Stiffening Europe’s southern flank: Washington moves to reassert itself in the Western Balkans

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Stiffening Europe’s southern flank: Washington moves to reassert itself in the Western Balkans


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After a period of relative diplomatic quiescence, a senior policy-level official from the Trump Administration began a weeklong trip through Southeast Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean region on March 12.

Life is a matter of timing, and it appears that he did not know in advance that there would be a major shake-up at the State Department just a day after he left Washington with Rex Tillerson’s departure announced early on March 13.

Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Wess Mitchell, in place since October 2017, started a weeklong regional swing that will take him to Pristina, Skopje, Belgrade, Athens, and Nicosia.

Mitchell had previously visited Ankara with now-former Secretary of State Tillerson in February, where he met with a number of US ambassadors from across the SE European region at a regional ambassadors’ conference. Even before Tillerson’s departure, US policy in the Western Balkans, at least to outside observers, had been something of an enigma as Mitchell assembled his new team in the State Department’s European Bureau, requiring the departure of some senior career diplomats in place long before Mitchell arrived.

But revolving doors are nothing new at the State Department these days, and US’ diplomatic interlocutors are adjusting quickly.

The State Department described Mitchell’s Kosovo visit as intended “to reaffirm the close ties between Kosovo and the US, to encourage normalised relations with Serbia, strengthen the rule of law, foster economic growth, and to overcome regional challenges in favour of stability and Western integration.”

Under the best of circumstances, that’s a tall order. In Pristina, Mitchell met with President Hashim Thaci and Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj. Discussions focused on the normalisation of relations with Serbia, the potential transformation of the Kosovo Security Force into a full army, resolving the lingering border demarcation question with NATO-member Montenegro, and combating Russian influence in the region. Media sources in Belgrade speculated some days ago that Mitchell would relay a “four-point plan for Kosovo,” reportedly covering administrative independence for Serbian-majority municipalities, but that has not surfaced as of now.

Mitchell visited Macedonia/FYROM on March 13, where he met with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov. Going into to Skopje, the State Department had declared US objectives: “Mitchell will reaffirm the US’ support for Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, offer support for Macedonia’s on-going negotiations with Greece, and urge the Macedonian government to implement reforms to enhance democratic governance, the rule of law, and a free media.”

Again, as in Pristina, this was an extremely ambitious set of objectives for a one day stop, but in line with the US strategic objective of ending the “frozen conflicts” in the region. Without a doubt, all attention was focused on Mitchell’s remarks involving the Greece-Macedonia FYROM Name Dispute.

In comments that will surely raise eyebrows in Athens, Prime Minister Zaev told a joint press conference “we have informed Mitchell that we will begin the final phase of talks about Macedonia’s name, which will be completed in a dignified manner. We remain on the road to building mutual trust with Greece. We showed a clear readiness for a real dialogue. I confirm our enthusiasm and commitment.”

The response from Mitchell was informative, especially since it lacked a reference to UN Mediator Matthew Nimetz by name: “So you will see the US strongly committed throughout this process, you’ll see myself and the administration committed to helping both sides. At the same time, we acknowledge that the only solution that’s going to last is the one that the two parties are going to work out between themselves.”

Mitchell now heads to Belgrade then onwards to Athens and Nicosia. Another day, another frozen conflict.

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