Respected President-elect Biden,
A hearing on the Balkans was held before the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs on December 8, at which honored congressmen, with the help of former senior US officials and academics, experts on the Balkans, have tried to make recommendations to your coming administration for the future US policy in this region. As some of them have pointed out, the Balkans will probably not be a first-class foreign policy issue for your administration, but it will still be an important field for your activity, given the long-term involvement of the United States, and you personally, in the Balkans, especially in resolving the conflict during the 1990s.
The purpose of this public hearing, however, was different. It was a farewell meeting for the longtime chairman of the Committee, Congressman Eliot Engel, who is stepping down from that post and handing it over to Congressman Gregory Meeks. This session was an opportunity for colleagues to express their gratitude and honor to Congressman Engel for his long-term cooperation and effort in one of the most important Committees of the House of Representatives. Understandably, Congressman Engel chose Kosovo as the topic for his farewell meeting, as one of the most important issues in the Balkans, which he has been dealing with for years and considers it his important political legacy. In his case, it is the independence of Kosovo, which he is proud of and for which they paid tribute to him in Kosovo by naming a street after him and printing his face on a postage stamp.
However, Congressman Engel’s political legacy, as well as the debate on the Balkans he convened at the end of his term, are not, however, good recommendations for future US policy in the Balkans, especially on the issue of Kosovo. This was very well demonstrated by the discussion held at the hearing before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and especially the selection of “witnesses”, who gave their opinion before the Committee on the direction of the future US policy in the Balkans. The “witnesses“ were Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, and Professors Daniel Serwer and Janusz Bugajski.
With all due respect for their expertise and reputation, I hope you will agree that these are people whose attitudes and actions marked an earlier period in the US-Balkan relations, a period full of confrontations and fortunately far behind us. I hope that you will agree that their unchanged positions cannot help in the current, and especially the future period that has already been, and will be, a period of cooperation between the United States and the Balkans, a period of new relations that has already begun.
During the hearing, Secretary Albright described very well that today’s Balkans have changed a lot compared to the period when she was the head of the State Department. She says that today the region is “free and peaceful, nations are not in conflict, but are cooperating on a common path to the EU“. This is the right starting point for the future policy of the USA towards the region, the one that will be led by you and your administration.
Professor Serwer and Bugajski’s advice that American engagement should go in the direction of mutual recognition of Serbia and Kosovo is not good. If it were that simple and if Kosovo’s independence was a globally unquestionable fact, this issue would have been resolved long ago. But it is still on the table, open and waiting for a new solution. America is also actively working to find that solution, which is welcomed by both Belgrade and Pristina. They especially welcome the position of the USA that a permanent solution can be found only by compromise on both sides, and not by imposing “from above”, which was a common case before, but did not bring much benefit. Unfortunately, Professor Serwer is still an advocate of such an outdated model, as when he encouraged the government in Pristina not to abolish the unheard of 100% taxes on goods from Serbia, in order to preserve its blackmailing capacity in negotiations with Belgrade.
The path suggested by Professor Serwer and some other participants in the debate, that a key problem in the Balkans can be solved by putting pressure on Serbia to adjust to the fact that Kosovo is independent is wrong. This policy has not brought a solution so far, nor can it bring solution during your administration. Change is possible only through cooperation with Serbia, and not through confrontation with it. Just as you said in 2016 during your visit to Belgrade and talks with the then Prime Minister and current President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić: “Serbia is successful, in our long history some things were painful and not good, I am proud because we started a new chapter based on mutual respect”. I remind you that on the same occasion, you expressed your condolences to the families of those killed in the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, which was a great state gesture, on which the Serbian people expressed their gratitude and respect.
The real picture of the new US approach in the Balkans, and especially in Serbia, is the recent activation of the International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and the opening of its regional office in Belgrade. As Secretary Albright well noted, it is a “huge step forward” in the US’s relationship with the Balkans, and especially with Serbia. Both America and Serbia need more of this approach, and less outdated and inefficient concepts, which, unfortunately, we have heard again before the Committee on International Relations of the House of Representatives. We need the continuation of the new American approach, which you described in Belgrade in 2016, with the words: “Serbia is an economic and political cornerstone for the entire region, and on it depends how the entire region will proceed”.
During 140 years of common history, Serbia and the United States have been strong allies and partners, and brothers in arms in times of war. Both our countries want to renew and strengthen that friendship and alliance, after a period of confrontation in the last two decades. Now is the right opportunity for that, and you and your administration have a very good basis to achieve that with your influence and state responsibility. You just need to follow your own beliefs about the new, better Balkans and Serbia that you have personally been introduced to, not the recommendations frozen in some former times, which all of us want to leave behind and move forward.
Dr Orhan Dragaš
International Security Instirute Belgrade, Serbia