In the winter of 2001, President-elect Joe Biden, then a senator, visited Visoki Decani, a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Kosovo, during a post-war trip to what was then the protectorate of the United States.
There Biden (according to Mike Haltzel, Biden's longtime foreign policy advisor) briefly met Ramush Haradinaj, who until recently had been a guerrilla fighter in Visoki Decani during the Kosovo war and who would later become the country's prime minister. Biden, who wanted to ensure the protection of the Orthodox culture, asked Haradinaj for his personal assurance that he would devote special care to the monastery. When violence broke out again in Kosovo three years later, dozens of Serbian Orthodox churches were demolished, but the monastery remained untouched. Years later, Haradinaj Haltzel is said to have asked to inform Biden that he had kept his promise.
This story recalls two simple principles that should influence future European and US politics in the region. First, instability often comes from the leaders, not the people. Interethnic tensions that Western diplomatic missions continue to treat as "ancient" are directed and controlled by leaders with very immediate agendas. Of course there are divisions in the region, but political leaders are making conscious choices to either reinforce or suppress them. In the case of Visoki Decani, an influential strong man is believed to have kept things in check when other areas were caught in a flash of violence.
Second, clear signals from Washington and the European capitals can prevent problems on the ground. Biden called for the monastery to be protected, at least in part because powerful leaders knew that Washington, the country's most important ally, was watching. Similarly, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hoyt Yee and his EU colleagues facilitated neighboring Macedonia (now North Macedonia) 's transition to democratic government through repeated and intense engagement in 2016. The United States has twice persuaded the EU, which brokered political disputes within the country, to postpone the elections on the grounds that they would not have been fair. Such an uncompromising engagement between Washington and Brussels can produce great results when goals are shared and clearly defined.
The Trump administration lagged behind on both counts. It trivialized the complex political problems between Kosovo and Serbia and tried to quickly gain credit for resolving old hostilities in time for a campaign speech in North Carolina. Meanwhile, allies have been verbally abused and confusing signals sent, often trampling on the very democratic principles that Washington had promoted in the region for over two decades.
Biden will find it easy to avoid President Donald Trump's mistakes. However, it will be far less to avoid repeating the mistakes made under President Barak Obama's watch when the United States pulls out of the region and leaves it to the European Union to deal with them, and not a clear signal of defense readiness United States gives its non-partisan legacy of institution building in the region.
With all of the foreign policy challenges the new US administration will face, the Western Balkans likely won't be the top priority. However, Biden discussed this on his first phone call as President-elect with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The topic probably arose out of a desire to connect with Biden on an issue the new president is familiar with, but it shows the region will continue to bubble up in the air. And with Berlin, Brussels and Paris eager to improve relations with the United States after the last four years, the Western Balkans offers both sides an opportunity to quickly demonstrate that a new era of transatlantic cooperation can produce results.
Europe and the United States in particular could make great strides in the region by focusing on the fight against corruption. This will signal that the United States is not looking at the Balkans through the lens of old hatred and sending a clear message about the West, expectations of the region's leaders and democratic governance.
Biden has made the fight against corruption and nepotism one of his domestic and foreign policy promises. In his article on foreign affairs, "Why America Must Lead Again," Biden emphasized his intention "to fight the proprietary businesses, conflicts of interest, dark money and corruption that serve tight private or foreign agendas and undermine our democracy." , "And to establish" the fight against corruption as a central national security interest and democratic responsibility "at home and abroad.
In the meantime, the European Union has made the fight against corruption and organized crime at the center of its efforts in the Western Balkans. The European Commission's 2018 Progress Reports show that all countries in the region are leaving three main priorities behind: the fight against corruption; Combating organized crime; and improving justice. Some countries, including Bosnia, performed better on these metrics in the early 2000s than they do today. In return, the region has lost 5 percent of its population in the past five years. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the majority of those who leave the country cite corruption as a key factor in their exodus. Corruption, meanwhile, fuels organized crime and throws money into the pockets of those who would unrest.
Biden could follow Obama's leadership and leave the Balkans to Europe, but despite all the discussions about the EU's strategic sovereignty, the bloc of 27 member states (all with different interests) cannot formulate effective policies in the region. Take, for example, Bulgaria's efforts to prevent North Macedonia from joining the EU and Croatian obstruction when it comes to EU policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina. The most effective decision-making forum in the Western Balkans will not be the European Council, but a coalition of like-minded states such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and an EU representative. The United States can essentially do its part to promote European coherence in Western Balkans policies – especially if it continues to focus on corruption and organized crime, which underpin the region's economic, political and security problems.
By working together, the United States and Europe would each limit the investments they individually make in support of the region. Decades of transatlantic rule of law cooperation in the Western Balkans means that the political framework is already in place. What is missing is the momentum to take advantage of the multitude of financial and policy instruments available. The United States has traditionally been more willing to use sanctions to deter or punish political obstacles and corruption, as it was when it was Milorad Dodik (the Serbian member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Nikola Spiric (a Bosnian Serb Politicians) sanctioned). The UK has started moving closer to US strategy and EU leaders could follow suit. Sanctions are one of the most cost-effective mechanisms to prevent disability, but they must be credible, which the EU's decision-making structure makes it difficult to manage.
Finally, the United States and the European Union could work together to better coordinate international leverage with policy instruments. The IMF and the European Union have both allocated significant resources to the region. The IMF alone has provided 806 million euros for emergency aid in the region until 2020, and EU macro-financial support amounts to 750 million euros. The European Union's recently announced economic and investment plan provides for a further € 9 billion in pre-accession funds and billions in loan guarantees for the Western Balkans. However, that money needs to be used properly, with strict conditions of financial accountability and a pursuit of the rule of law. This is easier to accomplish when the US is part of the print campaign.
Rather than stepping back or trying to resolve stubborn conflicts, the United States – with the EU – must begin to address the real problem of corruption. If corruption can be brought under control, governance and the economy of the region can improve. This in turn will ease the brain drain in the Balkans and possibly also strengthen peace. The region's nationalist spoilers rely on ethnic discourse to advance their machine politics. And Western leaders need to make sure that their loans and other funds are not used for that purpose. Rather, they should use their financial and political leverage to hold local leaders accountable through anti-corruption measures. You have mastered the art of creating instability in order to stay in power. The United States and Europe must understand this game and parry back.
It's a game that Biden knows well with decades of experience in the region. Hopefully, despite numerous other foreign and security priorities, his administration will put aside the modest political capital needed to rebuild transatlantic credibility in the region.