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Unfinished Business In The Balkans

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (right) is welcomed to Sarajevo by Bosnian Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (right) is welcomed to Sarajevo by Bosnian Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj.

EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana indicated recently to reporters that his upcoming trip to the Balkans with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden would be an unprecedented show of unity.

"This will be an important meeting," Solana said. "This will be the first that together, the Americans and the Europeans, at that level, do go to Bosnia and express their common intentions to all the leaders of that country."

Solana also underscored the EU's leadership role in the Balkans. Although that may have been a politically correct thing to say, reality on the ground tells a different story.

It has been nine years since Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic was ousted, a decade since the NATO military intervention in Kosovo, and 14 years since the Dayton agreement brought a fragile halt to the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Through it all, one thing has been clear: From the very beginning -- stretching back to the crises of the late 1980s and unproductive talks with the leadership of Yugoslavia, through the various "observer" missions that did little more than observe the collapse of one country after another into violence and war, and up to the present day, the EU has never had a vision on how to move forward in the Balkans. Various EU members have adopted differing, sometimes contradictory, policies in the Balkans; different European countries have supported various Yugoslav successor states at different times.

As a result, the best the EU can hope to achieve today is to maintain a dissatisfying status quo. Europe today is unable to resolve its own security issues, much less focus on the Balkans. As Edward Joseph wrote in "Foreign Policy," "Brussels is indifferent at best, and divided at worst, when it comes to the pressing issues in the Balkans."

So Biden's visit, which began in Sarajevo on May 19 and proceeds to Belgrade and Pristina later in the week, brings the hope that yet another "reset button" will soon be pressed and that the United States will again take up the unfinished business in the Balkans. The new U.S. administration wants to bring "a new focus, a new sense of energy, a new activism with regard to Bosnia-Herzegovina and the region as a whole," U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia Charles English said last week.

U.S. 'Reset' In The Balkans

The key to the Balkans today is Bosnia. The central government there is being dangerously undermined by the separatist policies of the Republika Srpska, the country's ethnic-Serbian entity, and by the disastrous policies of the Sarajevo-based authorities. Tolerance of ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity in Bosnia today is far lower than it was in the prewar-Yugoslavia period.

Biden addresses Bosnian parliament in Sarajevo on May 19.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a resolution calling for constitutional reform in Bosnia and the naming of a special envoy to the region who would be tasked with facilitating reforms at all levels of Bosnian government and society. Fearing this would mean a new U.S. push to strengthen central authority at the expense of the country's so-called entities, Bosnian Serbs are opposing increased U.S. involvement and the naming of a U.S. envoy (interestingly, no one has ever protested against EU involvement).

Former Bosnian Serb soldiers have announced protests, distributed flyers, and tacked up posters opposing more U.S. involvement in the Balkans. Serbian nationalists in Belgrade are on the same page, opposing a strong Bosnian state because their ultimate goal is for the Republika Srpska to secede.

Perhaps the key event for evaluating Biden's trip to the Balkans is not the visit to Sarajevo, but the May 20 stopover in Belgrade. If the region is to be stabilized, Serbia must take steps to accept the integrity and sovereignty of Bosnia. Serbian President Boris Tadic must make it clear that Bosnia's Serbs must seek solutions to their problems in Sarajevo and not in Belgrade.

Croatia made this step eight years ago and it marked the beginning of the process by which Bosnia's Croats ceased to think of themselves merely as an ethnic group but also as citizens of Bosnia. Bosnia's Serbs have not even begun this process.

Political Will Needed

Experts say Biden will ask Belgrade to encourage Serbs in Bosnia and in Kosovo to engage with the central authorities in Sarajevo and Pristina, respectively. But both Tadic and Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik -- who were both once darlings of the United States and the EU -- have been moving steadily toward the nationalists and away from European integration. Various world leaders and envoys keep coming to the Balkans and urging reform. But while they depart and are replaced, Bosnia's leaders -- and its problems -- remain the same.

Jonathan Eyal, of Britain's Kings Institute, tells RFE/RL that U.S. President Barack Obama has put Biden in charge of the Balkans. Eyal thinks the U.S. administration will try not to get bogged down in small crises as they occur but will focus on finding solutions for the entire region.

But to make progress, Biden will have to secure the political will of his hosts, the same people who have manifestly not demonstrated that will in recent years. It would seem that the prospects of NATO and EU membership -- and the doors to these organizations have been open to the Balkans countries for years -- are not enticing enough.

The question of this political will is even more uncertain when one considers Russia's involvement in the region. Moscow already controls the oil sector in Serbia and Bosnia and is building pipelines in the region. It provides diplomatic support for the Serbian position on Kosovo, and has regular contacts with the leadership of the Republika Srpska in Banja Luka. Bosnia's Serbs recently refused to participate in NATO-led military exercises in Georgia.

But a failure to "reset" the reform process in Bosnia is fraught with danger. The country is at risk of becoming an economic colony of its neighbors. Without the possibility of EU membership, the country will remain what it is now -- unwelcome in the region, dysfunctional, and deeply divided between aggrieved Muslims, frustrated Serbs, and endangered Croats. It will remain a safe haven for crime and a threat to European security.

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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