Trans-Atlantic relations and the Western Balkans

The sudden cancelation of the planned White House meeting between the Presidents of Serbia and Kosovo provides an opportunity to pause and examine where the United States and European allies can most effectively collaborate when approaching the Western Balkans.

The President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced that rather than President Donald Trump she will host the leadership from both countries in Brussels.

Regardless of venue, it is in the best interest of the United States and our European allies to consistently devote time and attention to this complex region.

Examples of Moscow and Beijing working to degrade the Western democratic values while advancing their authoritarian vision grow at alarming rates.

As the largest country in the Former Yugoslavia, Serbia is a key to a stable, secure, and peaceful Balkans. Dialogue with and, ultimately, recognition of Kosovo is a must. Washington and Brussels should regularly repeat these sentences as they will only benefit the region.

As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously quipped, “the Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” History is happening before our eyes and it begs the question whether Washington and Brussels are looking in the right direction.

The day after Kosovo declared independence in 2008, President George W. Bush recognized the world’s newest country declaring the milestone would “bring peace to a region scarred by war.”

Too often, those who examine the Balkans dwell on the past. The scars of war certainly do take time to heal. However, the very real concerns of everyday citizens – especially the millennial generation born after the war – need to be considered.

Security from armed conflict cannot be overstated, but economic security is equally important.

Looking through younger eyes as they enter the workforce, move into their first home and raise their children is what Balkan politicians too often neglect to do.

A pledge for greater regional economic cooperation is the most important commitment which can come out of the White House meeting.

Improved economic prosperity will provide politicians in the Western Balkans the latitude to make the tough decisions. Washington and Brussels are well positioned to mentor, promote and invest in this type of collaboration.

Special Envoy Richard Grenell pledged that the White House focus on making economic progress in the region.He suggested that efforts toward a political solution be the purview of Brussels. Innovative economic policy initiatives cannot come soon enough and all free market democracies can play a role.

The median age of Serbia is 41. The World Bank estimates that the population, of seven million, is poised to shrink to 5.8M over the next three decades. This would be a 25% drop from 1990. Countless young Serbs are leaving rural communities and mid-sized towns for Belgrade. Many others leave Belgrade for Berlin, New York and elsewhere abroad.

Kosovo has the youngest population of any European country. Approximately one quarter of citizens are 14 or younger. However, it consistently also has the highest unemployment numbers across all generations.

The everyday lives of young families in the region benefit from the ability for regional cross border freedom to travel, low cost reliable energy, and investments that do not amass multi-generational national debt. Both governments – along with Washington and Brussels –will benefit by looking through this lens.

Last October the leaders of Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia met in Novi Sad. With much fanfare, they announced loose details for what was quickly billed a “mini-Schengen”. The Schengen area has been a socio-economic game changer across 26 countries and there is no reason why a variation in the Balkans would not have quantifiable and positive results. Naturally, the devil is in the details and this has been put on hold by the Pandemic. Washington and Brussels should jumpstart this and encourage collaboration between Belgrade, Pristina, Podgorica and Sarajevo.

Just last week, the region moved significantly closer to having more affordable and reliable electricity. A 400 kV transmission line between Kragujevac and Kraljevo was commissioned. The entire project will run from Ukraine to Italy. German financing provided a 15M EUR loan. Brussels can incentivize opportunities for modernizing the electricity grid and do so in a context which opens tenders for American and European firms and dissuades sweetheart deals for Chinese state-owned enterprises.

The day after the Orthodox Christmas President Vucic attended the commissioning of the Turk Stream natural gas pipeline in Istanbul. He was joined by Presidents Putin and Erdogan and Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov. Russia manipulates gas prices playing countries across Eastern Europe against one another. Monopolies are never good.

Washington previously devoted considerable attention to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline which ultimately originates in Azerbaijani waters and will be the first European pipeline to fully bypass Russia. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) working with 16 commercial banks has just dedicated a 1B EUR loan. Assuming an imminent completion of TAP, Brussels must expedite plans to make the Ionian Adriatic Pipeline spur a reality. This would dramatically transform the energy interconnectedness and, therefore, economic security of Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia. It was a 2018 EBRD priority and must remain.

Soon after returning from Washington in March, President Vucic categorically declared, “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairytale on paper. The only ones who can help us in this difficult situation and that is China.”Mask diplomacy has been exhibited most clearly in Serbia.

Beijing presents a broad challenge for Washington and Brussels. While attention has rightfully been focused on 5G development, attention must be much broader. Beijing presents a very practical relationship to countries like Serbia not yet in the EU. Politicians in the region see Chinese overtures through the lens of election timelines and immediate “wins” rather than seamlessly never-ending discussions about opening EU chapters.

What started as Chinese investments in critical infrastructure has now progressed into a much deeper presence across academics, media and cultural activities.

Indeed, even in Croatia, an EU and NATO member, the largest bridge project in Europe is being built by a Chinese state-owned firm. This came at the expense of an Austrian bidder.

Modern roadways and improved transportation hubs cannot be discounted. A previously two-hour trip from Belgrade to Cacak now takes less than 50 minutes.

This is not an argument for Chinese investment, but for pragmatism and understanding that prolonged delay EU enlargement has real consequences in the lives of everyday individuals.

The one meeting President Vucic had with the Trump Administration in March was with the leadership of the new Development Finance Corporation (DFC). Should an investment proceed, it should aim for not only maximum employment ripple effects, but also demand cross border regional collaboration. When it comes to investments in the Balkans, regular open dialogue should occur between the DFC and the EBRD.

As the debate continues about the future of Trans-Atlantic relations and the fallout from the cancelation of a White House Summit, the fact remains that consistent targeted attention to the needs of everyday people in the region has been lacking.

A debate over the academic term “Trans-Atlantic” must not draw lines where EU and NATO borders end. In the end, it is in the interest of all involved to have a Europe whole, free and at peace. This means we must not overlook what is often referred to as the “soft underbelly” of Europe.

With the dust starting to settle after elections in Serbia, a new government in Kosovo, Germany at the helm of the EU Council Presidency and sustained bipartisan interest from Washington – real and meaningful regional socio-economic progress is possible.

*Ari Mittleman, Founder and Publisher of Balkan Insider, lived and worked in Croatia and Montenegro focused on community and economic development initiatives.

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