Biden and the Western Balkans
A lot was at stake for the Balkans in last November’s U.S. presidential elections. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić made a failed bet on Donald Trump, hoping that the United States under Trump would continue to be more sympathetic to Serbian interests in its settlement of the Kosovo dispute and other matters. U.S. foreign policy toward the Balkans under Trump was marked by a disdain toward the European Union and lack of continuity, best symbolized in the economic normalization agreement between Belgrade and Priština brokered in September 2020. While Vučić still congratulated Joe Biden for his win, other Balkan leaders were probably much more relieved at the prospect of a Biden presidency.
Under Biden, U.S. policy in the region is expected to have a more trans-Atlantic focus, and it will energetically demand the resolution of remaining regional disputes, like Kosovo. In a letter sent to Serbian and Kosovo leaders in February 2021, Biden called for a solution based on “mutual recognition.” Biden is evidently passionate about resolving this dispute, as he repeated the same set of themes on mutual recognition in a more recent letter to Kosovo’s new president, Vjosa Osmani. Many policy hands, including Nicholas Burns, one of Biden’s advisers and a potential U.S. ambassador to China, now expect that Biden will display U.S. leadership in the region. Specifically, Burns expects the White House to advocate resolving the issue of Kosovo, promoting liberal democracy, and integrating the region in the West while cooperating closely with the European Union.
U.S. officials will have to deal with three sets of challenges in the Balkans: the unresolved Kosovo dispute, democratic backsliding in the region, and the influence of Russia and China. While U.S. power is a necessary element in resolving these challenges, the Biden administration will not be able to offer quick fixes. Instead, the United States should have a more modest, calibrated policy on issues like Kosovo and democratic development, while on Russia and China, it should offer alternatives alongside the European Union, rather than try to eliminate Russian and Chinese influence through pressure.
The Unresolved Kosovo Dispute
Kosovo continues to be an unresolved challenge for U.S. policy in the Balkans. For the past decade, Washington left the responsibility for the Kosovo dispute to the European Union as the United States dedicated its attention elsewhere. Since 2011, Brussels has mediated a dialogue on the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. The United States mostly provided support from the sidelines in the form of encouraging political statements. In fact, during the Obama administration, then-Vice President Biden was the point man for the Balkans and Kosovo issue. Indeed, in 2009 Biden was the first senior U.S. official to visit Serbia in a quarter-century. Biden affirmed American support for the dialogue in 2016 when he visited Serbia and Kosovo.
European efforts to resolve the biggest Balkan dispute (Kosovo) began faltering around 2018. Kosovo unilaterally imposed 100 percent tariffs on Serbian goods, asking for full recognition from Serbia in exchange for their removal, a no-go for Belgrade. President Donald Trump searched for a foreign policy win for his failed reelection bid and decided to act on the Kosovo dispute via his regional envoy Richard Grenell. Trump’s policies were transactional, whimsical, and produced no meaningful results. The administration first backed and then gave up on the idea of a land swap between Serbia and Kosovo. To bring back Serbia to the talks, the United States asked Kosovo to lift the tariffs imposed on Serbia. After Priština refused, the United States retaliated in March 2020 by encouraging a no-confidence vote against the Kosovo government.
Some believe that Biden will be able to succeed where Trump failed. Biden already has met Serbian leaders several times during his long career in Washington, where he served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president. In addition, he enjoys high popularity in Kosovo because of his pro-interventionist stance against Slobodan Milošević’s regime in the 1990s. Kosovo even named a street in Priština after Biden’s late son, Beau, who worked in the country in the late 1990s for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The sentiments are mutual and Biden said during his 2016 visit to Priština: “Beau loved this country like I do.”
Another challenge for Biden will be doing something to halt or reverse democratic decline in the Balkans. In recent years, local elites in countries like North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia degraded democratic institutions and consolidated their grip over their respective countries. The West was willing to tolerate these illiberal tendencies as long as the local regimes contributed to regional stability, prompting some specialists to call this phenomenon “stabilitocracy.”
Some Balkan strongmen lost power. The former prime minister of North Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski, fled to Hungary in 2018 after 10 years of rule marked by corruption and misuse of the intelligence services. In Montenegro’s 2020 parliamentary elections, the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro, led by Milo Đukanović, lost after being in power for 30 years (75 years, considering that the party is a successor to the Yugoslav Communist Party). However, Đukanović remains the president of Montenegro. These countries are still far from being mature democracies.
Since 2012, the region’s most strategically consequential country, Serbia, has been ruled by the Serbian Progressive Party, led by Aleksandar Vučić and his coalition partners. This ruling coalition has been composed out of former associates of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević. The degree of dominance that Vučić and his allies have over Serbian institutions, media, and intelligence services prompted Freedom House to classify Serbia (alongside Montenegro) as a hybrid regime. The draconian measures used to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in Serbia and the Balkans helped cement the extant democratic backsliding. After the opposition boycotted the last parliamentary elections in 2020, on the grounds of unfair conditions, the ruling party has a two-thirds majority without opposition representatives. According to surveys, half of Serbian citizens believe there is no democracy in their country.
Some are optimistic that the new Biden administration will act as a check on the region’s illiberal trends. The State Department’s most recent human rights report was not lenient on Serbia and the rest of Southeast Europe, with criticism leveled on media freedom and police brutality issues. The European Union is also taking a tougher line on human rights in the Balkans, at least in terms of public statements. In the last European Parliament report on Serbia, the country was criticized for backtracking on the rule of law, freedom of expression, corruption, and organized crime.
Russia and China
As North Atlantic powers have paid less attention to the Balkans in recent years, other countries have moved in to fill the power vacuum. This list includes Turkey, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and most notably Russia and China. Despite the limits of Russian influence in the Balkans, Moscow has been adept at capitalizing on three instruments in the region: its own soft power, Russia’s energy reserves, and the unresolved Kosovo dispute. The last one is particularly effective at tying Serbia to Russia, because as long as Serbia lacks a solution that is acceptable domestically and internationally it has to rely on Russian diplomatic backing, primarily in the U.N. Security Council. This is why Belgrade has not fully severed ties with Moscow despite the cooling down in mutual ties in the past couple of years. The region’s energy dependence on Russia has also increased as Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina will be getting their gas via the TurkStream pipeline. In addition, Russia has exported the Sputnik V vaccine to Montenegro, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and potentially Albania. Serbia even signed an agreement to start producing Sputnik V vaccines on Serbian soil.
China poses an even greater challenge to Western interests in the Balkans. Unlike Russia, which solely acts as a spoiler power obstructing the West, China is a rising power offering a strategic vision for Eurasia with its Belt and Road Initiative. In the past decade, Chinese firms invested $2.4 billion in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. At the same time, Beijing has provided $6.8 billion in infrastructure loans. In Serbia, China is the third-largest foreign direct investor (accounting for 6.61 percent of all net foreign direct investments) after the European Union (72.27 percent) and Russia (11.21 percent). In Montenegro, China owns 25 percent of the country’s public debt. Beijing is supplying Belgrade with drones. The recent visit by Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe to Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary suggests that China wants to expand its military ties with regional powers. On the vaccination front, to Serbia alone China supplied 1 million doses of the Chinese-produced Sinopharm vaccine, and the supply of an additional 2 million doses has also been agreed. However, China is also bringing highly questionable labor and environmental standards to the region.
The United States has already shown itself capable of pushing back against Russia and China in the Balkans, even under Trump. Montenegro joined NATO in 2017 and North Macedonia followed in 2020. In 2017 and 2018, U.S. diplomatic interventions helped resolve the political crises in Albania and North Macedonia, showing that Washington can succeed where the slow bureaucratic policy of the European Union fails. With respect to Chinese influence, the White House agreement on economic normalization between Kosovo and Serbia brokered by Trump stipulates that the two countries will not allow 5G infrastructure from “untrusted vendors,” an apparent jab at the Chinese tech giant Huawei. As a result, Serbia postponed the tender for the 5G spectrum. The Trump administration also persuaded Bulgaria, Kosovo, and North Macedonia to join its “Clean Network” initiative to eliminate China and Huawei from the global 5G infrastructure. The general mood is that Biden can finally close the doors to both Russia and China.
Not So Fast
It is too early for optimism, though. The Biden administration cannot expect a quick resolution of the Kosovo dispute, particularly if it involves Belgrade’s recognition of Kosovo. Any Serbian leader who recognizes Kosovo will be committing political suicide, particularly without face-saving concessions from Kosovo, the United States, or European Union. Pressure on Serbia from Biden himself to recognize Kosovo would be an even tougher sell, as he is highly unpopular in Serbia over his pro-interventionist stance from the 1990s. While Biden, in a 2016 visit, offered condolences to the families of Serbs killed in the NATO intervention of 1999, his track record of supporting Kosovo will not be soon forgotten.
Opposition to recognizing Kosovo enjoys considerable support across the political spectrum in Serbia. Any attempt to publicly pressure the country to recognize Kosovo will likely backfire and present an opening for Russia to increase its influence in Belgrade. Biden’s letter calling for recognition will make it harder for Serbia to compromise. Even if Serbia’s liberal political parties were to come to power at some point, the current opposition would have trouble compromising on Kosovo because of the potential domestic backlash from nationalists. One should not forget that there is also a nationalist opposition that could be even tougher than Vučić.
The situation is also complicated on the Kosovo side, as the new government of Albin Kurti, just like its Serbian counterparts, is not showing a willingness to compromise and does not deem the dialogue important in light of domestic hardships in Kosovo. According to polls, Kosovo citizens consider the dialogue with Serbia as the sixth or seventh issue of importance. Moreover, despite Biden’s and the America’s historical popularity among Kosovo Albanians, Kurti’s populist inclinations might hinder the relationship with Biden. The episode where Kurti refused to lift tariffs against Serbia, prompting Trump to encourage a no-confidence vote, shows that even U.S. leverage with Priština has limits.
The Biden administration has some options to promote democracy and human rights in the Balkans, but none of them are easy or clear cut. For instance, Washington might focus its diplomatic attention on Serbia. Would it not be easy to sever ties with Vučić and extend support to the opposition and civil society? Not exactly. Given Biden’s unpopularity in Serbia, any group or leader who gets U.S. backing would be an easy target for the government propaganda machine. Media attacks and pressure against civil society organizations, opposition figures, and journalists are a recurring theme already. For example, Serbian Minister of Interior Aleksandar Vulin reacted to the State Department’s human rights report with accusations of hypocrisy against the United States. Moreover, the opposition is disunified and unable to animate voters. Most of the opposition leaders have already been in power, like former Mayor of Belgrade Dragan Đilas and former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić.
Washington’s considerable influence in the Balkans has limits. The use of America’s most potent tool — secondary financial sanctions — would not instill pro-Western sentiments in the local elites and local population. In addition, some inroads from Russia and China in the Balkans will be hard to roll back. The region imports gas from Russia because there is no alternative. Chinese infrastructure lending is attractive because the funds of the European Union are not available. Russian and Chinese vaccines are being bought because the European Union failed to provide them in time. To increase its regional influence, the United States will have to offer both sticks and carrots to local stakeholders. Historically, Washington has been much more comfortable offering sticks. Transition politics may also make things more difficult for the United States. The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, whose regional office for the Western Balkans was opened in Belgrade by the Trump administration to encourage investments and trade, dismissed the office’s director, John Jovanovic, Trump’s appointee, upon the arrival of Biden, sending a wrong signal to Belgrade. Without a counteroffer, Serbia and the Balkans will not close the door to Russia and China.
Where to Go from Here
What should the Biden administration do in the Balkans? On Kosovo, it should leave the central mediating role to the European Union, to avoid sowing diplomatic confusion and to show respect to the Europeans by acknowledging that the region is Europe’s backyard. Washington should still use its political and diplomatic influence with the Serbian and Albanian side to ensure that negotiations are conducted in good faith and not as a platform for mutual political provocations. More importantly, Washington should avoid setting deadlines and expectations for the final agreement. Instead, with the European Union, it should place the focus on issues that affect the lives of ordinary citizens, both Serbs and Albanians. The United States should concentrate on issues like trade, development, corruption, human and minority rights, the status of Serbian cultural and religious sites, property of individuals and private entities, missing persons, and establishing a visa-free regime for Kosovo citizens. This approach will not yield quick results, but it will pave the path for a breakthrough in the future.
On the issue of democracy, the United States should avoid overtly taking sides in the Balkans’ messy domestic partisan politics. Nevertheless, in places like Serbia, Washington can help level the playing field by intervening diplomatically to ensure media freedoms and equal media coverage for the opposition. By doing so, the United States can ensure that the rules of the game equally apply to all contest participants but without backing any one of the Serbian parties or leaders, as in the case of its support of the anti-Milošević opposition. However, it should do so quietly to avoid becoming an easy scapegoat for the local elites.
To blunt Chinese and Russian influence in the Balkans, the United States needs to work with the European Union. With its proximity to the Balkans, economic influence, and competencies in governance and democracy promotion, the European Union has the ability to make lasting change in the region. The United States can exercise pressure on those leaders in the Balkans who want to play the West and East against each other, but it is the European Union that has to provide the alternative to collaborating with non-Western powers. The United States and the European Union should mobilize their financial resources and offer the governments and citizens projects that matter to them, like infrastructure, health, and the environment. These policy prescriptions may be slow and unsatisfactory for those hoping that the Biden administration will bring swift solutions and ultimate closure of the Balkans chapter. However, gradual but consistent progress sure beats the disappointments of the last several years.
Vuk Vuksanovic is a Ph.D. researcher in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), an associate of LSE IDEAS, LSE’s foreign policy think tank, and a researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy. This piece is derived from analysis he authored for BCSP within the project “A real say on Serbian-American Relations,” supported by the U.S. Embassy in Serbia.