Clinton's Balkan Visit - A Missed Opportunity

Hillary Rodham Clinton. The image is in the public domain.

October 20, 2010
By Kurt Bassuener
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s three-day Balkan tour on October 12 began with a visit to Sarajevo, followed by stops in Belgrade and Prishtina, and then meetings in Brussels.  While the visit was meant to underscore continued American commitment to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo, the focus was Serbia’s regional role and initiating dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina. 

Bosnia Policy – Still on Autopilot

Despite its being the first stop on Secretary Clinton’s Balkan tour, Sarajevo received the least substantive policy statements.  The in-flight background briefing  given by a senior State Department official (presumably Assistant Secretary Philip Gordon) to journalists showed how little the policy has developed in the year since October 2009’s Butmir failure, or even that the State Department accepts any ownership of that failure at all.  The tenor of that briefing was reflected in Clinton’s own public appearances in Sarajevo:  constitutional and other changes are needed for the country’s government to function, but they will be up to Bosnians to agree upon. 

The Secretary opened the large new American Embassy on the main thoroughfare in Sarajevo, but she was most expansive at a public event with university students earlier that morning.  In her opening address, Clinton said that “now is the time to strengthen democratic institutions, to deepen peace between neighbors, and to create the conditions for long-term political, economic, and social progress. Now for Serbia and Kosovo this means, among other things, making their upcoming dialogue a success by engaging sincerely and creatively to resolve their differences once and for all.  And here in Bosnia and Herzegovina it means bolstering your commitment to a sovereign state, one that delivers for all of its citizens by passing reforms that will improve key services, attract more foreign investment, make government more effective and accountable.  These reforms are needed for their own sake, but they are also needed if your country is to fulfill the goal of becoming a part of the European Union and NATO.”  She added in the discussion with students that “people voted, I believe, to see progress made, and we want to help you do that,” and that while politicians had to act, achieving these goals required grass-roots civic action.

A forceful statement that any attempts at secession would be squelched would have been the most helpful message.  Clinton said that “we are very much opposed to any efforts at secession, any efforts at separation, and more than that, we think it is not in the self-interest of those who advocate such action.”  This did not go nearly far enough to establish real deterrence.  Republika Srpska Premier (and President-elect) Milorad Dodik continues to undercut the state, without any international resistance.  Unless his government, and the whole Bosnian population, understand that this will not be allowed – and believe it, he will continue.

Any solutions that have a hope of working will require broad buy-in from Bosnia’s citizens.  Forming a state-level government will be a difficult undertaking which may take months.  Getting agreement – even within that government – on what sort of reforms to adopt will be even harder.  But absent clarity on what statements and actions are permissible, and that BiH sovereignty and territorial integrity will be protected forcefully by the EU and NATO, no progress on making governance work is possible.  Secretary Clinton’s visit was a lost opportunity to send this message.

Serbia’s Irresponsibility Dividend

In Belgrade, Secretary Clinton effused praise for Serbia’s President Boris Tadić, including the “statesmanlike way that Serbia handled the International Court of Justice decision,”   (the ICJ found that Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not violate international law) as well as the violent protests against a gay rights march a few days earlier.  She thanked the government for its efforts to locate and arrest the two remaining war crimes fugitives, Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić and Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadžić,  and stated her view that the EU should take the next step in Serbia’s accession process.

Before Clinton’s visit, there were persistent rumors that Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and others had pushed the Netherlands in June, along with the majority of EU members and the institutions in Brussels, to allow the ratification process Serbia’s Stabilization and Association Agreement to begin.  This American pressure on the Netherlands, first acknowledged at a public event held in Washington in July,  rose to a new level of authority and visibility with Clinton’s statements.

Without a doubt, democratic consolidation in Serbia would be positive throughout the region.  Yet the messages Secretary Clinton sent are having the opposite of their intended effect, by rewarding the Serbian government’s irresponsibility in its relations with its neighbors and toward its international obligations. In addition to having his government criticized by ICTY Prosecutor Serge Brammertz for not taking sufficient action to arrest and transfer Mladić and Hadžić,  Tadić and his Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić both campaigned for Milorad Dodik in Bosnia, spotlighting the government’s double game with regard to Bosnian sovereignty.  Furthermore, the Serbian Government, even after its lucrative last-minute retreat in the UN General Assembly, continues to press that talks between Belgrade and Prishtina include discussion of Kosovo’s sovereignty.

Serbia provides a case study of the unintended consequences of ad hoc international policies born of expediency.  Serbia has actually gotten ahead of the curve in its bid for EU candidacy for confronting the US and EU.  Tadić’s government is not the first in Serbia to profit from behaving badly, but its galvanization of uncritical transatlantic support despite its recent thumbing its nose at the EU and US over Kosovo and political support for an advocate of secession in Bosnia is a unique accomplishment. The perverse incentive for Tadić is to continue to stir trouble in the region, making his political survival appear all the more essential to the international community, so as to extract more concessions.  A politician of Ms. Clinton’s pedigree ought to grasp this.

Kosovo – Some Greater Clarity

In Prishtina, Secretary Clinton was declarative that as far as the US was concerned, Kosovo’s sovereignty and indivisibility was a resolved matter.  “The International Court of Justice decision turned the page…a resounding decision in favor of your right to declare independence.”   She made clear that “the people of the (Serb majority) north will have to recognize that they have to integrate with Kosovo, that they must look to Prishtina, that there cannot be any longer parallel institutions, that there has to be a commitment to working together as many of the communities to the south have done.”  Clinton added that she thought the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, which the EU offered to help facilitate, should deal with interstate issues, not internal ones.  She stated that there are “no shortcuts” in the EU accession process, after which an astute questioner pointed out that Kosovars “see Serbia moving closer to Brussels despite not fulfilling the criteria, despite not handing over the war criminals,” and asking whether Clinton whether citizens of Kosovo were right to feel neglected in the European integration process.  Clinton said no, focusing on the internal reforms Kosovo needs to make, but said nothing of Serbia’s non-compliance or the fact that the EU accession process remains closed to Kosovo so long as five EU members refuse to recognize it.

So much for “no shortcuts”

In Brussels, Clinton met with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and reportedly repeated her view that Serbia should advance in the accession process, even if this meant sidelining Dutch objections by treating the issue as technical.   This was surely music to the ears of Ashton, Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle, and most member states, who wish to pass Serbia’s membership application to the Commission for review after the Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on October 25.

Despite her stated intentions (and perhaps some stronger private messages), the net effect of Secretary Clinton visit was negative.  She failed to send clear signals that Bosnia’s sovereignty will be defended, which would reduce the ambient fears among citizens and make difficult but necessary reform easier.  Furthermore, she reinforced a conclusion already held in Belgrade and Banja Luka: that obstinacy and irresponsibility will be rewarded.  Breaking that conditioning will now be even harder.  For Clinton’s main message was this: there are no shortcuts to European integration, unless you are Serbia.

Kurt Bassuener is a Senior Associate of the Democratization Policy Council, a global initiative for accountability in democracy promotion.  He lives in Sarajevo.