Preventing the Unraveling of the Balkans Peace Agreements

Monday, November 6, 2017
Demonstrators storm into Macedonia's parliament in Skopje on April 27, 2017. Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters
Daniel P. Serwer
Mr. Hoyt Brian Yee

Tensions are rising in the Balkans and the risk of renewed violence is growing, but the United States can help preserve peace and stability in the region. As part of the Center for Preventive Action’s Flashpoints Roundtable Meeting Series, speakers Daniel P. Serwer, academic director of conflict management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Hoyt Brian Yee, deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, discussed the risk of violence and political instability in the Balkans and what U.S. policymakers can do to prevent it. 

For further reading, please see the Contingency Planning Memorandum, "The Unraveling of the Balkans Peace Agreements," by Daniel P. Serwer. 

STARES: OK, I think we can get started. Good day, everybody. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations and this Flashpoint roundtable meeting focusing on preventing the unraveling of the Balkan peace agreements.

Some of you know me. For those who don’t, I’m Paul Stares, I’m a senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of its Center for Preventive Action, under whose auspices this series is held.

I should just give you a background of what we try to do with these series of roundtables which we’ve been holding for many years now. Essentially, we try to focus on areas of the world where there is an incipient risk of instability and conflict and to draw greater attention, particularly of policymakers, to those issues and the wider foreign policy community.

We’ve been concerned for some time that with all the attention being given to places like North Korea, Syria, Iraq, just to name a few, that the situation in the Balkans could be moving in an undesirable direction, and much of the progress that was accomplished over the last couple of decades could start to move backwards and we could see or be surprised by events there, which are not in the U.S. interests.

So today we’re going to focus on the situation there. We have two excellent, well-qualified speakers. We will begin first with my old friend and colleague Daniel Serwer. We served together at the U.S. Institute of Peace several years ago. He is now academic director of conflict management at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, here in the U.S. in Washington. He has had a long, distinguished career in the Foreign Service with a special focus on the Balkans and was, at one point, U.S. special envoy and coordinator for the Bosnian federation, deeply involved in the Dayton Peace Accords. He has written extensively about the Balkans, not to mention other areas of the world and, obviously, someone who is eminently qualified to assess the situation today.

We were hoping to have provided you with a paper that he has written for us in part of our Contingency Planning Memorandum series looking at this specific issue. And he will talk from that paper. We are hoping to release it later today, if not by tomorrow, and you will be sure to receive copies of that paper. 

We’re also very grateful to have Hoyt Brian Yee here, too. Again, many of you will know him. He is currently deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs at the State Department, also a longtime observer, participant, engager, whatever in issues in the Balkans. He has been deputy chief of mission, among other positions, at the U.S. embassy in Zagreb, a longtime career Foreign Service official serving not just in the Balkans, but in Afghanistan, I believe, with one of the PRTs.

Which one was it?

YEE: Actually, it was in Kabul.

STARES: Oh, it was in Kabul. OK.

And so he will provide commentary and response to Daniel’s initial presentation, which should be about ten, fifteen minutes, and then maybe ten minutes to hear from Secretary Yee.

I just want to emphasize, if it’s not obvious from the camera present, that the discussion is on the record here, so please be mindful of that. And for that reason, I do ask you to turn off or mute your cell phones so there’s no annoying interference not only in this, but in the recording.

Anyway, I think that’s all from me and I will turn it over to Daniel to start things off. Thank you.

SERWER: Thank you, Paul.

It’s an honor and a privilege. Paul and I were colleagues at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Hoyt and I met more than twenty-five years ago, I think, when he was working with Chuck Redman on the federation and on the early efforts at peacemaking in Bosnia. It’s really a privilege.

The United States is responsible for three peace agreements in the Balkans, the way I count them—it’s Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia—leaving behind a web that has prevented war for more than fifteen years.

I want to underline what a plus this is. I hear in the Balkans all the time people who say nothing has changed. Things have changed enormously. All the countries of the region have made substantial progress in both political and economic reform. The problem isn’t that there hasn’t been progress. The problem is that the progress has slowed and even stalled since the European recession.

The Greek financial crisis, the massive flow of refugees from the Middle East—Middle East and Africa, and Brexit have made it doubtful that the promise of EU membership can be fulfilled anytime soon, and besides which Euroskepticism is highly correlated with the business cycle. Fortunately, the business cycle is turning up in Europe now, and I expect Euroskepticism to dissipate a bit with that turn in the business cycle.

But let’s face it, EU charm is not working as well as once it did, despite what I regard as very strong statements from [high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy and vice president of the European Commission Federica] Mogherini. She really has been on target in my way of thinking.

This is a problem for the U.S. because we’ve been depending on Europe to carry the burden in the Balkans with U.S. support whenever it’s needed. But if Brussels fails, the peace agreement could, I think, unravel with serious consequences: heightened migration not only through, but from the Balkans, growing radicalization of Balkan Muslims, and increasing troublemaking by the Russians near and inside NATO.

Now, let me make clear that I don’t think anything like the wars of the 1990s is likely to recur in the Balkans. No one has the political will. Nobody has the military capacity. And the institutions that have been implanted in the Balkans, as weak as they appear at times, are stronger than the institutions that existed in 1990.

What do I think is needed? Well, the format that the Council uses requires that I consider all the reasonable options that are out there, so I have considered three options. One is more or less business as usual, which is to continue to depend on EU leadership, but for the U.S. to intervene—and I think Hoyt has done this with particular skill—to intervene whenever they look like they’re getting into trouble. And we’ve seen that happen in Macedonia, we’ve seen it happen in Bosnia, we’ve seen it happen in Serbia. And Hoyt, I give him enormous credit for making this work well.

But I’m concerned that business as usual is not going to be adequate for the future. So what are the other options? One is to renegotiate borders in the Balkans. It’s out there in the literature, and I want to underline the fact that I’ve considered it as analytically necessary and, in policy terms, completely unappealing to me. But people confuse—too often confuse an analysis, willing to analyze something, as indicting approval in some way for it. So I want to warn that that is not the case.

I looked in the paper somewhat carefully at the implications of renegotiating borders. They are not good. They involve massive movements of people to prevent atrocities. A humanitarian crisis associated with that would require a massive input of peacekeeping troops. Those troops are not available from anyplace. And there will always be people on the wrong side of the line, no matter what you do.

This notion that you can solve the problems of the Balkans by moving borders is, in my view, simply fallacious. That’s the problem, not the solution.

The third option I’d consider is for the U.S. to take back leadership on a selective basis without completely displacing the European Union. Now, there’s a spectrum here between what Hoyt has already been doing and what I’m suggesting, and it’s not a spectrum with a bright line between the two options. But we could be doing more. And the question is, what could we be doing more on?

One, and this is—I should underline as I start out that all of the things that I’m going to suggest are relatively low cost and nonmilitary in character, fundamentally nonmilitary in character, even though some military cooperation will appear later on. It’s a diplomatic effort that’s required. I think we need recommitment with Brussels to existing Balkan borders and states. There’s just been too much talk about moving borders and changing the state structures. That should include a planned response to any scheduling of the Republika Srpska independence referendum.

Now, Hoyt has been very skillful. I don’t know what he did to [president of Republika Srpska] Mr. [Milorad] Dodik recently, but Mr. Dodik has been backing off the date for the Republika Srpska referendum. That’s good. But I think we still need to make clear how we would respond if it is ever scheduled, and that response should include nonrecognition of Republika Srpska and no assistance—IMF, World Bank, bilateral, U.S., or EU—to any—to an independent Republika Srpska or any—or any country that it adheres to. I’m obviously talking about Serbia.

I think we should consider some acceleration in the NATO and EU membership processes. One possibility that I mention in the report is some kind of associate membership that involves the Balkan countries in discussions of policy decisions, even if they don’t have a vote in those decisions.

Generally, we need better carrots and sticks. We’ve used some sanctions effectively. EU has trouble using sanctions effectively because they’ve been challenged in court because they find it difficult to get agreement of the full membership. But somehow we have to recognize that sanctions undertaken by the U.S. would be vastly multiplied in their impact were they undertaken also by Brussels.

I think that the U.S. should consider some trade access for the Balkans. This wouldn’t cost us much. I admit that it’s against the current drift, but I think, you know, the U.S. making it clear that the Balkans will have preferential access to U.S. markets would be a clear signal that has been lacking.

I think we need to refocus our assistance on rule of law, particularly anticorruption and countering extremism. Now, I know there’s a good deal of attention to anticorruption and countering extremism in the Balkans, but I—I want to underline that I think a lot of the other assistance that we provide is by now pretty pointless.

I’m fond of telling the story of being sold some blackberries in Pristina one day under a tent that said “USAID,” and I paid more for those blackberries in Pristina than I would have paid at my farmers’ market in D.C. That doesn’t make sense to me. I mean, purchasing power is what it is in Kosovo, it is what it is in D.C. I don’t think we should be supporting projects that uneconomically produce blackberries in Kosovo.

I think the one military thing I think we need to do is to give increased visibility and maybe some increased resources to the National Guard cooperation with Balkan countries. This program is the best program that the U.S. has in the Balkans. The cooperation between Serbia and the Ohio National Guard—and I’ll get this wrong—Iowa and the Kosovo national guard, as well as Vermont and the—and the Macedonia national guard, these are incredible programs that have spread far beyond the military sphere, because what happens is the governors say, oh, that’s nice, I think I’ll get involved with that, why don’t we involve our universities, why don’t we involve our companies? And our states are much more the dimension that can cooperate easily with Balkan countries than our federal government, so I think we need to recognize that that’s an important program and give it some more visibility and resources.

I think we need a region-wide truth and reconciliation effort. Natasa Kandic has been trying to sell us this for a decade. She’s done incredible work. I think—I think we should buy.

But here’s the big, heavy lifting in the diplomatic sense. We need to remove the obstacles in the Balkans. And the obstacles to completing the peace process in the Balkans include Bosnia’s constitutional and electoral inadequacies, UN membership for Kosovo, and Macedonia’s name and its impact on NATO membership in particular. If we could solve those three problems, I think we’d be light years ahead of where we are today.

I will admit that there have been at least two high-level efforts on the constitutional issue in Bosnia that have failed. Most people think I’m nuts to suggest that Serbia will allow Kosovo into the UN, but I think that’s a negotiable item if we think creatively about it. I can talk about what that means later if somebody wants to challenge me.

And I think on Macedonia’s name, the issue really is no longer Macedonia’s name, the issue is NATO membership and that means getting Macedonia in by the name it doesn’t like, but will accept, the FYROM [Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia], and doing it, I would say, at the next summit.

In addition to these measures, I think we need to counter Russian troublemaking by reducing Balkan dependence on Moscow’s gas, and I know there are efforts in that direction. Sanctioning those who finance Balkan leaders who threaten the peace, that is not just worrying about the Balkan leaders themselves, but worrying about where they get their money from, beefing up our own media capabilities. In recent years, we’ve talked a great deal more about eliminating the Balkan parts of VOA than about beefing them up, but I think it’s time for us to recognize that we face a real challenge from the Russians in the media space and we have to be able to respond. And finally, I think we need to be consulting with the Balkans countries on Russian election meddling. If they did what they did to us—and I do believe they did—you can imagine what they could do in the Balkans if they really tried.

These are not expensive things, but I think they’re important ones. And doing them would preserve peace and stability, avoid major costs, limit Russian troublemaking, and give us a lot of secure and prosperous friends.

That said, I face the question, well, OK, who’s going to do all of that? And here, I have to admit that I gave in to temptation in the report to support the idea of a special envoy, something that I’ve resisted over the years because I believe that you have to have a policy before you have a special envoy. And I still believe that and have outlined the kind of diplomatic effort that would require a special envoy. But I have to admit also that I have my doubts about this.

And I have another proposition for you, Molly Montgomery, and that is formal designation of the vice president as the owner of the Balkans portfolio, including this heavy diplomatic lifting that I’ve outlined. And in some ways, I think I prefer the latter proposition to the former proposition because it makes so clear that there will be attention paid.

I’ll stop there, Paul.

STARES: Great, thank you so much, Daniel.

We now turn the floor to Hoyt.

YEE: Thank you very much. Is this on?

STARES: Yes, I believe so, everything’s on.

YEE: Thank you. I want to start by just saying how honored I am to be here and to recognize—well, I won’t by name, but I just want to recognize all the colleagues and the former bosses and mentors and many people who have been role models over the years since I’ve been working at the State Department. It’s truly a privilege and an honor to be here with you, and I look forward to your questions.

I’ll make this easy. I agree largely with what Professor Serwer has said about both the options and also some of the deficiencies in the current state of affairs and what the United States might be able to do to contribute even more to the situation. He was extremely generous in his praise for me, and I think he meant more generally what I and my colleagues at the State Department and wider interagency have been able to do in the past few years with the European Union.

I think what I would like to do is maybe start by talking a little bit about not so much the areas of difference, but where I think we can draw some good conclusions, some reasonable conclusions that get to what I think Dan points out as some of the things we can do going forward.

First on a positive sense—in a positive sense, I want to highlight some of the successes. And there have been some successes, I would argue, in the past year in the Balkans. And we can’t say that every year. But I think for those of us who care deeply about the region and have been concerned about the trends over the last several years, I think we’ve seen some positive developments.

And I’d start with—I’d start with Montenegro’s accession to NATO, which is, of course, something that required American and European leadership. It required also a great deal of hard work, good work by the Montenegrins. And one aspect of that I want to point out to, and we can circle back and then I can tie it together with my conclusions, is that this was by no means the U.S. or Europe imposing on Montenegro standards it had to meet. The NATO door is open. No country is forced to join NATO. No country is even, I would say, pressured to join NATO. But if countries want to join, they need to meet the criteria, and Montenegro did.

I think most people will remember that in 2014 it came close to receiving an invitation to join the alliance, but it didn’t quite get it, it had a little more work to do. And it did do the work necessary to receive an invitation the following year. And I’ll come back to that.

But secondly, I think another success story has been in Macedonia where the country, as most of you know, has been in a political crisis for the past two-and-a-half years, going back to the wiretapping scandal that uncovered, when it was revealed, all kinds of corrupt activities. And the country was unable to move forward with its political, it was stuck, of course. Its economy also was also stuck and its progress towards the European Union or NATO, regardless of the name of the country and that hurdle. It was in very difficult shape.

But through, I would say first, a lot of hard work by both the European Union and the United States in terms of our diplomacy, but also work by the political leadership in the country, some more willing than others, to meet what we in the international community were asking, primarily a commitment to certain reforms, whether it’s media, judiciary, rule of law in general. There were a lot of steps that the parties had to agree to in order to get to the point where we, the international community, would recognize their elections as sufficiently credible.

And remember, in 2016 actually there were two dates set for elections in Macedonia that had to be cancelled because everyone agreed, including the international community, that the conditions were not right. So the elections eventually did take place last December, and the results of the elections I think led to what is I think what most people agree is a pro-reform government that’s very dedicated to joining NATO and the EU and adopting European standards. So I think that’s also a success story.

Another one maybe not as well known, but I think equally important in some ways is in Albania where the country last year adopted some sweeping judicial reform amendments to its constitution and to its legislation, which require vetting of its judges and prosecutors, including by members of the international community. This will, when implemented, we believe, have a transformative effect on the judiciary, but also for the reasons that Dan mentioned, the importance of rule of law, of an independent judiciary, will have an important impact on the country’s progress towards European Union.

So these are certainly not the kind of headline-making, except for perhaps Montenegro joining NATO, the kind of advances that we would all like to celebrate at some point. But I think it’s worth pointing out these three advances for, first of all, some reassurance that the region is not completely off track and there is a possibility for progress. Secondly, that the international community’s approach—and I fully accept many of Dan’s criticisms or suggestions for improvement. But I think it’s worth noting that in all three of those examples I’ve mentioned, there’s very close cooperation between the Europeans and the Americans.

And I would say on some of those instances, in some of those examples, Europe played a more prominent leadership role and others, for example in Montenegro’s NATO accession. I think it would be accurate to say the United States, as unofficial leader of the NATO alliance, played at least as much, if not more of a leadership role. The point being that I don’t think it’s necessary for it to be one way or the other in all cases in order to solve these problems.

What’s really important is that there is a partnership, a genuine partnership and a sharing of responsibility, sharing of the burden, as we’ve said in the past, but also of the various tasks, not necessarily just because of the costs or because of political costs or financial costs, but because in some cases we are more effective being in the lead from Washington or Americans in the field and sometimes the Europeans are more effective. So I would—I would just argue that we should be flexible. In some cases, it’s going to make more sense for us to play a more prominent role. Sometimes it will make more sense for the Europeans.

The other point I want to make about leadership is that while it’s absolutely true, I agree with Dan, as long as the region remains still fundamentally in transition and in many cases unstable and vulnerable to Russian malign influence and violent extremism, it’s important for the region’s international partners, especially the United States and European Union—other cases, there may be other countries also that can contribute—it’s important for us to play that role. But it’s equally important, and I would say increasingly more important for the leaders of the region to step up and play the role that they were elected to play.

I don’t mean this to sound—it will sound, I realize, to some of you like a copout to say this is actually their responsibility, they are the ones that need to do this. And I’m not saying that we should somehow abdicate from our responsibility. But increasingly, we need to find ways to motivate, to convince the leaders and civil society and members of the citizenry in these countries they need to play a more active, responsible role in their own future.

So, again, looking for some examples, I think I’d start off with Bosnia and Herzegovina. We have tried very hard with Europeans to advance a reform agenda which has been based on, primarily, focused primarily on economic and social reforms, which the Bosnian governments have been more or less effective at pursuing. They’ve adopted a lot of legislation. They’ve put in place a lot of the steps that the European Union, which leads the reform effort, has asked them to do.

But in the end, not a lot has changed on the ground. And there are two reasons for that, I think. One is because the reforms do not address the core, the root problems of the country, which I think can be traced back to Dan’s work in the federation agreements and the Dayton Accords. Not to blame him for that, but the problems are fundamentally political, they’re not economic and social. So the fact that you can pass legislation to fix the tax code or the pension system or health care, while important, is not sufficient.

The other reason I think—and I have to remember we’re on—we’re on the record here—but I think it won’t surprise anyone to hear that in our assessment there are many leaders, elected leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina who are not interested in reforming the system. The current system, the current—the status quo suits many of the leadership, many of the leaders in not only Bosnia and Herzegovina, I would say, in the region very well. So it’s—I think the standard maxim that goes back for years is, you know, the European Union—wait, I’m not going to say that. Let me start over. (Laughter.) We’re on the record. No.

The leaders have figured out that they can do just enough to convince us that they are partners and that they are actually implementing a reform plan that they agreed to. In reality, they are not doing what is necessary in order to bring about a stable and functional state. And they’ve been able to walk that fine line for years. They’ve been able to figure out that most American and European bureaucrats at most stay in their position three years and then they move on. So I’m in my fourth year, I’m going to hang on as long as I can. But it’s true, we do tend to turn over whereas many of these people who are in positions of power in the Balkans have stayed for many years, sometimes decades. They outlast us.

And they also understand how the European Union works. There are regular meetings, ministerial level, then council-level meetings, and they know they need to meet certain deadlines. They need to provide just enough progress so that they’re not held accountable.

And this is the key word, I think, that we need. And this gets, I think, Dan, closer to what you’re talking about, is there needs to be greater accountability. A partnership is a two-way street.

So we offer to especially the European Union, but also America, we offer certain incentives, including stronger economic relations—in the case of the European Union, it’s a possibility of accession for many of these countries that are not already members—and closer ties which bring about prosperity and opportunities for the young people. On their side, we expect the leadership, the elected leaders to implement reforms, to keep their word, to keep their promises, not to be corrupt, to be providing their people what their citizens elect them to do.

This accountability is really a hard nut to crack because we’re talking about sovereign countries, leaders elected by sovereign countries. So applying sanctions, which we have done on very rare occasion, is one way. But it’s something, as Dan points out, the European Union is rather reluctant to invoke. So I think we need to find this partnership not only between the EU, but also with our partners in these countries. And when they don’t meet their commitments—and this is the part, I think, where we can—we can perhaps have a lively discussion—is about finding the ways that we can hold accountable. It has—it should begin with the citizens, but if the citizens aren’t able to apply that accountability through electoral processes perhaps because the electoral systems are flawed or because of state capture—which I think in several cases you could make the argument that there is a state capture problem in the Balkans—for whatever reason, if not’s possible, then I think the international community, particularly in places like Bosnia and Herzegovina where many of play a guarantor role for the Dayton Peace Accords, I think we should be willing to step in to do the necessary.

Maybe just lastly, and I’ll just close on this, I think there are a couple of other elements in addition to the leadership that transcend perhaps whether it’s option one, two, or three.

And I’m not going to choose between then, Dan, but I would say all of them, I think, have some very good elements.

I think it’s important that we are able amongst ourselves in Washington with our partners in Europe, with our partners in the region itself find a sense of urgency that we’ve lost over the years, for good reason. I mean, we have to—it’s been—it’s over twenty years since Dayton was signed and many years since the accord in Macedonia, the Ohrid Agreement. And we’ve all been distracted or I should say rightly focusing on new crises or even more immediate, perhaps even more urgent for us. But if we’re going to be effective, I think in addition to deciding who’s going to lead or who’s going to follow, I think we need to agree that these are urgent problems.

And I agree with Dan, we’re not in danger of having another ’90s style conflict. I don’t believe that’s true. But I think that below the surface in many of these countries there’s a lot of tension. And we and our European colleagues often take for granted that the—the thin veneer of normalcy.

If you go to any of the—I mean, if you go to Pristina or Sarajevo or Skopje, I mean, the cities look very modern and European, people are sitting in cafes enjoying themselves. But I believe beyond the capitals, and sometimes even in the capitals, if you scratch below the surface, it would just take a spark, it would just take a spark to set off conflict again. Again, not a war, but there would be enough conflict to really do everyone, including ourselves, some damage. So I hope we can find that urgency.

And lastly, just the last point, I think we need to find a way to use all the tools we have at our disposal, not only EU and U.S. There are other international organizations that are very present, very active in these regions. We need to work with them to bring them into the equation to be part of the solution. There’s been a lot of talk about the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, where I think we all share the goal of seeing this extraordinary organization work itself out of a job. But until it does that, it’s important that we use this office and other tools as fully as possible to get the results. And when it comes time, when we really do have that end state that we want, then, of course, we hope that we can all reduce our presence and our assistance and we won’t have to pay so much for the blackberries in Kosovo.

STARES: OK, terrific. Thank you both for those two excellent presentations.

We have around twenty-five minutes for Q&A. As usual, please put your name table tent on the side so I can hopefully read your name, notwithstanding my poor eyesight. And I’ll try to not do too much violence to the order in which they went up.

And I think, Bob, you were first, thank you.

If you could just say, again, who you are and—

Q: My name is Bob Beecroft. I was the successor to Dan Serwer as special envoy for the federation in the mid-’90s and served between 2001 and 2004 as the ambassador head of the OSCE mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I appreciate what both Dan and Hoyt had to say, but there’s one—and, Hoyt, I thank you for mentioning opportunities for young people. Those of you who know my agenda when I was in Bosnia know that it was heavily focused on the successor generation which, of course, has been leaving the region in droves, that doesn’t help. But unless you deal with that problem of what the young people are being taught and what they are learning throughout the region, but particularly in Bosnia, you’re simply going to have a poisoned successor generation that has bought into the same assumptions and distortions that led to the war in the first place.

I wonder if there is any thought being given to issues of national education policy based on at least a minimal consensus on history. Not an easy thing to do, but if you don’t do it you’ll be talking about, oh, the civil war in 150 years, just like we do.

I would wonder about a regional council of education ministries. Now, I realize that in Bosnia and Herzegovina there are 14 education ministers, but I’m talking about the one at Sarajevo. This could be done with European Union guidance. Countries like Finland that are bilingual, Swedish/Finnish, France where the Alsacien province in the east still is German speaking, and Belgium which is a binational state.

And I’d just like to say in passing that Ambassador Maureen Cormack deserves a lot of credit for the emphasis she has placed on the successor generation and education reform. And I have reason to believe that Bruce Burton is going to be picking up his side of that issue.

But I don’t see how you can look at any of these countries in a generation or two from now unless we get the generations right. And you can’t get them right if they’re basically drinking the same Kool-Aid. Thanks.

STARES: Do one of you want do—

SERWER: It’s more for you than for me.

YEE: I was afraid of that. (Laughter.) No. It’s, first, a great point, Bob, about the young people and brain drain. It is—it is sad just how many young people are leaving places like Bosnia and Herzegovina. I think eighty thousand over the last two years in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone, and these are educated people that tend to have skills and talents that the countries need. So we are committed to finding ways to stimulate the economy, grow the economy, and create jobs. AID programs in most of these countries are looking for ways on how to do this, creating these economic opportunities.

Education is one of the hardest nuts to crack, as you point out. But I agree, it’s also one of the ones that we need to figure out, we need to have a better handle on it. And when I say we, I think in this case OSCE and in many of the countries that have this problem I think is going to have to play a bigger role, is going to have to step up.

I think in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as you said, Bruce Burton is committed to working on this, the idea that you can still have divided schools where you have two different schools under one roof, segregation basically. Still, the manner in which many people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are educated is certainly un-European and very counterproductive from the standpoint of getting to reconciliation, to some sort of if not a common understanding of history, at least compatible understandings of history. So we’ll keep working with that and encouraging the OSCE to, if it does one thing, I think, over the next years, to focus on how to improve the educational system to bring it up to some sort of standard that will allow the country to get closer to Europe.

SERWER: Maybe, Paul, I could just add that, you know, it’s almost ten years since Charlie Ingrao published the product “The Scholars’ Initiative,” which involved scholars from all over the Balkans as well as Europe and the United States in trying to put forward a common narrative about what happened in the ’90s. The only area in which they failed to find a common narrative and had to have two separate ones was in Kosovo. Even that, I think, would now be possible.

What has not been done because of who’s in power in the Balkans is to use that as the basis for preparation of textbooks and educational materials that could go some distance to promoting reconciliation. And I—it’s one of the reasons I point to the truth and reconciliation proposals of Natasa Kandic, which are regionally based and I think would make a big difference in enhancing demand for a common history.

What’s been lacking is anybody to counter the politicians’ inclination to tell a history that supports their staying in power. And so I think part of the solution has to be demand driven.

STARES: I think, Jovana, you’re next.

Q: Yes, thank you. I’m Jovana Djurovic working—a journalist working for Voice of America, Serbian service.

I have two brief questions for Mr. Yee regarding his—

STARES: One question.

Q: OK, I’ll put it one then. (Laughter.) OK, it will be brief.

So regarding your recent visit to Belgrade, there has been—well, still talking about your visit in Serbia. (Laughter.) The first thing has to do really—even the Russian ambassador, but I’m not going to mention him this time. So the first thing is you said that Serbia cannot balance and play on both sides, West and Russia. Is there any deadline, you know, a certain point of time in which Serbia has to say, OK, we are joining to the West sincerely to do European Union or to Russia?

And the second one, really briefly, because I think this is very important. Mr. [Aleksandar] Vucic [president of Serbia] said that you talked about the Kosovo issue with him. And I’m quoting, he said that you made your messages or you used government messages in a very, quoting, “loud and clear way,” and that you said to him, quoting again, “that he has to respect it or think about the consequences if he doesn’t comply.” So some of the ministers in the Serbia also said that what you delivered as a message to Mr. Vucic was, quoting again, “nondiplomatic pressure.”

So my question is, is there any expectation of the U.S. government from Serbia to recognize the Kosovo independence and resolving the Kosovo issue in general? And are there any consequences, as Mr. Vucic said, if it doesn’t comply? Thank you.

YEE: Thank you for the question. Let me say for the first part, the conference which I spoke at in Belgrade about a week ago, and which I perhaps unadvisedly used my Serbian to quote a Serbian proverb that you can’t sit on two chairs at the same time, was in the context of advice to Serbia on how to go faster towards the European Union. In other words, it was not an ultimatum, it was not a warning.

It was—the discussion was about how Serbia can move faster towards the European Union, towards integration with the EU. And I gave several pieces of advice, including that Serbia, like any other country that wants to join the European Union, should—I think I used the term should be “all in” for EU membership. In other words, it should make clear to its partners in the European Union that it is committed absolutely to joining the EU.

The example—and I realize all countries are different, have different political realities—but the example I would cite would be in Montenegro. Montenegro has moved very rapidly towards joining the European Union, has opened twenty-eight or thirty chapters already in the accession process. It’s not lost on EU members that Montenegro joined the European Union in applying sanctions against Russia. This is just one example.

But I think when a country like Montenegro—which was not required technically, just as Serbia’s not required technically to impose sanctions against Russia for what Russia’s done in Ukraine—takes that kind of step, it sends a strong signal that the country is all in. So that was my advice to Serbia, to look for ways to show that it is fully committed the way that Croatia was back in the mid-2000s. Croatia decided that it was going to put everything, everything it had towards joining the European Union, including—oh, I’m not going to say that—including everything. (Laughter.) So it was clear to everyone, including the European Union members at the time, that Croatia had no reservations and it’s going all the way.

What I would say about Serbia’s case, although Serbia has made a lot of progress and I think Serbia deserves a lot of credit for what it’s been able to do to open so many chapters, to progress towards European Union members, it’s still apparent, I think, to some or it appears to some of the member states of the European Union that it is balancing between East and West. This may be an incorrect perception, but if you’re trying to join an organization and you want to go faster, our advice is do your best to convince the countries that will make a decision over whether you are able to open chapters or not, that you’re fully committed.

And the idea that you can’t sit on two chairs at the same time is a matter of not just of physics, but in political terms I think one has to accept that Russia’s vision of the Balkans, for the Balkans is very different from that of the European Union and that of the United States. I don’t believe they’re compatible visions. I believe it’s possible for countries, just like the United States, it’s possible for us to maintain good working relations with Russia. That is our goal, wherever we can we want to work with Russia. But where we’re working in opposite directions, where we don’t see eye to eye, we’ve made very clear, our secretary of state, other leadership, that we will defend our interests and those of our allies very firmly.

So that is—that is the message. It was not a threat or ultimatum. It was this is how we believe you can move even faster towards the European Union.

SERWER: Well, let me just address this question of Kosovo recognition and say some things that Hoyt may not agree with or may not want to say. Serbia’s strategy has been to put off complete normalization of relations with Kosovo until just before accession to the European Union. That’s a mistake. It’s a mistake because at that moment just before accession, all the leverage is on the side of the EU, not on the side of Serbia. And the EU can demand whatever it wants to demand without a quid pro quo.

I hope that in the intra-Serbian dialogue that’s occurring today about Kosovo that people will be reflecting on this and realizing that with, I think, twenty-two countries that recognize Kosovo inside the EU that it just is not good for Serbia to wait to settle this issue with Kosovo, but that UN membership in particular, which does not require bilateral recognition, but UN membership in particular would be a positive step and is something for which Serbia today could get a quid pro quo, but won’t be able to get one just before—just before accession.

Q: Thank you.

STARES: OK. I’ll go to this side of the room.

Metodija—that’s the correct way of pronouncing your name?

Q: Metodija—but if I could put this on, but it’s not working.

STARES: It’s on, everything’s on.

Q: Oh, it’s on. Metodija Koloski, United Macedonian Diaspora.

And thank you, Paul, CFR, and Dan for hosting this once again.

One, I want to echo the trade relations. And a few years back, there was a U.S.-Balkans business summit in Baltimore and Annapolis that I think it was put on by a Montenegrin group here. And so that might help and maybe doing another series of these summits, which the State Department would be heavily involved in.

The other thing, I want to congratulate the Pence visit to Montenegro and meeting with the leaders of Macedonia and Montenegro and really setting the agenda for the future.

But one thing I want to note is that there hasn’t been a U.S. president to visit Macedonia since ’99, a secretary of state since 2001, and a defense secretary since 2007, and no VP visit to date. And I think that’s one of the—I think it’s a very bad strategy of the United States, particularly now with the Russian influence in the Balkans. And I think a visit to Macedonia very soon would really set the agenda.

But my question is really about the name, the name issue. Greece is—I mean, there’s—next year is probably the first year Greece and Macedonia won’t be in election season. We might have a resolution. However, this morning news came out that Greece is contemplating doing elections next year. And so if we continue using the strategy of Greece and Macedonia having elections every year, where are we going to—what’s the future for Macedonia? Are we going to push our partners to get Macedonia into NATO without the resolution of the name and, what Dan was proposing, under the ridiculous Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia name?

STARES: Either of you.

YEE: I’m not sure what the question was.

Q: What are the efforts—

YEE: About the strategy or—

Q: Well, what’s the efforts, I guess, to get a high-level delegation visit to Macedonia? And then the other is, what are the efforts that you’re working on to push the Greeks perhaps to allow Macedonia into NATO under the Former Yugoslav Republic?

YEE: So I’ll just say first on high-level visits, my colleague Matt Palmer and others around the room, Molly also, know that this is one of the most difficult tasks that we face as government representatives is trying to accommodate the many requests from around the world of deserving leaders and representatives of our partners and allies. There just isn’t enough time in the day, enough days in the year to accommodate all the requests.

I think we are committed to seeing that the diplomatic relations between our partners and allies and ourselves is sufficient so that the messages get across that needs are being met. And unfortunately, it will not always be possible to have the high-level meetings that people want. But we do—we are committed to ensuring that the communication that needs to take place, the messages that need to be both made and received are possible, even at sometimes lower levels than would be desired.

I do predict that once Macedonia joins NATO that there will be a high-level visit to Skopje. But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done and I would say that it’s on both sides. This is going to be a negotiation, and I am, I think, cautiously optimistic, I would say, that probably the conditions in both countries are as good, if not better than they ever have been for resolving this name issue.

So we very much hope that both governments can find a compromise that they both can accept and to convince their publics, to the extent necessary parliaments, that they are good solutions so that this issue can be solved once and for all. And that will open the way for a lot of things, including high-level meetings.

STARES: OK. In the interest of time I’m going to move on.

I think Jim is next. And if we can pair your question with Borjan—is that correct—and if you’d please keep your questions very concise.

Q: I’d like to thank, Dan, first of all, for your continued writings on the Balkans. A number of people have walked away from their issues in the region, and you continue to hang in there and that keeps us all on our toes, at least intellectually, and so thank you, Dan.

Now I’ve taken the gloves off, so you know what’s coming. (Laughter.)

But also, Hoyt, you said something that actually just leapt off the page, so to speak, for me, which was a reference to the need for urgency. And what I would like to ask the two of you, I think that really is important. Again, not that what the two of you had said prior to that didn’t set my hair on fire, but it seems to me that if—that you have a new situation now in the region. And the new situation in the region is that—is that the government of Serbia is serious and is prepared for some deals. In fact, this is an historic moment. I would assert that.

And if that is the case, given the fact that we’re all talking about after-effects of the region when the government of Serbia from twenty years back or thirty years back or whatever it was now when they decided that they wanted a different region and it was going to be the chief disruptor, that’s what we’ve all had to deal with since then. If they decide that they are going to be the chief builder or constructor or positive element—and I think that this an—then I think you have an historical moment. So my question is, if Serbia is prepared for serious agreements on the major issues, including with Kosovo and Bosnia, what would you two suggest be done to work that through, to work that through in a forward way to tap into that possibility, which I think is more than just a possibility?

STARES: And your question if you can, again, be concise.

Q: Borjan Jovanovski from VOA, Macedonian service.

Mr. Yee, there has been a speculation that you are going to be in Macedonia, that you are going to be our next ambassador from the United States in Macedonia. Could you confirm that? (Laughter.)

SERWER: I think they want to hear that first.

Q: And if yes, what it means to you.

YEE: I’ll answer the first question—(laughter)—from Jim.

Q: I will wait.

YEE: Look, we agree largely that there are opportunities in the Balkans—and Dan mentioned—and they’re the same opportunities, I think, that we believe are out there. One is Macedonia, Greece, name, solving that. Two, Bosnia and Herzegovina reform, at least in the runup to the 2018 elections, they need to reform their electoral system, otherwise the elections will probably not be valid. And the third is between Serbia and Kosovo where Prime Minister and now President Vucic has said that he wants to have an internal dialogue in Serbia about the future of Serbia’s relations with Kosovo, that he wants to first talk about it within Serbia, but then presumably next with Kosovo about how to normalize their relations in a—not in the kind of way that’s been taking place right now, which is very small steps over long periods of time, but in, we hope, a faster, much more dramatic and urgent way in which both countries could reach the normalized state much sooner.

So how we help it—I think that’s your question—how we help that, I think, is as we have been with the European Union. And, you know, there’s a lot I will say—and this is sort of easy for me to say and you’ll just have to trust me. Even when you don’t see us playing a leadership role out in front with the flag, you can count on the fact the United States is always present, we’re always playing some role, I like to think it’s usually helpful, with our European partners in helping countries in the region reach compromises, find solutions, providing assistance, whether it’s technical assistance or even sometimes financial assistance to bridge the gap.

So we need to create that atmosphere in which both countries can reach a compromise solution on what their normalization is going to look like. I don’t want to prejudice what that will be, but I think there are some good options. And I think with good will on both sides it’s possible to see some real progress.

SERWER: What they really want is normalization and a new relationship with the U.S. When they talk Kosovo or they talk Bosnia, what they’re really talking about is a relationship with the West.

YEE: And I’ll just say on that, I mean, our—for us, the relationship between Serbia and the United States is already very strong, but we’re open to increasing it. We have many, many military-to-military exercises and other activities with Serbia already. A lot of people don’t know about that because it’s not always publicized by Serbia.

But we have—our economic relations are increasing. I think we have a billion dollars’ worth of investment in Serbia and a lot of people don’t know about that, but it’s actually pretty strong. Serbia’s economy is unique, I think, in that it’s the only economy I know of that actually has a budget surplus now because of a long period of fiscal consolidation. And this, I think, goes to some of the hard decisions and hard steps that President Vucic, Prime Minister Brnabic now and their predecessors have had to make in order to get Serbia to the point where it can meet EU conditions.

But with this commitment and also the World Bank rank—the ease of doing business rank, as a lot of the countries including Serbia has improved—as they continue making these reforms, and they need to do more, of course, then there will be more opportunities for cooperation with the United States and other partners.

STARES: OK. I’m going to pretend I set my wristwatch incorrectly on Saturday night and try to squeeze in two more questions.

Inda and David, with apologies to Austin, if you could ask two very quick questions and we can end things.

Q: Inda Swanke, Voice of America. Thank you for bringing this discussion back on the table.

Questions for both Mr. Serwer and Mr. Yee and on the same subject matter. We both—you both agreed that Bosnian leadership, and I think the rest of the world does as well, need to take more responsibility and there’s got to be an accountability for their behavior. As a linguist, I will tell you we don’t even have a word for “accountability” in Bosnian, so we sort of switch it up with “responsibility.” It’s a hard concept for them to grasp, and they’ve been getting away with a lot.

By saying you need to or you or U.S. or EU needs to find a way to moderate them, what exactly do you mean? And what is a carrot and what is a stick, because the carrot from the Russian side or from an Islamic radical side is obviously attractive? And we’ve seen changes in that direction that I could not call positive, but not as much from this side, so either our incentives are not attractive or they’re not sufficient.

STARES: OK. And David.

Q: Thank you. I shall play really on that question. I don’t share Jim’s view about this being sort of the historic—historical. We were just talking it before this. But a question based on a couple of things each of you said.

I agree with you, Mr. Yee, that just under the surface in a lot of parts of the region that a spark could really create some trouble. It’s not going to be like the ’90s, that was the ’90s, it would be different this time. And my personal view, for what it’s worth, is that our structures are quite weak—I don’t share Dan’s view—I think quite weak and that there’s real danger.

Dan, you noted that there have been previous efforts at constitutional reform in Bosnia. I slid by that a little bit. I should, by the way, thank you for this invitation since you and I have been disagreeing for so many years. It’s kind of you to invite me.

But the question is—the question is, as opposed to, say, the Butmir effort in 2009, which that was a real full-court press, we lectured them this is your last chance, you better show up. And Butmir on October, what is it, twenty-first, whenever it was, last chance, last chance. They ignored us. And of course, we’ve given them plenty of last chances since. If we’re going to get the sort of changes that both of you mention in Bosnia by the elections next year, what is going to make things different this time so that we don’t get snookered again?

Remember, we’re the ones who brought Dodik initially. He was going to not be Karadzic, he was going to be the good guy. We did that. We’ve made some mistakes in the past, we haven’t always admitted it. What’s going to be different this time?

STARES: OK. Who wants to go first? Dan? Yeah.

SERWER: Well, maybe I’ll try to take this on. David, it seems to me that the Butmir effort—and this gets a little bit into the weeds for some people—it was simply ill-fated from the start from a variety of reasons. The circumstances weren’t good. Frankly, I don’t think the proposal was very well thought out. And it was easy enough for the Bosnians to reject it, despite the high-level involvement.

I think that the 2006 April package was much more indigenously generated. It had serious support inside Bosnia. It was opposed by Haris Silajdzic because he wanted to be president of Bosnia—what he told me—and I always thought it would come back to the parliament. It was defeated by two votes, it didn’t come back. It’s not like the United States where if you fail one year you bring it back the next year. And it started a period of real deterioration in high-level interethnic relations, political relations inside Bosnia.

It seems to me we have to go back to working on something much more indigenously generated. That can be done in a thousand different ways. We tried it in 2006 with U.S. Institute of Peace. It can be done by the Europeans. It can be done many different ways. But the main thing, it seems to me, is to be clear about the direction in which it has to go, which means being clear that reform must go in the direction of EU accession and membership, nothing more than that.

And then let the Bosnians figure this out. And I know there’s been a lot of talk about various reforms of this sort, but we’ll just have to wait until they’re—until they’re ready.

The previous question was about?

Q: Motivation.

SERWER: Oh, how to encourage moderation.

Q: The motivation.

STARES: Motivation, motivation, how to motivate.

SERWER: Motivation.

Q: Specifically for the politicians. People are motivated, but they have no—

SERWER: I mean, you know, politicians are motivated, in my view, by two things: votes and money. And we need to be clear that those have not lined up in the right direction all too often in the past. And so the question is, how do you make those things line up in the right direction, and I think we can do that.

STARES: Final word from you, Hoyt.

YEE: Very quickly, yeah, just—I agree with Dan. I think, you know, on the question of motivation, it really depends on the country and it depends on the leader. Some of the leaders, I don’t believe, want to join the European Union, so we can’t really use that carrot for them, even though they’re very good at pretending that that’s what they want.

I think for them we need to find, and I think we know in many cases, what they are either trying to achieve or what they’re trying to avoid and to use that within the boundaries that we all have to live in, to use it to our advantage.

In some cases, just as an example, I think just identifying the culprit in many cases would be helpful. A lot of times we, I’ll say collectively, international community, don’t like to be so direct to just say it is Mr. or Ms. X that is responsible for the failure of this agreement or of the withholding of the latest tranche of the IMF assistance. But if we do that, if we’re able to say very directly the reason why Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, is not getting the next tranche of the IMF package of over a hundred million euros is because of Mr. or Ms. X, I think that can have an impact. But we need to be willing to do that.

And also, we need to be willing to say—you know, we’re talking about high-level meetings. Well, I think it’s sometimes disgraceful how high level—how political leaders in the Balkans, despite their bad behavior, are welcomed in many European capitals as if there’s nothing wrong about what they’re doing. There’s a connection. If people in capitals, if citizens in the country involved see their leaders are able to have the meetings with the highest levels in European capitals or in Washington, they draw conclusions. If their leaders are not welcome in certain places, and the reasons for that are made clear, I think that could have a motivating impact.

And just lastly to address David’s question and comment, I think first I’d want to say that I hope we won’t draw the conclusion that because we failed with the April package, with Butmir, with the Prud process, more recently with the Sejdic-Finci talks led by Stefan Fule, that it’s impossible. Unfortunately, some people, I think, have concluded that it’s just too hard to do constitutional reform. To say that, though, I think is to abdicate the responsibility that we have to address the root problems, which unfortunately are tied, in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the constitution, to the political system, so we have to keep trying.

And what I would say what we can do differently—and this is, I think, what your real question is—I think we need to learn from the mistakes that we’ve made in each of those—each of those had different mistakes, and sometimes it was the leaders involved—but add, I think, what we haven’t had in this mix before, this accountability, this holding the leaders accountable for solving the problems and not letting them off the hook when they—when they try to escape their responsibility.

STARES: OK. We are out of time. We’re beyond time. Thank you all for coming here today. I do want you to show your appreciation for both speakers, two excellent presentations. (Applause.)


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