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The EU has failed in the Balkans and now the United States is reengaging with the region. But that's not good news for the countries of the former Yugoslavia, says Norbert Mappes-Niediek.
The Russians are coming! This was what was generally anticipated last autumn, after the European Union relinquished its most important leverage in the Balkans — the prospect of accession — by saying no to accession negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia. Who would step in to fill the gap left by the Europeans?
Some were betting on China. After all, the Chinese have shown an interest in the Balkans for years now, as part of their effort to gain an economic and political foothold in Europe. Turkey, the new regional power, was also seen as an insider tip. As it turns out, the Europeans are being replaced by a power hardly anyone had reckoned with: the United States.
In recent months, Washington has appointed two special envoys to the region, one in which it had not been interested for a long time. The troubled Balkans has now become a practice ground for Trump's foreign policy. The US president wants to make "deals" all over the world according to his doctrine: In every international conflict, the parties to the quarrel — usually "strong men” in his own image — should agree on so-called solutions. In doing so, they are not required to take international rules or agreements, international law, or the interests of third parties into account. So far, this strategy has not been successful for Trump anywhere in the world. The White House sees the Balkans as a welcome practice ground. Here, the players are weak, and they have enormous respect for America.
A strong man for Kosovo
No sooner had he been appointed than Trump's special envoy, the Berlin ambassador Richard Grenell, deployed bullish diplomacy, declaring that a "strongman” in the Trump mold, President Hashim Thaci, should take control again in Kosovo. The fact that voters punished Thaci's party last October's election and that Thaci himself is hated by large parts of the population has not diminished the White House's support.
Whether or not the US has succeeded in asserting itself across the board in Kosovo will be established on Monday, when the winner of the October election, left-wing populist Albin Kurti, must face parliament. The Americans don't want him. Instead, they're trying to cobble together a motley, shaky governing coalition that would give Thaci an easy ride. Kosovars are already used to foreign ambassadors deciding who gets to be in their government and who doesn't. Of the 45 percent of the electorate who still bother to vote, a third only do so to secure their own jobs. If the party to which you owe your position loses, your job is gone.
Vucic (left) and Thaci (right) negotiated the border shifts with help from former EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini
The "deal" Thaci and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic want to make would see Kosovo and Serbia exchange territories: Albanian-populated ones in Serbia for Serb-populated ones in Kosovo. But it's only at first glance that an exchange of territory appears to be a viable solution to the ongoing Kosovo question. All experiences of trying to create "clean” solutions in the Balkans discourage it. Once a population is sufficiently ethnically "pure," authoritarian leaders on both sides no longer need to take minorities, their rights, and above all their protecting powers into account. They feel that they are masters in their own house, with carte blanche to do as they please.
In Kosovo, there's considerable aversion not only to the deal but also to authoritarian, corrupt rulers and foreign paternalism in general. However, it is doubtful that this aversion is sufficient to resist Washington's lures and threats. Even if the rebellious Kurti does become prime minister against the will of the United States, the US will continue to keep up the pressure.
The EU has failed
The economically dominant Europeans are no help in this regard. In fact, it was European dignitaries from all parties — a liberal French president, a Green from Austria, a conservative EU Commission president from Luxembourg, and in particular a social democrat EU foreign affairs commissioner from Italy — who suddenly thought they could make history by putting the calamitous territory-exchange deal between the strongmen Thaci and Vucic on the big stage in the first place, to the horror not only of the Germans and the British but also of their own diplomats and all those familiar with the region.
The European Union has failed in the Balkans once again, and once again it's the Americans who are stepping into the vacuum — just as they did during the Bosnian war, and twice before in Kosovo. The results of those interventions suggest that this is not good news. Bosnia remains divided to this day, while Serbia is a dubious case that's juggling the EU, Putin, and all those who seek influence in the Balkans. Kosovo is a protectorate of powers that do not get along.
The interest that's led the US to intervene in the current case suggests that worse is to come. The American president is looking for a cheap foreign triumph in this election year, while also taking the opportunity further to weaken the EU he so despises. In any case, since their rejection of the next step in the EU's eastward expansion, as formulated by French President Emmanuel Macron, the Europeans have been stuck impotently on the sidelines. For the Balkans, it's no longer relevant whether or not they're still quarreling about it.
Norbert Mappes-Niediek lives in Graz, Austria. He is the Southeast Europe correspondent for numerous German-language newspapers.