US deepens engagement on Europe’s southern flank

New Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs completes first visit to the region as State Department undergoes upheaval.


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Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell continued his weeklong trip through Southeastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean visiting Belgrade March 14, Athens March 15, and Nicosia March 16 after earlier stops in Pristina and Skopje. If there is a thematic focus to this trip it is clearly about making progress in dealing with the region’s frozen conflicts (Kosovo/Serbia status, FYROM/Macedonia-Greece Name Dispute), as well as general bilateral contacts with the new US administration. Most of the trip took place in the shadow of Rex Tillerson’s departure as Secretary of State, announced March 13.

In Belgrade, Mitchell met with Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and Foreign Minister/ First Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dacic on March 14. Prior to arriving, the State Department described Mitchell’s objectives in Serbia were “to reaffirm the strong relationship between Serbia and the United States and to urge the Serbian government to push forward to normalize relations with Kosovo, to make the reforms needed to attain its goal of European Union membership, and to actively support regional stability.”

The meetings apparently produced no agreement on the transformation of the Kosovo Security Force into a regular military. Serbia resolutely maintains there are no legal documents anywhere regarding the status of Kosovo which allow this. Vucic told a joint press conference that Serbia and the US do not agree on “the security forces in Kosovo” but do agree about “peace and dialogue in Brussels under the auspices of the EU.”

Belgrade also remains sceptical on Pristina’s willingness to allow the so-called “Association of Autonomous Serb Municipalities” to move from theory into practice. Washington’s perspectives were quite different as Mitchell declared that Kosovo, in fact, has the right to form its own professional forces which would deal with security. “Kosovo has the right to form its professional forces which would deal with security and which would also include Kosovo Serbs,” he said. Mitchell cautioned, however, that Kosovo would need to change its Constitution to create these forces.

For the Athens stop, the State Department noted in advance that Mitchell would “meet with senior Greek officials to discuss deepening U.S.-Greek strategic ties and strengthening bilateral cooperation, including in the areas of defence, energy, trade, and investment.”

In fact, this mix of issues made the Athens visit seem somewhat closer to an economic mission than what was seen in any other stop in the region so far, but neither the announced results nor the state of bilateral economic relations justifies such a top billing for those issues. Discussions in Athens with senior State Department visitors almost invariably focus on the hot regional issues of the day.

Mitchell met with Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias and Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, and surprisingly the Greek press has given the visit minimal attention, choosing to monitor more closely his March 16 Cyprus stop. An interesting coincidence is that Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of the leading Greek opposition party, New Democracy, which favoured to win the next general election by a sizeable margin, was visiting the US and in Washington, on the same dates Mitchell toured the region. Mitsotakis met with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, Treasury Under Secretary David Malpass, and other US officials and key members of Congress.

The official Cyprus visit program was previewed by the State Department as “in Nicosia on March 16, Mitchell will meet with senior Republic of Cyprus officials to discuss bilateral and regional issues, including the development of energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. He will also meet with Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders, as well as with representatives of the United Nations.”

It comes as no surprise that while in Nicosia, Mitchell reiterated already-strong US support for the right of the Republic of Cyprus to exploit its energy resources, despite continuing threats from neighbouring Turkey as exploration activities continue (and those activities will involve US energy giant Exxon Mobil) in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone. In Nicosia, Mitchell met with President Nicos Anastasiades, Foreign Minister Nicos Christodoulides. Energy Minister Giorgos Lakkotrypis and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci.

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