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Balkan test for President Trump

The Western Balkans have become a strategic test for the Donald Trump administration in maintaining peace and progress in a still unsettled region while preventing a hostile Russian takeover. Although it is too early to determine the precise Balkan policy of the new administration, its contours are beginning to emerge and appear to revolve around speeding up the process of international integration.


Janusz Bugajski

23 February 2017



Observers and politicians in the region speculated that Trump may be more amenable to Serbia’s position or more willing to make deals with Moscow in which Kosova’s independence or Bosnia-Herzegovina’s integrity could be sacrificed. Some European analysts even believed that Trump would withdraw militarily and politically and declare the region a “European issue" that the EU alone needed to handle.

Alarm bells were also set off in the region when U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher issued controversial statements in support of redrawing borders in the Western Balkans. Some regional leaders assumed that Rohrabacher, as a vocal Trump supporter, could seriously influence White House policy. Rohrabacher claimed that in order to stabilize the region Serbia and Kosova should exchange territories and populations, and such a deal would lead to mutual recognition. He also asserted that Macedonia had to be divided between Kosova and Bulgaria because it is not a “proper state.”

Rohrabacher’s proposals are unlikely to be taken seriously in the new administration as they would precipitate new conflicts and leave the US in the middle of a violent escalation. Any attempted exchange of territories could lead to numerous territorial demands and armed conflicts not only in Macedonia, Kosova and Serbia but also in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro and potentially drag several NATO members, including Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, and Turkey, into a regional war.

Contrary to initial high hopes in Belgrade and Moscow when Trump was elected, the objectives of the new administration may be far from beneficial for either Serbia or Russia. Indeed, there are early indications that the exact opposite may be the case. U.S. Balkan policy has also become intertwined with the Trump-Putin saga in which the new U.S. President cannot be seen to be making unilateral concessions to the Kremlin.

Moscow’s position in the region has been severely damaged by new evidence from British and U.S. intelligence sources that Kremlin officials in collusion with Serbian nationalists attempted to violently overthrow the pro-American government in Montenegro last October to prevent the country from joining NATO. The Montenegrin coup attempt has poignantly demonstrated that the United States and Russia have diametrically opposed objectives in the region. Statements by Vice President Mike Pence during his visit to Brussels and Munich reaffirming U.S. commitments to NATO have served to reassure all pro-Western governments that they will not be abandoned to Moscow’s designs.

In one indication that the Kremlin position in the Balkans will be disregarded, even the recently replaced National Security Advisor Michael Flynn recommended that Trump support Montenegro’s membership in NATO to smooth the ratification process in the US Senate. Montenegro is now on track to become the Alliance’s 29th member this spring.

In their post-U.S. election calculations, Serbian officials also seemed certain that the Trump administration would be less committed to Kosova’s independence or membership in international organizations. In reality, the opposite may be true. As a self-declared deal-maker, Trump may seek to speed up the process of Kosova’s statehood and international integration in order to hasten the removal of American troops, numbering just under 800 soldiers.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis explicitly backed such an approach during his Senate confirmation hearings. Mattis indicated that Washington may support a more rapid creation of a regular Kosova army that can take on all security functions including the defense of Kosova’s borders. This has not been well received in either Belgrade or Moscow and both capitals are anxiously waiting to see what position the new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will adopt. Some observers are now speculating that Washington may soon demand that Serbia recognize Kosova so the mission in Kosova can be completed.

Another contentious question where Belgrade expected to be favored by the new White House was over the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Officials in Banja Luka, the capital of the Serb entity in Bosnia, and nationalist politicians in Belgrade reportedly convinced themselves that the Trump White House would be more favorably disposed toward Republika Srpska (RS) and less accommodating to Muslim populations in the Balkans, including the Bosniaks.

RS President Milorad Dodik made a major point in being invited to side events at the Trump inauguration on January 20th, in an effort to signal that his presence indicated a significant change brewing in U.S. policy toward his quasi-state. In reality, Trump’s national security team are becoming well versed in the aspirations of various political players in the region and are unlikely to experiment with state division, partition, or territorial exchanges.

Moreover, they will increasingly view with distrust any policies that Moscow supports in the region, as Putin’s aim is to subvert, weaken, and divide the West and to prevent Balkan inclusion in the trans-Atlantic security sphere. Indeed, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov clearly stated at the Munich Security Conference that his government is seeking a “post-West world order.” Instead of enabling Russia’s ambitions to dismantle the West, President Trump and his security team now have an opportunity to strengthen the West.



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