Visits by US Vice President Joseph Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry, to the Western Balkans, just seven days apart, have been welcomed in the region as confirmation that Washington has not lost interest, after the major role it played in the 1990s.
The visits are attracting a lot of attention, given recent tensions between the West and Russia, terrorist attacks in Europe and problems related to the migrant crisis.
These two visits, and a recent visit to Belgrade by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, have also raised the question of regional membership in the defense organisation.
The visits are interpreted, on one hand, as an attempt by the US to diminish Russia’s influence in the region, primarily in Serbia and Republika Srpska, the Serb entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, some are of the opinion that this is just media speculation and that the visits were agreed on earlier.
Biden and European Council President Donald Tusk, in Zagreb on 25 November, attended a meeting of leaders of the former Yugoslavia and Albania, whereas Kerry will visit Serbia and Kosovo next week.
In Pristina, the Secretary of State will discuss bilateral and regional issues with Kosovo officials, while on 3 December, he will take part in a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Ministerial Council in Belgrade.
Also expected to participate in the OSCE conference is Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov.
Between East and West
The meeting of Western Balkan leaders in Zagreb on 25 November, under the auspices of the Brdo-Brijuni Process, was an opportunity for the region to affirm its determination for partnership relations with the US, EU integration and the struggle against terrorism.
Western Balkans states were assured in Zagreb that they were still the focus of Washington’s attention.
“The United States of America, and me in particular speaking for the president of the United States, has had an overwhelming interest in this region for the last 25 years,” Vice President Biden told reporters.
After the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the US has not been as directly involved, although it still plays a crucial part in many matters.
Washington has left it to the EU to lead processes, such as the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, whose results Biden described as a “historic step”.
Biden: Joining EU, NATO best for region
The summit in Zagreb was an opportunity to affirm US priorities in the region, express support for the Western Balkan countries’ integration into the EU, and, from the perspective of the Croatian authorities, get closer to the West.
Where membership of NATO is concerned, the situation is much more complex. Hence, the conclusions of the Zagreb summit said that new energy had to be injected into EU integration, as well as into the Euro-Atlantic integration “for those who want to join NATO”.
Biden said that the admission of Southeast European countries to the EU and NATO was the best way to enhance peace, well-being and security in the region.
Recalling that the countries of the region have made different progress in Euro-Atlantic integration, Biden said that the US strongly supported Montenegro’s membership of NATO and that the doors of the military alliance remained open.
Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovi? thanked Biden for his efforts to send an invitation to Montenegro next month.
The issue of Montenegro’s NATO membership is delicate for Russia. As an EU candidate country, Montenegro joined the sanctions against Moscow, and aims for NATO membership, of which Moscow does not approve.
On 19 November, Russia called on Montenegro to reconsider its decision to join NATO, saying that admission to the alliance would be a “rash” move and would seriously disrupt the traditionally friendly relations between the two states.
Montenegro responded by saying that membership of NATO and the European Union was its well-known strategic foreign policy goal.
During his visit to Belgrade, (20 November) NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that this was between Montenegro and NATO members and that no one else had the right to interfere with that decision.
Stoltenberg further said that NATO respected Serbia’s military neutrality, which is Biden’s position too. Serbian President Tomislav Nikoli?’s said that Biden had expressed understanding for Serbia’s decision not to join the alliance.
Suppression of Russia or regular visits?
In the Western Balkans, Serbia is seen as the country under the strongest influence of Russia. Serbia’s position is militarily neutral, but the state is developing a relationship with NATO through the Partnership for Peace program. It is a candidate for EU membership, but also aims to strengthen relations with Russia.
An unnamed diplomatic source told the Zagreb daily Jutarnji List that Washington’s objective is to pull Serbia and Republika Srpska out of the Russian embrace and to reduce Turkey’s influence on Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Zagreb Faculty of Philosophy professor Žarko Puhovski said in an interview published in the 25 November issue of Belgrade’s Danas newspaper that “Kerry’s arrival is America’s attempt at pulling Serbia out of the field of Russian influence.”
Kerry was sent to Belgrade, added Puhovski, because in security terms, Serbia is more interesting than Croatia, given the enormous Russian influence on Serbia.
Ivan Vuja?i?, former Serbian Ambassador to the US, however, believes that Kerry is not particularly interested in Serbia, but is coming to Belgrade because it is hosting the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting.