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Biden's Unfinished Balkan Business

By Gülnur Aybet and Florian Bieber

Vice President Joseph Biden last week paid a visit to the Balkans' troublesome triangle: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo. The visit displayed the Obama administration's reengagement with the region after it dropped from America's list of priorities after 9/11. Could the Western Balkans be catching Washington's attention once again even as Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan dominate much of the foreign policy agenda?

There is plenty of unfinished business from the early 1990s, issues significant to the U.S. and to the EU's role in the region. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe's integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions was considered essential to democratic governance, free markets and human rights. NATO and EU enlargement were seen as tandem processes in the grand design of "Europe whole and free." The Western Balkans have been struggling to keep up with this process, with only Bulgaria and Romania as members today of both organizations. Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo face a series of inter-linked obstacles to accession, which is why Biden's first visit to the region was confined to those three countries.

It is unlikely that the Western Balkans will follow NATO and EU membership as simultaneous processes. The one country unlikely to follow this pattern is Serbia, which has expressed an interest in joining the EU, but is most likely to opt out of NATO membership. Bosnia and Kosovo are entrenched in problems of statehood and state-building. Kosovo's ability to consolidate its statehood domestically and internationally largely rests on a change of policy in Serbia towards its former province. While Kosovo might soon join the IMF and the World Bank, membership in other international organizations seems far off; some member states have refused to recognize Kosovo. A successful strategy must put Kosovo on the road to Euro-Atlantic integration even if membership is not on the horizon any time soon.

Bosnia's state-building is still unfinished. At the end of the war in 1995, the Bosnian state was created in a top-down approach led by the U.S., with the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which effectively created two entities: A fragile Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic. This structure has been a constant challenge to strengthening of state-level institutions, and intransigent politicians have diametrically opposed visions for the country's future. Following the failure of the constitutional amendments in 2006, the electoral victories of Milorad Dodik in the Serb Republic and Haris Silajdzic representing the Bosniak vote in the Federation tipped the country into a political crisis. While Dodik's electoral success rested on undoing much of the state building over the last decade, Silajdzic promised the undoing of the Dayton Agreement and the Serb Republic.

However, getting Euro-Atlantic integration back on track requires more than just focusing on personalities. Bosnia is today stuck between the remnants of an ineffective protectorate and Euro-Atlantic integration. While the heavy handed intervention of the Office of the High Representative was always thought of as transitory, more than thirteen years after Dayton, the OHR is still there and so is its magic wand: the Bonn Powers, which empower the OHR to dismiss elected officials and impose laws. The new High Representative, the Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, lacks necessary political clout to use these powers. Thus, it is crucial to transition from the fading authority of the OHR to a more advisory capacity for the EU Special Representative (EUSR). Bosnia must move from a dysfunctional protectorate to a 'normalized' Eastern European country preparing for EU accession. Fulfilling the narrow criteria for the closure of the OHR is not enough. In addition, constitutional reform in Bosnia has to center on building a domestic consensus on the state, and rendering existing institutions more effective, rather than an unrealistic whole-scale reform of the system.

Bosnia's challenges appear to be a U.S. priority once again, but the problems of all three countries are so interlinked that they require a comprehensive approach. In Serbia, the U.S. not only needs a fresh approach in substance, but also in style. While Washington and Belgrade may agree to disagree on the recognition of Kosovo for the time being, the U.S. offer of a 'strong new relationship' is not going to go far enough to mend damaged relations from the 1999 bombing of Serbia over the Kosovo conflict. While the Serbian government would like to the have the "best possible relations" with the United States, nationalist reactions to Biden's visit indicate that opinions are tough to change - and that they will impede a fresh start. The U.S. would like Serbia to cooperate with the EU at least in finding a pragmatic solution to improve the lives of Kosovar Albanians and Serbs.

If the deadlock on the future of these three countries in Europe is to be broken, the U.S. must convey new momentum for completing Euro-Atlantic integration in the Western Balkans. But it must also appear convincing in its support for the EU's lead in that process. This is why careful thought has to be given to the appointment of a U.S. special envoy to the Balkans, a possibility that is being looked at favorably by the new administration and supported by a recent resolution passed by Congress. This has the potential to complement or derail the EU's lead in the region.

Gülnur Aybet is a SouthEast Europe Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington D.C. Florian Bieber holds the Luigi Einaudi Chair in European and International Studies at Cornell University. Both authors are lecturers at the University of Kent, England. Visit our project website on: www.integratingbosnia.org.uk

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Comments (3)

rastare1a Author Profile Page:

Unfortunately BALL3991 seems to be right from what I can tell. There are so many unresolved issues that the region might never come together in a stable state. In my mind three essential features contribute to the instability of the region as a whole. 1. It's geopolitical location between europe and the middleeast; christianity and islam; and capitalism and communism. 2. The fact that upon reorganization, the EU and US failed to segregate the region along natural ethnic and cultural boundaries and 3. Historical misgivings arising from numbers 1 and 2.

ball3991 Author Profile Page:

The EU can't do it. Member state politics won't allow it. Croatia's accession at this very moment is hostage to a petty boundary state dispute with Slovenia. Once that is settled Croatia will no doubt have a similar series of axes to grind with Bosnia and Serbia. Kosovo was ripped from Serbia and propped up until it could declare its independance. The Bosnian peace was forced on the combatants at Dayton. The entire region is a stew of unresolved issues and there are no clear victors or losers. But there is a hell of a lot of resentment and scores to settle. That's a recipe for a resumption of gunfire as soon as the worlds attentions drifts elsewhere.

aztecterp Author Profile Page:

This is not such a hard problem to solve and it could have been solved long ago if some individuals let go of their egos. All that is needed is for the parties to sit at the negotiating table as equals. In the case of Kosovo, the Serbs were told constantly that once the negotiations were over that Kosovo would be recognized as an independent state. What sort of negotiations were those? If one is to negotiate in good faith there can be no pre-determined outcomes. Once Serbs and Albanians sit together at the negotiating table they will work out a just solution that respects both parties. So long, however, there are no negotiations and it is assumed Kosovo's UDI is a done deal, then there will not be peace and stability. The situation is similar in Bosnia. Western intellectuals must stop believing that all people want to and can live together in harmony. There is no holding hands in a world where hands are used for fighting. The situation actually isn't much better at home. African Americans and Caucasians don't and in many cases do not want to get along together. Yet some foolish and very childish people keep on insisting on fairy tale existences where people love each other. Sorry folks, that's not reality, especially in nations with strong and long histories like those in the Balkans.

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