Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Dr. Karen Donfried is visiting the six countries of the Western Balkans this week: Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro.
During her visit, she is expected to tackle a set of issues concerning each country and the US’s position and interests. Here is a brief overview of the issues on the table for each one of her stops.
Donfried’s visit comes amidst increasing concerns in the region over Serbia’s armament from Russia and China, as well as concerns over a possible conflict it could start in neighboring Kosovo. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kosovo has requested an accelerated process to join NATO and the European Union as a way to avoid any possible conflict started by Russia’s proxy Serbia in the region. Last week, a delegation of US senators visiting the country supported Kosovo’s plan to join NATO.
A second concern in Kosovo remains the dialogue with Serbia, which has yielded very little tangible results since 2011. Most importantly for Kosovo, its recognition by Serbia has never made it to the dialogue table, as Serbia vehemently refuses to discuss any topics that could give the slightest impression that it considers Kosovo anything but its own territory.
In her visit on Monday in Prishtina, Donfried will urge for progress in the dialogue with Serbia, “centered on mutual recognition”, as well as for government reforms for democratic consolidation, EU and NATO integration.
Serbia has been the focus of international media coverage since the start of Russian aggression against Ukraine for its refusal to impose sanctions on Russia, and for being the only country in the world to hold rallies in support of the invasion.
Being Russia’s closest ally in Europe, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, it has easily resisted lenient calls by the EU and US to join sanctions against Russia. The increasing international pressure has led to Serbia joining some UN actions against the Russian aggression against Ukraine. But Serbian leadership has never condemned Russia at home, and has instead lauded the ever-stronger relations between the two countries. Last week, President Aleksandar Vucic brushed off yet another call for sanctions by US senators visiting the country.
In addition, Serbia is considered an important factor for regional security due to its size, history of wars waged against neighbors, ethnic Serbs minorities it influences in neighboring countries, as well as strong ties with Russia and China.
Serbia is nevertheless a regional front-runner for EU integration. However, for the first time since the end of wars against neighbors, most Serbs are against EU integration, according to a recent poll by Ipsos. Vucic has blamed the EU for the change of attitude.
In their press statement on the Western Balkans visit, the US government has not mentioned Serbia’s stance toward Russia in relation to the invasion of Ukraine. It remains unclear whether the US government will also push Vucic to impose sanctions.
On Tuesday, Donfried will urge Serbia to advance reforms for its European integration, enhance regional stability and prosperity, discuss opportunities for further energy diversification, broaden bilateral security and economic ties, and re-engage in dialogue with Kosovo.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s main threat remains its Belgrade-controlled and Kremlin-backed leadership of Serb entity Republika Srpska, who have escalated attempts to dissolve the country by boycotting federal institutions and paving the way toward establishing independent judiciary, police and administration, as well as reviving their genocidal army. The US has sanctioned Bosnian Serbs leaders, including Milorak Dodik, but political pressure appears to be limited because of their ties to and backing from Serbia and Russia.
On Wednesday, Donfried will encourage Bosnian Serbs to resume institutional participation, and will urge the government to advance “common-sense reforms”, hold fair elections and fight corruption.
In the past years, North Macedonia has made huge progress by solving its dispute with Greece and joining NATO. However, another huge barrier was put in its path to the European Union by Bulgaria, who demanded more changes in its neighbor’s constitution before it could lift a veto in EU integration. Bulgaria wants North Macedonia to state that its people’s origin and language stem from Bulgaria.
Another important recent event was the sentencing in absentia over money laundering of former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who has been in exile in Hungary for the past three years.
On Thursday, Dinfried will support Skopje’s EU accession bid, thank the country for their ongoing assistance to Ukraine, and urge for continued cooperation for regional stability.
Albania was also one of the first countries worldwide to open its doors to Afghan and Ukrainian refugees. As a non-permanent UN security Council member Albanian has joined forces with the US against Russian aggression against Ukraine.
The country is a strong advocate for the stability and integration of the Western Balkans. Its prime minister Edi Rama has launched the Open Balkan initiative with Serbian and Macedonian leaders, aiming at creating a joint economic area. However, Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia have refused to join, arguing that they prefer to work on EU integration instead.
Its EU bid has been blocked due to Bulgaria’s veto on North Macedonia, as both countries are dealt with jointly in the process.
Albania is the most corrupt country in Europe, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2021. Most recently, prosecutors arrested a former public civil servant over what the opposition alleges to be a corruption affair led by the country’s prime minister worth at least €430 million.
In Albania, the US has been deeply engaged in the controversial implementation of a unique justice reform adopted by parliament unanimously in 2016. Since then the opposition has alleged that the government has been increasingly controlling the implementation of the reform by selectively firing judges and prosecutors, and filling the new justice institutions with its own people.
Since last year, another engagement of the US administration in Albania has been to exclude the country’s former president from the Democratic Party parliamentary group, and then prevent him from taking over the main opposition party.
Donfried’s visit to Tirana on Thursday coincides with 100 years of US-Albania diplomatic relations. The diplomat is expected to thank the government for the country’s partnership at the UNSC, and express support for its EU integration.
While their statement says she will “underscore our strong support for Albania’s regional economic integration”, it remains to be seen whether that will specifically mean a support for the Open Balkan initiative. In joint press conferences in the last two years, Rama has failed to get explicit support from any European leader for his regional initiative. No European leader has ever mentioned “Open Balkan” in public. Most recently German Chancellor Olaf Scholz avoided mentioning its name and instead talked of regional cooperation under the EU umbrella.
Apart from refusals by half of the regional countries to join in, many experts maintain that unchecked by the EU, this initiative would result in further strengthening Serbia’s position in the region. Meanwhile, the six countries have agreed on the Common Regional Market – a more robust initiative than the Open Balkan – under the EU umbrella, but it remains unclear why Albania and Serbia have put all efforts on their joint initiative instead.
In addition, Donfried will push Albania to continue with the full implementation of justice reform, and fight against corruption.
Montenegro is experiencing a month-long political crisis that resulted in the parliament lifting support for its government. Prime minister Zdravko Kriptokapic lost parliament support in February, after a motion presented by junior coalition ally Dritan Abazovic, who slammed intra-coalition conflicts between the remaining allies. A strong supporter of Montenegro’s EU and NATO membership, Abazovic announced he will lead a minority government backed by the opposition. The move has angered pro-Serbia and Russia-sympathetic political parties who led the government for 14 months.
On Friday, Donfried is expected to thank Montenegro for their support for Ukraine, and stress US support for Montenegro’s EU integration, strengthening of their NATO partnership, and fight against corruption.