The election of Barack Obama will not bring any change to the Balkans
The problems of the Balkans are no longer a preoccupation for the rest of the world, and have not been so for years.
At the morning briefing given to the president of the United States, it is rare for the Balkans to be mentioned. Since Kosovo announced its independence in February 2008, a moment that spelt out the last word on the long negotiations that followed the bombing in the former Serbian province, the US has seen its task in the region as accomplished. And rightfully so.
In the past 12 years, the US has invested more political, financial and military resources in the Balkans than the European Union has – and it is the EU that actually has the Balkans on its periphery. Further, and fortunately, the region has stopped producing conflicts and instability.
When, on January 20 2009 Barack Obama enters the White House as president, what will change for the Balkans?
As expected, leaders of the countries in the region officially welcomed the election of the new US president. The most enthusiastic welcome came from Kosovo president Fatmir Sejdiu, who called Obama “the most important person in the world”, adding that “Albanians and the whole world had a sleepless night while waiting for the outcome of the election”. Probably this was true: the Albanians (in Kosovo, in Albania and in Macedonia) continue to be the most pro-American minded population in the Balkans – as well as among Muslims worldwide. They hope that the policy of US leadership that ensured not only the independence of Kosovo, but also an invitation to NATO membership for Albania, will continue.
In Serbia, which found no allies in the Bush administration on the Kosovo issue, politicians hope that the new president will contribute to improving relations between Belgrade and Washington. But expecting dramatic changes in relations is hardly feasible. Among Balkan experts in the US (regardless of their party affiliation) there is a consensus that the Kosovo case is closed and the way of Serbia to the EU goes through cooperation with the Hague tribunal. Vice president-elect Joe Biden is among the most experienced – and the most consistent voices in this group.
In Skopje, Macedonians — who suspect pro-Greek influence in Obama’s headquarters — his victory is not what they would have preferred. In August 2007, Obama, a member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, signed a non-binding resolution calling on Macedonia to take a more constructive approach in its negotiations with Athens on the name dispute. The resolution gives clear priority to Greece in the dispute, which led to Obama being seen as “hostile” by the Macedonian public. But it can hardly be imagined that the US president-elect has gone deep into the details of the Greek-Macedonian saga.
For fragile Bosnia, which increasingly is becoming a country consisting of three homogeneous ethnicities independent from each other, the choice of John McCain, someone more steeped in the Balkans, may have seemed more acceptable. McCain, initially a firm opponent of war in Bosnia, became in 1996 a key co-sponsor of a resolution in support of the US peacekeeping mission. Today, however, Bosnia can sincerely welcome Obama because he has the chance to make Europe give more serious priority to the survival of the Bosnian Federation.
The Balkans and Europe will soon realize that, unlike John McCain, the new occupant of the White House will not be a “European” president. He does not relate to the Cold War, in which Europe played a key role; he has not been active in foreign policy making in the 1990s, when Eastern Europe was at the center of the debate on the new world order. Indeed,the 1990s to a large extent moulded Obama’s foreign policy advisers – when the Clinton administration sought solutions to ethnic conflicts in former Yugoslavia. But both Obama and his team understand that the world has changed radically.
The American president-elect (in whose election platform the Balkans were not mentioned at all) will not go for ‘great powers diplomacy’. Instead, he will want to manage global processes that transcend the boundaries of nation states. He indicated that he would be interested in problems that start at grass-roots level: in the villages in Indonesia where people have no choice but to sell at the market their avian flu-infected chickens, in the religious schools in Pakistan that plant hatred in the heads of their pupils, in drug-trafficking in Latin America. Unlike his predecessor, Obama has no ambition to spread democracy in the world, but does want to achieve specific goals. He will not attempt to turn Afghanistan into a model for democratic government, but will want to stop terrorists who come from there.
The big chessboard on which the Balkans gained political importance during the past 20 years, has disappeared. America will expect Europe to deal with problems on its periphery, integrating this periphery, and playing a mature role in the new world. Obama’s priorities will be combating the spread of nuclear weapons and terrorism, climate change and oil dependency. In election ’08, the US demonstrated its understanding that there is a new environment in which American hegemony will not be possible. And that Washington cannot be held responsible for everything. It is now time for the Balkans to realize the same.
Further, for those Balkan nations united by their hatred of politicians and distrust in politics, there is one more conclusion from the US elections. Americans have shown that even in times of deep financial crisis, democracy can produce radical change – if citizens would only wish for it. The result of this change will depend, of course, on the quality of the leadership.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.