Donald Trump’s former National Security Adviser, John Bolton, told BIRN that Serbia and Kosovo may have retreated from a point where a deal to settle relations was close. The fears associated with a potential land swap are “exaggerated”, he said, and revealed that “serious” Europeans were also looking at the idea.
BIRN interviewed Bolton on Friday, July 10, following publication in late June of his explosive book – The Room Where it Happened – concerning his time in the Trump White House.
BIRN: The Kosovo-Serbia dialogue was supposed to restart on Sunday but that has been postponed because of July 10 summit in Paris. Do you think that dialogue will produce any results?
Bolton: Certainly it looks as though the parties have withdrawn from positions where there was some greater prospect that they could bridge their differences and it may be that we had an opportunity to see the issues addressed and that we’ve lost it now, that’s possible as well.
But I do think that the time has made it clear to both sides that they are not going to make progress in their own respective spheres until these issues are resolved satisfactorily.
BIRN: You said that the idea of a land swap [between Serbia and Kosovo] was acceptable to the US administration.
The question that was put to me and the answer I gave was the administration’s policy – that if the parties themselves felt that as part of an overall solution that adjustments to territory made sense, that the United States would support that. And I think that policy is a sound approach.
[Former US Secretary of State] Jim Baker once said about the Israeli-Arab dispute: we can’t want peace more than the parties themselves. If Kosovo and Serbia were to agree to land swaps as part of an overall solution, really are outsiders, whether from the United States or elsewhere, in Europe, going to tell them that the solution isn’t satisfactory? I don’t think so.
BIRN: [Trump’s envoy to the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue] Richard Grennell said that was actually your idea.
Bolton: He really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. At the time in question, Europeans were looking at that as well, and many took exactly the same view. I understand from others in the Balkans the concern that if some borders are changed all borders are at risk. I understand what they’re saying but I think that fear is exaggerated.
And again, I posed the question: what is the alternative? If the parties themselves reach an agreement, is Europe really going to interfere and say ‘No, No, No, that solution isn’t good enough for us’? I don’t think so. To say to the parties you can’t look at different avenues to try and reach a peaceful settlement.
Within Kosovo, within Serbia, a land swap would be controversial on both sides, although obviously for different reasons. But if the leaders thought this was a way to reach an agreement and could persuade their respective parliaments, I just can’t see outsiders saying we’re not going to let you do that.
BIRN: You said you talked with ‘serious Europeans, like Tony Blair, that were involved in this effort.’ In what capacity was Tony Blair talking with you?
Bolton: Well, he has a think tank that looks at the resolution of international disputes, but we also talk to representatives of European governments. The EU, as is so often the case, was not unanimous in that view, but there were serious enough Europeans that convinced the experts both at the State Department and the NSC [the U.S. National Security Council] that it was worth allowing the process to play out.
We were far from certain that, with all of the other obstacles, that the total agreement could be reached, and as we can see today it didn’t happen, but the progress of the negotiations was not negatively affected by the land swap idea. It gave space for Serbia and Kosovo to explore further. And, you know, failure is always a possibility, and failure is what we have here. Continued failure.
BIRN: But why would Tony Blair be interested in this? Did somebody pay him to lobby for one side or the other?
Bolton: No, I don’t think he was representing anybody other than the think tank, he’s been involved in the Middle East peace process, he’s been involved in other international negotiations, obviously something that he experienced during his own term as prime minister, and was thought, I think, by both Serbia and Kosovo to be helpful in a sort of informal channel for the discussions to continue.
BIRN: The reason that I’m asking you is that he was an adviser to [Serbian President] Aleksandar Vucic, and we don’t know how he was paid. So it’s just kind of logical to think that Tony Blair wouldn’t do anything pro bono.
Bolton: I don’t know, I think his think tank does things pro bono but I didn’t ask him for a financial balance sheet when we talked. I never did.
BIRN: Is the Balkans unimportant for the Trump administration?
Bolton: No, I think quite the opposite. I think we have focused on efforts by Russia to cause disruptions in the Balkans. Not necessarily to return to the days of the Cold War but certainly to extend and enhance Russian influence in the region which I think would have been harmful to US interests, but to the interest of the Balkan countries themselves.
BIRN: You never came to the region.
Bolton: I had high hopes of doing it because I did think that the possibility of a settlement between Serbia and Kosovo remained, but there were many places I didn’t go. And most of the criticism I received as national security adviser was that I travelled to too many places. It was an area I considered that was not receiving adequate US attention in the Trump administration, and in the Obama administration before it.
So if I had stayed longer, then I think I can guarantee it would have received more attention.
BIRN: One thing you don’t mention in your book is the alleged coup in Montenegro [in 2016]. If Russia tried to overthrow a European government, I would imagine it would be an important part of a book that deals with international relations. You don’t think the coup actually happened?
Bolton: Look, I think there are all kinds of possible activities by the Russians in the Balkans that cause us great concern. There are stories about payments by Russia to European politicians, not just in the Balkans but many other areas as well. We know the Russians have tried to interfere in American elections, so I don’t have any doubt about Russian efforts to re-extend its influence in places that during the existence of the Soviet Union it did have influence.
Look at the history and look at the geography of the Balkans, there’s no doubt it’s a target and that’s a great concern to me.
BIRN: On Saturday, 25 years since the Srebrenica genocide was marked. What are your thoughts?
Bolton: It was obviously the worst excess probably of the entire disintegration of Yugoslavia. I think it summed up just how badly the international community performed in its responsibilities, and it’s certainly something that should be etched in people’s memories.
A lot of things are etched in people’s memories but it doesn’t mean they can’t go on then to resolve the disputes that they face today. If you live in the past you’re going to repeat the past.
So, with a clear understanding that failing to resolve the remaining issues always leaves you at risk of descending into barbarity again, I think it should be a reminder and an incentive to everybody to see if the outstanding disputes can’t be addressed and resolved peacefully.
BIRN: The  Greece-Macedonia agreement happened on your watch. What was your role in it if any?
Bolton: My personal role was very small, but that was one of the occasions when I met with the foreign minister of Greece who I thought was working very hard from their side to get this resolved. It was resolved and then the government fell, maybe in part because of this name issue, which was very sensitive obviously in both countries.
But to me this was the kind of example; this was a dispute that existed really since the collapse of Yugoslavia. I remember those days well when we came up with the name ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,’ which is just ridiculous, to say the least. People ought to be able to work this out.
It took a long time. There were important issues on both sides, but it came to a successful resolution, which said to me there’s no reason here why the Serbia-Kosovo issue can’t be resolved. One of the reasons I thought perhaps the time as a whole was shifting in the Balkans, and we should be optimistic and try and seize the opportunity.
BIRN: It seems that the European Union has sidelined the US after that failed ‘photo-op’, as you called that meeting that never happened in the White House with Grennell. What do you think – is the US now sidelined?
Bolton: I think in fairness that we are in an election campaign period here for the next four months. Much of the rest of the world is going to get sidelined in an effort to focus on who wins in November. It could be because of [Kosovo President Hashim] Thaci’s trouble with the Yugoslav Tribunal – that needs to be sorted out a little bit more before something might become possible in the future.
BIRN: How do you find the timing of the publication of that indictment? That it happened right before that [White House] meeting? Was that a part of the EU trying to sideline the US?
Bolton: I don’t have any evidence for that. If there were evidence for it, I’d like to know about it. Look, there are those in the EU that don’t like the United States being involved in anything in the Balkans, and all I can say is I’m sorry about that, we have an interest there, we certainly have an interest in seeing stability in the Balkans. We’d like to work with the European Union, and we don’t agree necessarily that only the EU knows what the answers are.
BIRN: Has Vucic now lost his main ally?
Bolton: I don’t think anything is lost. I think we’re simply in a period where many efforts in the wider world are going to have to be put to the side.
BIRN: Reading your book, it seems everything Trump does internationally somehow plays into Russian hands. Is it the same thing with the Balkans?
Bolton: I think he does not make decisions in a systematic way. I don’t think he fully understands what the American interests at stake are in many conflicts and I think the Balkans is a complex area where he’s never studied it very carefully. So it never received adequate attention. But what that said to his advisers was that, because America does have important interests there, we needed to try and fill in.