Friday, May 25, 2007

My Balkan Odyssey: Part I--Mixed Messages

I am currently in Belgrade, Serbia, and then will be heading up to the hamlet of Palic to take part in the 2007 seminar of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, which this year deals with the questions of stability, security and regional cooperation among the countries of the Balkans.

I have had a chance to meet with a number of people--officials, experts, members of the media--and wanted to give readers of TWR some initial impressions. (My conversation with Vuk Jeremic, the foreign minister of Serbia, should also be available shortly at National Interest online). Let me stress that the following are a distillation of attitudes, opinions and comments expressed to me.

As one might expect, there is frustration at the perceived inability of the United States to listen or take Serbian concerns seriously. It is often combined with a fear that the United States does not see things through--and that no matter how the Kosovo matter is resolved, there is going to be a need for continued engagement and involvement--but many here feel Washington is preparing to "cut and run" from the region under a "mission accomplished" banner.

There is also bewilderment at the messages received from the United States but particularly its media and "expert-analytic" community. Many are puzzled why there is this continuous attempt to depict Serbia as being in Russia's camp or somehow working hand in glove with the Kremlin. For one thing, even a cursory perusal of the data shows that Serbia's destiny lies with the West. The top countries generating foreign investment in Serbia over the last several years have been, in order of total investments made, Holland, Austria, Germany, Greece, Slovenia and Great Britain. Even U.S. investors have, in toto, a larger stake in the Serbian economy than the Russians. For the most part, Serbs seem to see their future as lying in completing the processes undergone by other neigbhors--membership in both NATO and the European Union.

This doesn't mean that one does not find signs of Russophilia and that there are no ties at all between Belgrade and Moscow. Support on the Kosovo issue is also appreciated. And I doubt that Serbia would ever openly endorse some of the positions taken by, say Poland. But Serbia clearly prefers to be the "east of the West". And, at any rate, existing NATO allies (and EU members) like Greece or Hungary have much closer ties to Russia than Serbia does (not to mention major states like Italy or Germany). Some here have wondered to me whether this constant emergence of "Serbia's Russophilia" in the U.S. conversations about the region reflects ignorance, sloppy analysis, or is being used as a way to make support for independence for Kosovo seem to be a U.S. national security priority, to gain an "ally" and to weaken an "adversary." And this does raise a question, for the U.S. side, about how it sees Serbia. My colleague John Hulsman has observed that Serbia remains the "central country" of the Western Balkans, the keystone state. But does Washington really believe that? The countries of the region paid a high price in order to isolate Serbia in the 1990s; and that doesn't seem to be a realistic option for the future.

The real reason for the "Russia-Serbia" connection that US analysts make is that they are a proxy for the USSR we can beat up on, since the USSR managed to not give us an excuse for directly attacking them.
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