a stricter one for Serbia’s EU aspirant neighbors. It’s a dangerous paradox: The region’s most anti-democratic regime, the Serbian government led by President Aleksandar Vucic, gets the most favorable treatment from U.S. and EU officials. Unlike Cold War dictators like Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito whom the West supported, Vucic is a shill for the West’s adversaries Russia and China. Belgrade practices and promotes the illiberal democracy of its main EU ally, Hungary. Serbia’s EU candidacy is largely a charade. While its neighbors struggle for the right to open negotiations with the EU, Belgrade is dilatory, having closed only two of 35 chapters of accession negotiations in its eight-year candidacy. Last year, Serbia opened no new accession chapters at all.
The unbalanced Western treatment of Serbia represents the most intriguing and significant element for the expanded executive order—and among the major challenges to Biden’s overall mission to rally European support for democracy. Serbia has the most sophisticated and extensive form of corruption in the region. A leading Serbian academic, Dusan Pavlovic, terms it “institutional extraction.” The Vucic regime’s plunder is systematic, not just opportunistic. As Pavlovic explains, the resources extracted from state coffers supply the regime with the power and resources to control the national narrative, marginalize and intimidate opponents and activists, and rule indefinitely. Elections become a travesty.
In short, Serbia is the prime example in the region of the major risk of corruption highlighted by Biden—it “undermines confidence in democratic processes.” And yet, U.S. and EU officials not only have overlooked corruption in Serbia, but they also have repeatedly praised the regime as “the political and economic leader in the region,” a disconcerting vision for an overbearing capital that continues to destabilize its smaller neighbors. Rather than press the government to reform, U.S. officials have pressed activists to downplay their complaints and cooperate with the authorities who harass them. Officials have publicly called on the opposition to participate in utterly unfair elections, robbing opposition leaders of their one form of leverage—the threat of boycott. Vucic can accurately claim that he has U.S. and EU support as he revives and upgrades former leader Slobodan Milosevic’s electoral authoritarianism at home, and revives the vision of a destabilizing Greater Serbia in the region.
Meanwhile, Serbia’s neighbors are regularly scrutinized for their corruption. Albania has long been denied the ability to open its negotiations for EU membership because of corruption and related backsliding on democratic practices. The United States just sanctioned former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who has long been out of power.
Up to now, U.S. sanctions have been applied to obscure Serbian arms dealers and prominent Serb figures in other countries, such as the separatist Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik. But with the regime in Belgrade that sits atop an institutionalized corrupt—and revisionist—system escaping even serious criticism, sanctions have had little effect. Indeed, over the past two months, Dodik has stepped up his calls for the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The new executive order heralds the possibility for much-needed change. But the early signals are mixed. While the U.S. ambassador to Albania immediately tweeted the White House announcement, noting its application to Albania, the U.S. ambassador to Serbia instead tweeted congratulations to NBA star Nikola Jokic, who is Serbian, on his selection as the league’s MVP. The contrasting tweets illustrate the problem. Biden and Blinken have already issued several strong, clear communications to regional leaders, only to see lower-ranking officials dilute them. In February, Biden wrote to Vucic, calling on the Serbian leader to make reforms and to recognize Kosovo. The U.S. embassy swiftly denied that this represented a change in U.S. policy. Officials then stated that recognition was merely an “ideal,” embracing the watered-down EU position and tossing out the benefit of Biden’s straightforward letter. In April, the State Department pushed back against “unwarranted speculation about changing borders in the Balkan region along ethnic lines” only to see a U.S. official keep the door open to that very approach.
As Serbia has escaped scrutiny of its corruption and assault on Serbian democracy, another paradox has emerged. Kosovo, which is led by the region’s strongest fighter against corruption in Prime Minister Albin Kurti, has come under greater international pressure in the EU-led dialogue with Serbia. Among other things, Kurti is pressed to implement a form of autonomy for Kosovo Serbs—who are directly controlled by a hostile government in Belgrade—while that government refuses to recognize its sovereignty and borders. With recognition on the table, the Association/Community of Serb-Majority Municipalities could open the way for creative collaboration among Serb- and Albanian-majority municipalities, along the lines achieved in neighboring North Macedonia. Instead, by watering down Biden’s call for Serbian recognition, U.S. officials have only made it harder for Pristina to meet this final-status demand.
There is no mystery as to the source of these debilitating and dangerous paradoxes. Thanks to divisions within the EU, Serbia owns the leverage over Kosovo—and the Kosovo negotiations—turning the West into supplicants of Belgrade. The Vucic regime has gotten a free pass on corruption and democracy, because five EU countries—Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece, and Cyprus—share its position and refuse to recognize Kosovo. If even only four of them (minus Cyprus, which is not a NATO member) recognized Kosovo, dynamics would be transformed, as Serbia—and its backers in Russia and China—could no longer block Kosovo’s European path. Belgrade would finally face the choice that it has studiously avoided: whether to accept the Western order and negotiate a dignified, stabilizing settlement with Kosovo or continue to ply its limp EU candidacy, its phony democracy, and its false balance between the West and the West’s adversaries Russia and China.
Typically, the U.S. role is to lift up its enfeebled European partners, as Biden and Blinken are attempting to do. But lately it is Washington that has sunk to the lowest common denominator European position. Even more surprising, the EU has actually taken a stronger position against dangerous border changes in the region than U.S. officials, who hold Kosovo responsible for objecting to partition of its country, tacitly backing the Serbian demand for Kosovo territory.
Fortunately, no one understands all these dynamics better than Biden. As a U.S. senator, he saw through the European divisions over the Balkans that hampered Western policy and urged decisive American-led intervention. As vice president, Biden visited the region and met an array of officials, including Vucic. In Belgrade in 2016, Biden gave a memorable, conciliatory message to Serbs, expressing condolences for civilian victims of the 1999 NATO bombing. The United States and EU have been stalwarts in holding Kosovo figures, not just Serb figures, accountable for war crimes. In a first for the region, a sitting leader, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, had to resign last November in order to face war crimes allegations (including for murder of Serbs) in a special court in The Hague set up at American and European insistence. In other words, Biden has long stood for principled and fair U.S. leadership in the Balkans—and against manipulation of the West due to craven European posturing or con games by regional leaders.
Biden and Blinken understand that the only way to blunt malign Russian and Chinese influence in the region is with a unified Western stance on core democratic principles. Of course, the EU remains divided over Kosovo, weak on fighting corruption and insincere on EU enlargement. Brussels quickly ruled out joining the administration’s expanded bid to fight corruption. Still, the new executive order gives Biden cause to move Washington’s allies and partners toward convergence on key principles. At next week’s NATO and EU summits, Biden should ask his counterparts to join Washington on three critical elements for final communique.
First, there is and can be only one standard of conduct for all aspirants in the Balkans. In addition to reaffirming overall support for EU enlargement, the EU communique should express clearly that all aspirant countries in the region are equal in their sovereignty and that each aspirant country will be held equally to account to abide by its commitments to European standards and its commitments to fellow aspirants. There is no “political and economic leader in the region,” nor will any country, including Serbia, get a free pass to abuse its neighbors or its democracy. Nor can countries in the region wage war by other means, using political aggression to isolate Kosovo, as Serbia does through its nonrecognition campaign against Kosovo, or as Kosovo does by promoting union of Kosovo and Albania, a form of aggression against Kosovo Serbs and Serbia.
Second, allies and partners should at least embrace Washington’s assessment on of the scourge of corruption. It is critical that European capitals echo Biden’s linkage of corruption to the weakening of democratic processes and the pathway this provides to Western adversaries. Even if the EU won’t agree to apply sanctions, Washington should try to get its partners to formally support the active U.S. position against corruption in the executive order. This could open the door to individual European countries, like Germany, the Netherlands, or Scandinavian countries, or NATO ally the United Kingdom, to follow Washington’s lead.
Third, NATO allies should offer Kosovo membership in the Partnership for Peace. NATO could use a similar workaround formula (for the four alliance members that do not recognize Kosovo) that the EU employed in formalizing its own association agreement with Kosovo. This will send a strong signal to Serbia to negotiate seriously with Kosovo in the EU-led dialogue.
Washington should recommend balancing this call with strong allied support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the five European countries that do not recognize Kosovo. Slovakia and Romania face active threats of Hungarian revanchism. Spain’s multinational democracy is under threat from active separatist bids. Cyprus remains divided by the secession of Northern Cyprus, backed by Turkey.
Kosovo is not responsible or implicated in any of these threats to territorial integrity. Nor has Kosovo’s independence violated international law, or served as a spur to secession anywhere in the world. But strong allied support for the five nonrecognizing countries could attenuate anxiety in these nations over their relationship with Kosovo.
These plausible steps would close the gap between Biden’s principled positions on the Balkans and his own administration’s reluctance to apply them in an evenhanded manner. Bringing Europe and the United States together on core principles in the Balkans would also send a powerful message to Moscow and Beijing, advancing Biden’s overall mission to rally support for democracy in Europe in the region where it is most tested. By aligning Western policy with Western values, Biden has the opportunity to finally close the three-decade drama in Yugoslavia and close out Russian and Chinese influence.
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.