[Opinion] : What the State Department forgot to say

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


By Daniel Serwer –

Washington, 18 May 2023, /  – This morning’s (Derek ) Chollet and (Gabriel) Escobar pas de deux at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee demonstrated that the Senators who attended really know something about the Balkans. The questioning was pertinent and at times incisive. The responses were less so.

Of course the State Department Counselor and the Deputy Assistant Secretary with responsibility for the Balkans know what to say. They are for EU membership, democracy, sovereignty and territorial integrity. They are against Russian malfeasance, Chinese financing, corruption, and ethnonationalism.

It’s what they don’t say

It’s what they don’t say that really counts, starting from the premise: “Europe whole and free.” This 90s US foreign policy slogan is inapplicable today and for the forseeable future. Europe is not going to be whole and free any time soon. We’ll have to accept a line somewhere. That’s what the war in Ukraine is about: will Kyiv be on the Western side of the line, or will all or part of Ukraine be forced into a subserviant relationship with Russia?

While the Americans are trying to attract it with all the carrots they can think of, Belgrade has chosen definitively in recent years to move towards Moscow and Beijing. There is no sign of anything but rhetorical interest in EU membership. Progress in the EU accession process has ground to a halt.

The political system in Serbia has veered towards autocracy. President (Aleksandar) Vucic and his minions, who include virtually the entire media landscape in Serbia, mouth ambitions to retake Kosovo (or part of it) and use the worst ethnic slurs available against Albanians. There really is nothing comparable happening in Kosovo.

As for the Belgrade/Pristina dialogue, Escobar claimed the February and March agreements on normalization are legally binding and being implemented, but when confronted with examples of President Vucic’s refusal to implement specific provisions he and Chollet retreated to bothsiderism.

That was also their response on corruption in Belgrade as well. “We find it everywhere in the Balkans.” In recent memory, I can’t name a US official who has referred explicitly to the many and gross manifestations of organized crime and corruption in Serbia.

Chollet and Escobar were enthusiastic about the proposed Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities (ASMM), claiming it would enable Serbs to integrate more into Kosovo and would have to be consistent with the Kosovo constitution. They ignored the Serb proposal for the ASMM, which is unequivocally intended to create an autonomous Serb entity, like Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, inside Kosovo, complete with executive powers.

They were also enthusiastic for Serbia’s Open Balkans initiative, provided that it treats all the countries participating equally. They forgot to mention that Kosovo has not even been invited to Open Balkans because Belgrade doesn’t want to address it properly in the invitation.

Poor Bosnia

Bosnia suffered the worst from State Department amnesia. Yes, the officials said, the Bosnia constitution would need changes, in accordance with decisions by the EU and the Venice Commission. They forgot to mention that one of those decisions, by the European Court of Human Rights, was taken 14 years ago. The US gave up long ago on pressing for its implementation.

They liked the decisions of the HiRep (High Representative) that enabled formation of the government in the Bosnian Federation, but forgot to mention that one of them changed the way votes were counted after they were cast. The other was taken to iron out problems the first had created. The net result was to ensure that two ethnonationalist parties could rule in the Federation. Only one ethnonationalist party was dissastified with these decisions, Escobar claimed. He forgot to mention that that party and other dissenters just might represent more than a majority of the voters. Never mind the disgraceful act of changing the way votes are counted after they are cast.

The rest

I trust the North Macedonians won’t be too pleased to hear from Escobar that in order to join the EU they will have to change their constitution to mention their Bulgarian minority, which he failed to say numbers a few thousand (certainly less than 1% of the population).

Nor will the Albanians in Serbia be pleased to hear that their numbers–almost certainly equal to or greater than the number of Serbs in northern Kosovo (and far more than the Bulgarians in Macedonia)–don’t merit mention of an Association of Albanian Majority Municipalities inside Serbia. Never mind Albanian seats in the Serbian parliament, to match the guaranteed Serb seats in the Kosovo parliament.

Escobar will be winging off to Podgorica for the Montenegrin presidential inauguration Saturday. No one bothered to mention that we owe the oderly and so far nonviolent change of power there to its current President, Milo Djukanovic, whom American and European diplomats have spent years deploring for alleged (but still unproven) corruption. The new President, Jakov Milatović, avows a pro-European stance but has more than warm relations with President Vucic in Belgrade. A lot will depend on June 11 parliamentary elections. I hope they are conducted as freely and fairly as those under Djukanovic.


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 of his was originally published at his website.        

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

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