The U.S. Atlantic Council’s new strategy for the Balkans called “Balkans Forward” sparked heated debates among Serbian people last week. The key provisions of the strategy require, among others, permanent military presence of U.S. in the Southeast Europe, “historical rapprochement” with Serbia and restoration of the United States’ reputation as a “true mediator” in the Balkan issue. This makes the Serbian people think about what, in fact, is behind these wordings. Most of all, the Serbs are concerned about the future of the NATO Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo as well as the Atlantic Council’s recommendation to increase the U.S. role in the talks of Belgrade and Pristina. Some political parties of Serbia even offered counter-measures i.e. upgrading the status of the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center and inviting Russia to the talks if U.S. joins the talks between the Serbian government and Kosovo separatists.
Talking to EADaily, Russian and Serbian experts have shared their views of the Atlantic Council’s strategy, a possible change in the format of the talks and military presence of third countries in the territory of Serbia.
Nikita Bondarev, PhD in History, Assistant Professor at International Relations Department, Russian State Humanitarian University, says the plans with Camp Bondsteel are the only concrete proposal by the Atlantic Council, as all the others are mostly of theoretical nature. “Bondsteel base has run out its course. It is necessary to revise its status and functions. It is quite fair and right, since it is not even a base of NATO. It is a base of the American peacekeeping contingent in Kosovo, though it is in fact used as a NATO base, as a jumping-off ground for NATO bomber aircrafts operating in the Middle East,” Bondarev told EADaily.
He said U.S. needs to change the status of Camp Bondsteel to meet its functions. “On the other hand, it is hard to explain to the U.S. taxpayers why they need a peacekeeping base in Kosovo, as there is formally no conflict in Kosovo that requires peacekeeping activities,” the Russian historian says. In Kosovo, Albanians have created a strict power vertical that controls everything. Kosovan Serbs have been fully integrated into that system, Serbian parliamentarians are elected to the local “parliament,” Bondarev recalled.
“In fact, we know that all the conflicts and discrepancies between Serbs and Albanians are still there and have gone deeper and are not that obvious any longer. Therefore, it is necessary to do something with that base,” Bondarev said.
The expert believes that the humanitarian base of the Emergency Situations Ministry in Nis is “an eyesore” to U.S., which becomes evident from the Atlantic Council’s strategy and the recent statements by American government officials in Belgrade. “They specified that our rescue staff must not be granted a diplomatic status, since it will be an unfriendly gesture towards U.S. Meantime, the base has been there for a long time already and everyone knows what our rescue officers do there. It is not a ‘den of spies’ or ‘Moscow’s hand.’ It is really emergency assistance to the local population during floods, fires, landslides. Our rescuers are widely recognized as such,” Nikita Bondarev said.
“In an effort to understand Russia’s popularity in the Balkans and the Serb’s devotion to Russia, Washington has realized, among others, that our emergency base has been helping the locals for many years. Perhaps, U.S. has decided to use Camp Bondsteel for the same purposes, which is a good idea,” Bondarev said.
The Atlantic Council's strategy fairly exposes the failure of the Brussels format of talks between Belgrade and Pristina. “It is high time to restructure it,” he said. The historian is sure that joining the talks, the U.S. will press Serbia even more than it does now. “To ensure justice and balance in the negotiation process, it is necessary to involve Russia into it,” he said. Bondarev is sure that it would be a right step by Moscow to involve into the talks, but the initiative should come from Serbia.
Stevan Gajić, Ph.D. in Political Science, researcher at Belgrade-based Institute of European Studies sees two levels that should be differentiated in the theses of the Atlantic Council’s new strategy. First, it is evident that the Atlantic Council is in a hurry and that process started from the 16+1 Summit organized by China in Budapest, he said.
The summit prompted a kind of race in the Balkans and the winner’s prize in Serbia. “The Atlantic Council with its anti-Serb and anti-Russian policy is trying to butter up us somehow. In fact, what it offers to Serbs is a pig in a poke. They offer reconciliation on their own terms, which is not reconciliation, in fact. It would be a true reconciliation if NATO paid reparations to use and started eliminating the consequences of its activity – damage caused to economy, health of the citizens etc. What they offer now is not a real package of reconciliation, it is a pig in a poke,” Gajić told EADaily.
According to the Serbian political analyst, about a year ago, British diplomat Timothy Less published an article in Foreign Affairs magazine wherein he addressed Kosovo’s division. The author called it a fair deal if Serbia gets four Serbian municipalities in the north of Kosovo in exchange for Presevo and Bujanovac municipalities. Later, an authoritative pro-western diplomat Ivan Vojvoda offered his thesis of territorial exchange, quite unfavorable one for Serbia, Gajić said recalling that despite the Brussel talks, Serbia already controls both Presevo valley and north of Kosovo.
“One territory is part of Serbia and Serbian security forces control it. I am speaking about Presevo. As for the North of Kosovo, it is actually controlled by Serbia, since Albanians simply cannot exercise their power there at full. In case of such division that should allegedly be in our favor, we will lose again. Furthermore, agreeing on such an exchange Serbia would betray the Kosovan Serbs residing in the south of the Ibar River, in enclaves. Needless to say that we would lose the most valuable cultural sights, orthodox sanctuaries, three of which are under protection of UNESCO: Visoki Dečani, Gracanica and Pec Patriarchy. ‘Reconciliation’ mentioned in the American strategy coupled with permanent U.S. military presence in the Balkans is, in fact, a complete deception,” the Serbian expert said.
Explaining what is behind Washington’s actions, Gajić recalled that Obama’s Administration did not care for real reconciliation of Serbs and Albans. Neither Clinton’s Administration did. They did not care for the interests of Serbs, until recently. Due to China’s partial economic expansion into the Balkans and Russia’s political and maybe even military presence (Serbia received MiG fighter jets), U.S. seeks to butter up Belgrade somehow no matter how fresh are the memories of their bombing Serbia, Gajić said.
“Noteworthy that Presevo is directly on the way of the future high-speed railway built with participation of China and the Turkish Stream gas pipeline,” he said.
The Serbian expert made a note of another article in Vecernje novosti Serbian newspaper saying that representatives of the intelligence departments of the Balkan States, except Serbia, have gathered in Podgorica lately to discuss ways to boost reconnaissance against Serbia.
He recalled that on November 23, Prime Minister of Bulgaria Boyko Borisov travelled to Macedonia and the most “Bulgarian” city of that country – Strumica. Bishop Naum known for his pro-Bulgarian views, received the Bulgarian delegation. Soon after, the Macedonian Orthodox Church voiced an intention to recognize Bulgarian Orthodox Church as its mother church, the political analyst said.
“Macedonia is governed by Zoran Zaev, who acts contrary to the interests of Macedonian state. In fact, he protects the interests of Albanians and Bulgarians and does his best to disintegrate Macedonia, which would in turn prevent the Russian-Turkish gas pipeline and Chinese railway. Hoyt Brian Yee is appointed new Ambassador of U.S. to Macedonia, he is the person who openly said that Serbia should ‘stop sitting on two chairs,’ meaning the West and Russia. Fortunately, the Serbian people roiled on those words. As a result, Yee and the U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Kylie Scott had to apologize,” Gajić said.
“As for the military base, it would be ideal if there were no troops except Serbian ones in the territory of Serbia. However, considering that part of our territory is already occupied and that Serbia has almost no military allies, formally it keeps neutrality. At the same time, among all partners with equal rights, NATO enjoys “the most equal rights” and I think that it would be good to upgrade the status of the Center in Nis, first of all, for the security of Serbia. If we want to see a high-speed railway running through our territory, we need Russia’s ‘military umbrella,’ first. I think even symbolic military presence of Russia would mean that any action against us can be deemed as an attack on Russia. I think this is a very serious issue to think about,” Stevan Gajić said for conclusion.