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Kosovo: A Country That Doesn’t Exist? Really, Belgrade?

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has been a steadfast advocate for constructiveness in the West Balkans.

August 17, 2016

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has been a steadfast advocate for constructiveness in the West Balkans.

The last official foreign visits of the leaders of an outgoing administration are usually reserved for seeing old friends. One may be permitted a little glass in the sun-shine as a reward for all the hard grind of trying to coax allies and less-than-friends into seeing things from your government’s point of view.

A longstanding problem

To his great credit, the outgoing U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, usually a very chummy fellow, has made a different choice. He decided to travel this week to what is still Europe’s great unfinished business – the West Balkans.

That “business” is unfinished for a variety of reasons. For centuries, the Balkans have been used by various imperial powers – whether the Ottomans, Russians, Austro-Hungarians, Germans, as well as the British and French – as a turf to project their power.

After having battled and suitably exhausted one another over the centuries, these powers, after the last big global conflagration, after 1945 left behind an artificial construct – Yugoslavia.

That construct suitably collapsed the moment Communism ended and a wily Croat wheeler-dealer, Tito, was replaced by the ultra-nationalist Serb, Slobodan Milosevic.

Milosevic was a Serb supremacist and in less than a decade, six nations (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro) managed to remove themselves from rule by Belgrade. Two of them – Slovenia and Croatia – have made it into the EU. The others, along with neighboring Albania, are still waiting.

Biden has led the way

The midwife of this “springtime” of Balkan nations was the United States. Long before he became Vice President, Joe Biden – during his long tenure as a key U.S. Senator and pivotal voice in U.S. foreign policy – stood firm in condemning the Milosevic doctrine of Serb supremacy.

As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was adamant that Serb ultra-nationalism should not prevail.

Given the general disregard, if not disdain, that is practiced in the Western debate concerning the Balkans, it was a long battle against long odds.

What ultimately changed Western public opinion was the brutal, medieval-style siege of Sarajevo. It was followed by the Serb massacre at Srebrenica in 1995 and then the ethnic cleansing of 850,000 Kosovans four years later.

Rather than to risk falling into the brutal hands of Serb genocidalists, they fled for the hills or over borders, arriving as far away as Ireland and Finland as each EU member state took a quota.

A longtime personal commitment

To his everlasting credit, Joe Biden back then was already the de facto global spokesperson for supporting the cause of freedom from Serb rule in the West Balkans.

He did so even at a time when the political and judicial structures to structure the new nations were pitifully ill-equipped for the task.

He got first hand reports from his son, Beau Biden. A Delaware lawyer like his father, he served in the U.S. National Guard and spent a year in Kosovo in 2001 training lawyers and judges (and later served in Iraq).

Biden Jr. came home to rise in state politics, with every chance of turning it into a national political career when he suddenly died, aged only 46, from brain cancer in 2015.

That came as a big shock to the sitting Vice President, who as a young U.S. Senator at age 30 had lost his first wife in a car accident.

Honoring Beau Biden

In Kosovo, Mr. Biden will unveil a stretch of a highway named after his son. He will also meet Kosovo’s leader, President Hashim Thaci. Thaci has just returned from Rio, where he saw Kosovan olympian Majilinda Kolmendi win a gold medal in judo.

It should be a good moment for Kosovo. After all, not many tiny nations get to celebrate Olympic glory. As if to spoil that moment of national happiness, the prime minister of Serbia, Alksander Vucic, apparently had other plans.

He stood up in the Belgrade Parliament and referred to Kosovo as a “southern Serbian province.”

Earlier this year, the equally uneducable president of Serbia, Tomislave Nikolic, had refused to join all other Balkan leaders at Thaci’s inauguration as president by stating that Kosovo “did not exist as an independent state.”

Biden travels to Serbia after visiting Kosovo. He will thus encounter once again the surreal nature of Balkan politics. It is the rare world region in which countries pretend that their neighbors do not exist.

Maybe a Samuel Beckett or a Franz Kafka could do justice to the self-belief in Belgrade that Kosovo doesn’t exist.

This becomes especially clear when one talks to any intelligent Serb. They quickly shrug their shoulders and say: Of course, Kosovo is gone and won’t come back into any Republic of Serbia.

The mental blockage is just within the political class, and it is not without steep cost. As a result of its revanchist inclinations, Serbia has effectively cut off its nose to spite its face.

The European Union is not going to consider Serbia joining the EU like Slovenia or Croatia until it first recognizes Kosovo and normalizes relations with its new neighbor.

Knocking sense into the uneducable?

Can Biden knock any sense into his Serbs hosts? Unlikely. Putin is now Belgrade’s No. 1 friend. The Kremlin is engaged if for no other reason than to see the European Union unable to sort out such a relatively small foreign policy issue.

What also matters to Putin, who knows that – in the ebb and flow of democratically elected Western governments – time is always in his side, is that he is able to keep the United States from declaring that it has finally solved the Balkan conundrum.

In that sense, for Putin to outlast Joe Biden – who has given the region two decades’ worth of attention — is more important than helping to create stability in the broader Balkan region.

Serbia: Forever spiteful?

So far, Serbia has not managed to win a single Rio medal. The sight of the tiny Kosovan team boasting a gold medal is no doubt galling to Belgrade.

Biden’s visit is also a reminder that the West Balkans is Europe’s unfinished business. If the EU cannot sort out one of its own “backyard” issues, how can it claim to be a serious geopolitical player?

Even worse, as Joe Biden retires from high political office, are there any U.S. politicians around ready to invest time and commitment in helping the West Balkans?


Europe’s great unfinished business is the West Balkans.

Joe Biden as a US Senator was adamant that Serb ultra-nationalism should not prevail.

The surreal nature of Balkan politics is that countries there pretend that their neighbors do not exist.

Maybe a Beckett or a Kafka could do justice to the self-belief in Belgrade that Kosovo doesn’t exist.

The EU is not going to let Serbia join until Serbia first recognizes Kosovo and normalizes relations.

For Putin, to outlast Joe Biden is more important than helping create stability in the Balkan region.