The United States has extraordinary influence in countries of the Western Balkans (Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo). Engagement enhances stability, as well as economic and democratic development. Engagement also advances US security goals, acting as a bulwark against Islamists seeking to radicalize Muslims and recruit them to join ISIS.
Macedonia, with its ethnic and religious diversity, is especially volatile.
Violence erupted on April 27, after nearly two years of domestic political crisis. Ultranationalists with Macedonia’s governing party, VMRO, attacked the parliament blooding Zoran Zaev, the leading opposition figure and Ziadin Sela, an ethnic Albanian politician. The incident risked a spiral of deadly violence potentially engulfing the country and precipitating its fragmentation.
Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, tried to mediate during the crisis. But, when push came to shove, US diplomacy was critical.
The Trump administration has not yet named senior officials for European affairs at the State Department. Yet US ambassador to Macedonia, Jess Baily, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Hoyt Yee, did yeoman’s work, forging an agreement between Macedonian politicians on a peaceful transition of power. Baily and Yee deserve commendations for distinguished service.
Something similar happened in Albania. The Democratic Party (DP) threatened to boycott elections on June 18, citing corruption and drug dealing by the current government. US diplomacy helped broker a pledge by the DP to participate in elections in exchange for a post-election power-sharing arrangement between the DP and the ruling Socialist Party. A boycott would have been disastrous for Albania, entrenching political dysfunction and a zero-sum game approach to governance.
Kosovo is also at a critical fork in the road. Three major blocks are contesting for seats in national elections on June 11. It is highly unlikely that any one block will win enough seats in parliament to form a government.
US engagement will be vital to help Kosovars come together and form a coalition government. Despite the rise of Islamism in Kosovo, no nation is more pro-American. The US led NATO’s intervention in 1999, preventing genocide. It spearheaded international recognition of Kosovo’s independence in 2008. Washington’s influence is unparalleled.
The Trump administration must not ignore the region, letting developments run their course. Stable, transparent, and democratic government is essential for Kosovo to gain greater global recognition.
The Obama administration neglected the Western Balkans. Disengagement created a gap filled by nefarious forces ― Serbia’s meddling, Russia’s militarism, and Turkey’s Islamism. Hundreds of Kosovars went to Syria and fought with ISIS. Macedonian Muslims were recruited by the Islamic State. Islamism in Albania became a problem.
The US needs a coherent strategy for the Western Balkans, aimed at promoting moderation and undermining the appeal of radical Islam. The strategy should be based on strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law. Accountability mechanisms are needed to crack down on criminality, corruption, and cronyism.
Countries in the Western Balkan aspire to greater integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions. To this end, the Trump administration needs to work with European allies accelerating Macedonia’s NATO membership, EU visa liberalization for Kosovars, and strengthening security cooperation with Albania.
The recent NATO Summit and G-7 meetings did not inspire confidence. The Trump administration apparently does not place much stock in trans-Atlantic cooperation. In the Balkans, however, integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions is critical for reform and stability.
American diplomats did a remarkable job narrowly averting disaster in Macedonia and Albania. But smoke and mirrors only go so far.
The Trump administration needs a policy towards the Western Balkans. Washington must confront adversaries, develop an alternative narrative nullifying the appeal of ISIS, and support pro-Western governments in Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo. Of course, no policy works without the personnel to manage it.
Countries in the Western Balkans want US engagement. If Washington neglects them, radicalization will result. Violence and fragmentation may occur.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Policy Expert to the State Department during the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. He is author of Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and US Intervention.