America in the Balkans – a chance for Serbia

We are seeing these days how the announcement of US President Biden from the beginning of his mandate that the Western Balkans will be among the foreign policy priorities of his administration is coming true in full force. He announced that at the end of January, as soon as he took office, not anywhere, but in the first telephone conversation with Angela Merkel, his most important partner in the EU.

Biden’s announcement at the time was met with a lot of disbelief in the domestic public, probably due to the traditional superficiality and ignorance in the interpretation of our relations with the world. In principle – Biden will certainly not deal with us, when he has Afghanistan, China, Iran, Russia and Ukraine on his back (other foreign policy priorities mentioned by the President of the USA along with the Western Balkans). Even the rare American interlocutors of the domestic media were skeptical, though for other reasons. They assumed that Biden would be preoccupied with internal problems and that there would simply be no time or interest for the Balkans.

But why would it be different from what the President of the United States said in an official conversation and then announced it through a White House statement? Why would we look for traps in his statements, unless we still think we are so important (perhaps dangerous) that even the President of the United States, in the first days of his term, does not have the courage to tell us in person what he intends to do with us? Unfortunately, we thought about ourselves like that for too long and we always made a mistake.

And as he announced, so it happened. America under Biden’s presidency is taking big steps toward returning to the Balkans. This is good news for Serbia, no matter how common is the belief that American “interference” always means pressure and always brings only a loss for Serbia. The first part is partially correct, because American diplomacy will certainly press, whenever it estimates that it will bring it a result, but the second part is completely wrong, it is an echo of some earlier times. Serbia will not be at a loss due to the new American return to the Balkans.

The reason is that both Serbia and the United States, at this historic moment, have a common interest in the Balkans, and that is to solve the problems that have been burdening the region for too long. How this will happen is a matter of diplomacy and even negotiation skills, primarily on our part, but it is crucial that the interests of small Serbia and great America finally have a common strategic point.

Next week, we will have the opportunity to see how this return of America to the Balkans “works”, at the premiere of the continuation of the Brussels dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. Although he is carefully trying to keep the role of mediator (officially) in the hands of the EU and Miroslav Lajčák, for the first time, Matthew Palmer, the US envoy for the Western Balkans, will be (officially) in talks with Aleksandar Vučić, Albin Kurti and Lajčák. Although the United States has closely followed and influenced the course of the dialogue in previous years, Palmer announced a more serious participation of the United States in the Kosovo dialogue with a recent joint tour with Lajčák in Belgrade and Pristina.

Serbia and Vučić need such a partner in talks, not because the United States will change its position on Kosovo, but because it can fight the Pristina tricks much more effectively than the EU, because Pristina has been delaying the process for years, and often completely blocks it. The Serbian president and the American mediator will be those who want the job done at the Brussels table. And in a way that will be acceptable to both sides, as Palmer said recently in Belgrade, and as Vučić has been saying for years.

America is returning to the Balkans, not only through Brussels, by renewing the presidential decree on sanctioning everyone in the region who work against peace, against post-war agreements, deal with corruption and thus prevent the region from integrating into Europe. Does this look like pressure? Maybe, but not to states, but only to individuals whom the United States will deny hospitality and block accounts and businesses in the United States if they determine that they are working to the disadvantage of their citizens and states. There are still close to 200 of them on that list, half of whom are from B&H, and one of the veterans on it is Milorad Dodik. A recent Regulation by President Biden confirmed that the United States will continue to apply its Magnitsky Act against individuals from the Western Balkans, as one of the most effective measures to fight international corruption and serious violations of human rights.

The malice that prevailed on this occasion among opposition politicians and the media close to them (because the United States will probably put terrible pressure on Serbia and Vučić) is only a sad consequence of not understanding how much Serbia has changed in relation to the time in which they remained. And especially how much that change influenced the change of America’s attitude towards Serbia. And so, here’s a little reminder from a month and a half ago: “We need the United States as a friend of Serbia, because we can’t be the economic power of this small region, nor progress faster without American support, which means we need to find a common denominator with the USA on the most important issues, and then to deliver on that, because that is a precondition for economic and other progress”. This is a short definition of Serbia’s new relations with America, given by Aleksandar Vučić in a recent debate in the Washington Atlantic Council. The language and attitudes that Washington understands very well and to which it will respond in the same manner – with pragmatic partnership. For the first time, we are not asking for anything more from America, and that is why the new American arrival in the Balkans has a chance to be good for Serbia as well.