[Opinion] : Europe isn’t going to be whole and free

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


By Daniel Serwer,  @DanielSerwer , 

Washington, 01 February 2024, / – Jim O’Brien, the fairly still new Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, spoke last week at the German Marshall Fund. Focused mainly on Ukraine, he said little about the Balkans. That already tells you a lot.

The Balkan region is not a priority in Washington. When he did address the Balkans (he starts a bit before 23 minutes), he highlighted economic issues. That tells you more. Jim doubts the political issues can be resolved at present. He was a devotee of the failed Open Balkans program, which proposed a economy-led approach to regional reform. But Serbia dominated it, so Kosovo opted out. It accomplished little or nothing.

Reform v stability

Heather Conley pushed Jim back to the Balkans in the 39th minute, asking him about the balance between stability and reform in regard to the Serbian elections last December 17. Jim tries to cop out on the Belgrade election, as OSCE did not officially observe it. But the facts are well known. The national government bused in thousands of voters from Bosnia and Herzegovina to vote in Belgrade, as it feared a defeat there. Even so, it did not gain 50% of the seats in the city council. Who will govern there is still uncertain.

Jim treats the outcome as a sign of reform rather than fraud. That is one more disturbing instance of American appeasement of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

He then reverts to his preference for an economy-led policy, explicitly based on Belgrade’s performance in attracting foreign investment. He hopes the other leaders in the region will emulate that. But Serbia’s FDI performance has stagnated in recent years, as Belgrade has turned away from foreign policy alignment with its main sources in Europe and the US. Vucic is supporting Russia in Ukraine and sucking up to China, claiming to stay “neutral” while wining and dining with Lukashenko, Aliyev, and Orban. West European and American companies rightly wonder whether they will be treated correctly. That is especially true as your rule of law scores decline.

Political as well as economic reform for stability

The right approach is reform with stability. Serbia’s instability in recent years is associated with President Vucic’s refusal to reform. This has led to massive anti-violence, anti-corruption, and pro-environment demonstrations against the government. It is unlikely there will be stability until at least some of these opposition demands are met.

The notion that Vucic can ride out the wave of protests and impose stability using increasingly autocratic measures is unconvincing. It is also not something the US should support. Nor will his now constant saber-rattling toward Kosovo help.

Washington and Brussels should articulate a policy that calls for real reform, political as well as economic. Their parliamentarians are already doing so. The executive branches should follow their lead.

One important but long-neglected area of reform is military expenditure. Serbia has been conducting a massive military buildup, including drones, air defenses, and a few Humvees to keep the Americans quiet:

The only reason for such rearmament is to bully Kosovo and other neighbors. None of them threaten Serbia, which however is anxious to control the Serb populations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Kosovo. The effort to do this goes by the moniker “the Serbian world.” Washington and Brussels should tell Belgrade the Serbian world is anathema and the military buildup should stop.

There is a pro-EU Serbian opposition

The Serbian political opposition did better in the parliamentary election than might be expected. The electoral environment was free but blatantly and decidedly unfair. Nevertheless the opposition won one-quarter of the seats in Parliament. It is not an opposition strong enough to buck Serbian policy on Kosovo. To the contrary, many of its stalwarts try to stake out more nationalist and irredentist positions than the government.

But it is mostly a pro-EU opposition that is more unified than at times in the past. If it ever comes even close to power, it will need to re-evaluate how its own fate relates to Kosovo’s.

The inevitable conclusion is that EU membership depends on serious good neighborly relations and eventual formal recognition. Nothing less will get Serbia into the EU. They know it but can’t say it, or do anything about it, now.

So what is to be done?

One of Jim’s themes throughout is supporting responsible politicians to deliver benefits to citizens. That is not what President Vucic is doing. He has gotten Brussels and Washington to buy stability with little, if any, reform that really benefits citizens.

The situation is even worse in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There Washington and Brussels have made the mistake of supporting Croat politicians who are unwilling to produce any serious reform or benefits to citizens.

If there is one politician who has demonstrated serious commitment to reform in the Balkans today, it is Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti. Brussels has levied “consequences” against him for daring to keep professionally behaving police and legitimately elected mayors in place in northern Kosovo. It is true that he has also hesitated to implement the agreed Association of Serb-majority Municipalities. That is a price that should be paid at the end of the dialogue process, with formal diplomatic recognition, not now.

Jim is right that the main political issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity cannot be resolved in the way the US wants now. I don’t mind his “benefits to citizens” approach. It makes sense to focus on relatively technical issues and full implementation of past agreements, like the ones on license plates and state documents, between Kosovo and Serbia.

It makes no sense to imagine that Serbia under Vucic will want to do more. Or that the Balkans will be part of Europe whole and free any time soon.

For now, the line between East and West will run through the Balkans, with Serbia and Republika Srpska (the Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina) on the eastern side of it, along with Belarus. It is Serbia’s right to choose. It has done so. We need to accept and respect its choice.


Daniel Serwer is a Professor of the Practice of Conflict Management as well as director of the Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.         

This opinion was first published at website.                     

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of .   

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