Montgomery: There will be no progress in the dialogue until the West understands the importance of the Kosovo question for Serbia

*Note: English version of an op-ed by Mr. William Dale Montgomery for the Kosovo Online web portal published on 11th January 2021, courtesy of the author – original text from Kosovo online available at: https://www.kosovo-online.com/vesti/politika/montgomeri-nece-biti-napretka-u-dijalogu-dok-zapad-ne-shvati-znacaj-kosovskog

Mr. Montgomery is a retired United States diplomat. He served as the US ambassador in Serbia and Montenegro.

You (Kosovo Online web portal-CEAS comment) have asked a number of specific questions. It is more important to focus on some basic realities about the Balkan situation. I emphasize that I am reflecting the observations of the politics of the region I have personally observed during and long after my retirement from diplomacy and not the official views of any government or individual besides myself.

1) The foreign policy specialists in the United States, including those in non-governmental organizations, retired senior political figures, and staff members in Congress share a number of fundamental beliefs and attitudes towards the Balkans. These were formed in the early 1990s and have evolved very little since that time.  It does not depend on political affiliation. President Biden shared these views when he visited Belgrade about 19 years ago and I expect that they have not changed very much since then.

The key points are a belief that the Serbs under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic were the primary culprits for the violence which engulfed the Balkans during that period; a strong belief that Bosnia should remain united in current borders and that the ethnic groups in that country must find ways to reconcile and work together; a strong belief that Kosovo “deserves” independence in current boundaries due to the persecution of Kosovo Albanians during the Milosevic era. That persecution was severe enough in the eyes of this group to remove Serbian control over that area. Furthermore, the two ethnic groups in Kosovo (the Kosovo Albanians and Serbs) have to work together to establish one multi-ethnic country, as do the ethnic groups in Bosnia. This idea of a multi-ethnic working society is especially important to the United States and our politicians are sticking to it with passion, despite the pragmatic reality that it isn’t working in Bosnia nor in Kosovo after more than two decades of intense effort and expense.

It should also be noted that these individuals in the United States do not trust that the European Union, left to its own devices, would maintain those policies. This is the fundamental reason why, 25 years after the end of the Bosnian fighting, there is still a Peace Implementation Council and its High Representative active in Bosnia. The EU wants to abolish it and give its EU Representative the lead role. The problem, from the US point of view, is that doing so would take away the US role in Bosnia via the Peace Implementation Council and perhaps lead to changes the US policy makers would not like. The irony is that Balkan leaders have a strong nose for strength, power, and also for the lack of it. That means that Dodik can basically do whatever he wants, short of a referendum, without consequences. Because no one in the West wants to face the prospect of a return to military intervention in the Balkans. This means, basically, the High Representative is in fact, a pale imitation of some of his predecessors. 

You asked whether Bosnia and Kosovo were separate issues or connected.  The answer is both. Some issues are specific to each area, but the great fear of the West is that any change in borders or policies in one area would inevitably lead to attempts to change the other. In fact, could go even further and revive separatist movements in Spain, for example. Furthermore, the possibility of serious, perhaps uncontained violence, in either country in the event of attempts at border changes is a legitimate concern. The Bosnian Muslims believe that they have “paid with their own blood” to maintain a united Bosnia with a much stronger Federal role. In Kosovo, the lesson learned by the Kosovo Albanians was that peaceful resistance totally failed and success came thru the armed violence initiated or returned by the KLA. Unfortunately, they have learned well to play off the EU against the US and that there are few consequences to ignoring promises they made in negotiations or directly to the West. Moreover, Kosovo Albanian politicians are far more interested in increasing their own domestic popularity than they are in resolving the far more important question of reconciliation with Serbia.

It is particularly important that while there are no wars going on now, the ethnic relations both in Bosnia and Kosovo are still terrible. There has been little, if any, reconciliation. The two areas remain locked in political systems imposed on them and which are unworkable. But changing them has proven impossible in over two decades and little hope in sight for improvement.

2)  The Trump Administration and its Balkan representative, Grenell, frankly had little, if any understanding or care for the Balkan region. Therefore, he didn’t care about the views of the Europeans or the US foreign policy community. But the reality is that they had no chance to achieve anything important because of opposition from the EU, the US Foreign Policy Community, and several of the domestic groups of Kosovo Albanians. The unfortunate effort to actually press Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians to change their views on the Israeli question as part of the negotiations shows where their true interests were.  

3)  The fact remains that the Kosovo Albanians feel emboldened to take extreme positions because they think they have the support of the US. They will settle for nothing less than full recognition within current borders. Serbia, in the meantime, is being pressured more and more to make concessions in that direction – even though the prospect of full membership in the EU for Serbia seems to be very far away and promises made by the Kosovo leadership in “dialogues” with Serbia have not been fulfilled. It is impossible for me to understand why Serbia would have any belief that further concessions on its part would be honored by concessions on the other side.

4)  As hard as it is to believe, the West to this day does not comprehend the importance of the Kosovo question to Serbia. Because they do not understand it, they are unwilling to take the steps to resolve the Kosovo situation which would perhaps mean some pain or even anger on both sides, but would not be perceived as being totally one-sided. Unless and until this is fully understood, there will be no real progress made, negotiations will be ongoing and fruitless, and Serbia will be continuously pressed.

5) All this talk about relations Serbia has with Russia and China is pointless. There is nothing wrong with having good relationships with both of them and with the West. But the problem will come up if Serbian elements in Kosovo or Bosnia take unacceptable actions and the EU/US out of laziness and unwillingness to take this on themselves, look to the government of Serbia to correct the unacceptable behavior. This is the scenario I personally dread. The West, rather than directly dealing with the situations in either Bosnia or in Kosovo, will put intense pressure on the Serbian government to do so without any tangible benefit for taking very unpopular political actions.  The only thing that this will accomplish is to drive Serbia further from the West and leave the Balkans with continued instability. While virtually all the Balkan leaders over the past thirty years or more share responsibility for bringing this situation about, what the West needs to realize is its own responsibility, based again primarily on a fundamental lack of understanding of the region combined with the arrogant view that all countries in the world should equally share and respect all of our policies and views.

6)  The fundamental conundrum remains:  the countries of the Balkans are unable to reconcile by themselves and the actions of the international community, while well-intentioned, only reinforces the forces of instability. I fervently hope that I am proved wrong.