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Vučić@Pence

Daniel Serwer

July 18, 2017

 

 

I am getting inquiries about Serbian President Vučić’s meeting yesterday with Vice President Pence. The White House readout is short but includes some detail:

Vice President Mike Pence met today with President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić. The leaders agreed on the importance of the bilateral relationship and expressed the desire to deepen the partnership between the United States and Serbia. The Vice President expressed U.S. support for Serbia’s efforts to join the European Union, the need for continued reforms, and further progress in normalizing the relationship with Kosovo. The leaders discussed the Vice President’s upcoming trip to Podgorica, Montenegro, where he will participate in an Adriatic Charter Summit with leaders from across the Western Balkans region. The Vice President also announced that the United States will provide an additional $10 million contribution to the Regional Housing  Program, an internationally funded, joint initiative by Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro that provides housing to those displaced during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Vučić has emphasized establishment of a direct channel with the Vice President.

None of this is particularly new or interesting. It is easy enough for the US to support Serbia’s EU prospects, the necessary reforms, and the dialogue with Pristina. A “direct channel” can mean many things: Washington has direct telecommunications links (that bypass the State Department and Foreign Ministries) with a number of countries, but it could also just mean a commitment to answer the phone.

Likely more interesting is what Belgrade and Washington haven’t yet said. There is the specific issue of the three Kosovar American Bytyqi brothers, apparently murdered by Serb police after the war in Kosovo. Vučić long ago promised prosecutions of those responsible but hasn’t delivered. Did Pence raise this case? There is also the general issue of Belgrade’s relationship with Moscow, which has included establishment of a Russian logistics base in Nis, exercises with the Russian military, free Russian arms transfers, and refusal of Serbia to go along with EU sanctions levied because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While President Trump himself is soft on Russia, for many Americans Serbia’s behavior towards Moscow raises questions about its suitability as a US partner.

The most important aspect of this meeting is likely that it occurred at all. No doubt Vučić sought it now primarily because Pence is heading for Montenegro in early August for a multilateral meeting at which Serbia will only be an observer. No Serbian president would want to be upstaged, least of all by Belgrade’s erstwhile junior partner. The Americans likely saw reason in making it clear they want a good relationship with Serbia as well.

But it is also significant that the meeting was with Pence. The Trump Administration apparently wants to continue Obama’s habit of keeping the Vice President out front on Balkans issues, leaving the President to more important tasks. Plus ça change

PS: Whether or not the White House is interested in the Russia connection, the House of Representatives is. It is requiring the Pentagon to report on Russia/Serbia military cooperation.

 

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