Last week, news sources were buzzing with the details of U.S Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and E.U. foreign policy chief Catherin Ashton’s visit to the Balkans. While analysts were attempting to decipher the motives behind the trip’s timing and the implications of a joint U.S. - E.U. visit to the region, there was one aspect of the trip that seemed clear to all: it was meant to put pressure on the region’s governments to ensure that they follow the policies promoted by the West.
However absolute and straightforward U.S foreign policy in the Balkans seems to be, one major discrepancy between the actions of U.S. diplomats and their rhetoric does appear to stand out. This discrepancy lies in the U.S. support for self-determination. U.S. officials have often touted self-determination as the moral reason for which the international community should support Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia. But if U.S. officials are so concerned with a nation’s right to self-govern, why do they insist on taking the lead role in important policy matters that concern foreign governments?
The trip to the region that has come to be known as the Western Balkans was perfectly timed to take place just before Clinton’s departure from office. White House officials claimed that Clinton’s visit was meant to “take care of unfinished business,” a phrase that essentially translates into: to impose America’s will on the region one last time for good measure. Clinton’s visit to four (or five depending on whether one recognizes Kosovo as an independent state) countries in the Western Balkans was rife with ultimatums and sweeping phrases meant to ensure that there was no room left for doubt regarding which policies America will support and which ones it won’t. While the European Union has a slightly more ambiguous policy regarding Kosovo (five E.U. countries have yet to recognize Kosovo as an independent state), European Union officials tend to follow suit and back similar policies to the United States. In exchange, U.S. officials fully support the integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union.
The first stop on Clinton and Ashton’s trip was Bosnia, where a political crisis is unfolding following local elections. Nearly 17 years after the war, political infighting and regional differences continue to dominate the country’s political landscape. The President of Republika Srpska, the Serbian political entity created after the Dayton Agreement ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, continues to call for a referendum on independence from the rest of the country. U.S. and E.U. officials, however, repeatedly fail to heed this call. During their trip to the Balkans, Clinton blamed the Bosnian political crisis on a problem of leadership, and both she and Ashton reiterated that if Bosnian leaders do not join together to implement the reforms deemed necessary, the country will be unable to begin the process towards E.U. and NATO membership. Republika Srpska’s leaders rightly view the case of Kosovo as a precedent for their own succession. One would be hard pressed, however, to identify even a fraction of the support given to Kosovo’s government in its fight for self-determination.
The second city the two leaders visited was Belgrade, Serbia. Ashton and Clinton both used their visit to highlight the importance of the progress made in Brussels during the first ever meeting between Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci in October. What has become clear throughout the talks for “normalization” between Serbia and its breakaway province, however, is that the United States is calling all the shots on what is to be brought to the negotiating table and what is to be excluded. U.S. leaders consider the borders of present day Kosovo non-negotiable. This leaves the governments of both Kosovo and Serbia at a stalemate regarding the fate of the Serbian population residing in northern Kosovo. Some have speculated that an exchange of territory or the partition of Kosovo could be viable solutions were the United States to allow such options to be discussed. These otions, however, have been conspicuously absent from the talks in Brussels. Instead, Clinton used her visit to Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina, to proclaim unequivocally that Kosovo’s current borders are here to stay.
While self-determination may be the preferred buzzword, the fact that the future of Kosovo and the rest of the Balkan states already appears to be determined by outside forces, leaves one wondering which “self” pundits and theorists are referring to. Many have speculated over the political and economic motives for which the United States backs an independent Kosovo but stresses the importance of a unified Bosnia. A future linked to NATO and the European Union appears to be unavoidable. It also appears that the only choice left for the governments of the region is to choose which path they will take to complete the tasks demanded of them by western leaders.