1. Bruce Hitchner, Massachusetts, BIRN, September 19, 2019


The appointment of a new Balkan envoy is an opportunity for the US to rebuild its partnership with the European Union on the region – which should not be used as a playing field for competition between powers.

The US has recently appointed a Special Representative to the Western Balkans, Matthew Palmer. Whatever the official reasons for this, the appointment of the envoy is an implicit recognition that the Balkans in general warrants more focused attention on the part of the United States.

While part of Europe, the Balkans are also an important crossroads politically, economically, culturally and institutionally, between Western and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It is time for this distinction to be given the attention it deserves in Washington.

Palmer’s appointment likewise represents an opportunity for the US to rebuild its frayed partnership with the European Union in the region. Observers have pointed out that Europe and the US, while sharing the same core values, have very different policy approaches to the region.

The US, as Florian Bieber points out,  tends to focus on security issues, while the EU directs its attention to matters of EU enlargement, economic transformation and, of late, to migration. It is not enough for both sides to understand these differences in approach; they need to carry out policies that are more in sync on the ground.

For the EU, this means developing a new plan for the Western Balkans that is less about Enlargement and more about projects and programs that address immediate core problems involving regional structures, laws and institutions that have led to state capture, dysfunction, and instability.

This calls for a new “perspective” that emphasizes more robust locally oriented solutions, not necessarily ones whose ultimate objective is to make life easier for the EU down the road.

Similarly, US policy towards the region needs to be founded on more than just encouraging the integration of Balkan states into Euro-Atlantic institutions or responding to the security interests of Washington.

To this end, the US should revitalize its past commitment to assisting states in the region to build and sustain sound institutions that respond first to the needs of their citizens, alongside America’s own security interests.

Promoting the rule of law, democratic institutions, and economic growth need not be relentlessly linked  to “Euro-Atlantic institutions” to have their own value as regional policy objectives.

The new Special Representative should also seek, again working with the EU, to reset the working relationship with Russia, China, and Turkey in the region.

The Balkans need not be a toxic playing field for interstate competition between global and regional powers. This does not mean ignoring the malign attempts by Moscow and others to impede EU-NATO integration or  undermine democracy and a free and independent media.

Rather, it translates into rediscovering common ground for cooperation on shared interests. Nothing could be more appropriate from a long-term historical perspective to the mission of a special envoy to the Balkans.

The new envoy is uniquely positioned to rebuild relationships of trust and confidence between the US and local political and civil society leaders. At the very least, the appointment opens the door to rewarding good behavior.

This calls for frequent visits to the region, focused on developing sustained dialogue on critical issues. This is especially important in view of the fact that the US will holds elections in just over a year, which may lead to a change in the Administration. In other words, Palmer is working potentially on a short clock.

An evident top priority of the Special Representative will be to revitalize negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo. A lot of attention, and criticism, has been directed to the question of whether this will involve a land swap with all its intended and unintended consequences.

We need to keep in mind that any such exchange would likely involve referenda, parliamentary legislation and other legal and legislative measures by both states, all of which fall under the category of legitimated democratic processes, before it is implemented, if it all.

I remain skeptical of the merits of a land swap but also wonder if it is little more than a misdirection play, intended to achieve a good if not perfectly resolvable larger objective – a permanent improvement to relations between two deeply connected neighbors.

Now, to Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is time for everyone in and out of this country to avoid being distracted by the persistent, often fake, distractions put forward by political leaders to protect their power by exploiting the electoral and over-embedded ethnic structures in the 1995 Dayton peace deal on Bosnia. The latest of these – and there have been many over the past two decades – is the artificially manufactured crisis over the Annual National Programme, designed to develop closer ties with NATO, which Bosnian Serb leaders oppose.  For its part, the International Community in Bosnia tends to get swept-up into these distracting controversies to the detriment of its larger policy objectives.

Slobodan Milosevic, Alija Izetbegovic and Franjo Tudjman initialling the Dayton Peace Accords at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on 21 November 1995. Photo: Wikimiedia commons

It would be more efficacious  to stay focused on the core problem of political dysfunction caused by the stagnant Dayton constitution. In a recent interview in the Bosnian newspaper Oslobodenje, Palmer said that the Dayton Agreement “was never intended as a fixed framework, but a changing framework… I am more inclined to evolve than to revolutionize the impact of that agreement.” I agree.

In 2005-6, the main parties from all three ethnic groups in Bosnia negotiated an evolution of Dayton called the April Package. This would have created a prime-ministerial-led parliamentary government that had the potential to make  the state  more effective and functional, but not at the expense of the two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska.

It would also have provided the EU and NATO with the partner they needed to help integrate Bosnia more squarely into Western institutions.  The April Package amendments to the Dayton constitution eventually fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority in the state parliament, but there is still a widely but quietly shared belief among many Bosnians on all sides that the merits of the Package outweighed its weaknesses alongside regret that it was not passed.

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of Dayton, it should be a prime objective of the new special envoy, again working with the EU and other willing and cooperative partners, to engage with Bosnian political and civil society leaders on how best to “evolve” Dayton, and what such a process would look like.

In closely, I welcome the appointment of a US Special Envoy to the Western Balkans. It is potentially a watershed moment, which should not be let to pass. After all, if not now, when?

  1. Bruce Hitchner is a professor of Classical and International Relations at Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts.