Foreign policy is undoubtedly President-elect Joe Biden’s greatest strength. As a longtime senator (1973-2009), and as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and later on as a two-term Vice President under the Obama Administration (2009-2016), he has consistently been engaged in the Balkans. Biden had already taken the stage in the Balkans in the 1970s. As a 37-year-old senator, he met Yugoslav President Tito in 1979 during his first visit to Yugoslavia to attend the funeral of Edward Kardelj (a communist politician and Tito’s close companion).
In particular, his meeting with Milosevic in Belgrade in 1991, where Biden did not hesitate to label the Serbian leader a war criminal, attests to his uncompromising stance when it comes to human rights violations. Similarly, Biden visited Sarajevo in 1993 and warned the former American President Bill Clinton about the need to stop the Serbian aggression in Bosnia, insisting that if the Serbs weren’t stopped, there would be genocide in Bosnia. Clinton’s Foreign Secretary at the time, Warren Christopher, disagreed with Biden’s assessment. But two years later, exactly what Biden wanted to prevent happened: genocide in Srebrenica. In addition, Biden was also convinced that if Milosevic got a free hand in Bosnia, he would feel brave enough to use military force against Kosovar Albanians. In his function as a senator, he spoke out in favor of NATO’s intervention in Bosnia, and he strongly supported NATO intervention in Kosovo to stop the ethnic cleansing campaign against Albanians in Kosovo undertaken by the Serbian regime in Belgrade.
Since Jimmy Carter’s visit to Belgrade in 1980 (after Tito’s death), it was again Biden who, in his role as Vice President, visited Belgrade (in 2009 and 2016) as the highest-ranking American representative. In contrast to Belgrade, where Biden was received with anti-American protests, he experienced the opposite in Kosovo. In 2016, a Kosovar highway stretch (near the American military base, Camp Bondsteel) between two cities of Ferizaj and Gjilan was named after Joe Biden’s son, Beau Biden III, who had served as a legal adviser in Kosovo before his premature death from cancer.
What Biden will do for the Balkans?
Many scholars have argued that US-EU relations would not change significantly even if Biden wins. This may be true overall, but probably not in the case of the Balkans. In the middle of the 2020 presidential election, Biden turned his attention to the Balkans. As the official Democratic nominee, he published three letters of support to Albania/Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Greece as he sought to win over millions of diaspora votes. The Biden-Harris laid out their plans for future relations in the Balkans.Indeed, in his letter entitled “Joe Biden’s vision for America’s relationship with Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Biden promised to act as “a proven friend of Bosnia and Herzegovina – from the country’s darkest days of war and genocide to the continued struggle for stability and justice”. Regarding Greece, he wants to work closely with Athens to promote regional stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and to protect Greek interests from Turkey’s expansionist ambitions. Similarly, in the document “Joe Biden’s Vision for U.S. Relations with Albania and Kosova”, Biden presents himself as “a long-time friend of Albania and Kosova and the Albanian-American community.” As a senator, Biden defended the interests of Kosovo when the world’s focus was elsewhere andsupported the “independence of the Republic of Kosova, which is irreversible and in accordance with international law.” Most Albanian and Kosovar politicians were in favor of Biden. On the other hand, almost all the Serb-American diaspora associations, as well as Serbia’s President Aleksandr Vucic, openly endorsed Trump’s re-election and urged Serbs living in the U.S. to vote for him.
Biden’s approach to the Western Balkans
The Western Balkans, which is already an enclave surrounded by the EU, still remains a geopolitical zone between Western and non-Western players, all of whom often have contradictory interests and strategic goals. Biden pointed out that he will return to the Western Balkans and coordinate US Balkan policy with the EU, which would mark a departure from President Trump’s (unilateral) approach.
Since the current Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s party came to power in 2012, Belgrade has progressively expanded its political, economic and military ties with Russia and China. Since that time, the Russian and the Chinese presence in the Balkans has increased, and Serbia still remains an anchor of strengthening relations with Moscow and Beijing. In addition, in October 2019, Serbia – as the only country with an EU perspective – signed a free trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Belgrade ignored warnings from Washington and Brussels that such deals are not compatible with EU membership process. Furthermore, as one of the largest recipient countries of the 17+1 platform between China and Central and East European countries, Serbia has become a recipient of around $10 billion in investments by Chinese companies between 2012 and 2019.
More recently, in order to minimize the Russian influence in the region, Biden argued for an increased presence of US troops in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. With regard to the normalization of relations between Pristina and Belgrade, Biden has promised that, in contrast to the Trump administration, he will try to revive the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. His plans include the re-establishment of the partnership with the EU “to revitalize the dialogue between Kosova and Serbia with the goal of facilitating a stabilizing, just, and comprehensive settlement between the two countries that respects Kosova’s territorial integrity and achieves full mutual recognition”.
As a convinced transatlanticist, Biden is a firm believer that there has been peace and stability in the Balkans, whenever a common line has prevailed between the U.S. and Europe. Without the pioneering role of the USA there would be no agreement in Dayton (1995), in Rambouillet (1999), in Ohrid (2001), in Prespa (2018); no NATO expansion with Slovenia (2004), Croatia (2009), Albania (2009), Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020); no EU enlargement with Slovenia (2004), Croatia (2013), and no independent Montenegro (2006) and Kosovo (2008). None of the above successful stories would have happened without close bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and Europe.
A Biden administration will not solve the longstanding problems in the Balkans and in Europe. However, as an experienced politician with a transatlantic background, Biden remains a great hope for the Western Balkans in particular. At the same time, from a historical point of view, his foreign policy experience and vision serves as an exhortation to the US to take back its place as the leader of the free world.
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