Posted: 27/4/2017


WASHINGTON Both the United States and Europe need to engage more in the Balkans to prevent the simmering tensions there from boiling over into full conflict, U.S. Senator John McCain said.

McCain, who toured the Balkans earlier this month, told POLITICO in an interview that without western leadership, the region risked drifting back toward the bloody confrontations of the 1990s that left more than 100,000 dead and millions displaced.

“It’s when American leadership leaves that it creates vacuums and then bad things happen,” McCain, the senior Republican senator from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said. “It cries out for American and European leadership. Tensions are up.”

Though the Balkans have long been considered a powder keg, there’s a growing worry both within the region and beyond that it wouldn’t take much to ignite those tensions. Pressure points run through the region, from fears that Kosovo could seek to join a “greater Albania” to the possibility of a break-up of Bosnia.

McCain said that while Washington had yet to recognize those dangers, he had shared his concerns about the Balkans with Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser. He said they understood the risks and that he was confident Trump, despite his desire for the U.S. to play a less active role in foreign hotspots, would heed their advice.

“He listens to Mattis and McMaster,” McCain said. “He really trusts them.”

That said, McCain also noted that Trump’s mixed signals on NATO — calling it obsolete earlier this year, only to reverse that assessment more recently — have confounded allies across Europe, including in the Balkans.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty out there,” he said. “The first question that every one of these leaders asked me is what American policy and strategy would be. They’re more uncertain than skeptical. They just don’t know what to make of this.”

While the Europeans understood what was at stake in the Balkans, McCain said resolving the problems there requires “American leadership.”

Diplomats in the region say that the Dayton accords, which ended the war in Bosnia in 1995, are not sufficient to safeguard peace in the long term. With Russia quietly encouraging Bosnian Serbs to break away and trying to disrupt politics behind the scenes from Montenegro to Macedonia, the risk of ethnic confrontations is high across the region, officials say.

McCain said that Slovenian President Borut Pahor even warned him that Macedonia “might disappear.” The country has been mired in a political crisis for months, with its president refusing to appoint a prime minister who has formed a coalition with parties representing the ethnic Albanian minority. That dispute has also raised tensions with neighboring Albania.

Rare US visit

McCain’s visit to the region was a rare one in recent months by a senior American politician, a fact he said he was reminded of repeatedly during his trip. The tour took him from the Sarajevo bridge near where Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, sparking World War I, to the hunting lodge near Belgrade used by longtime Yugoslav communist leader Josip Broz Tito.

“One lesson from this visit — they want western attention,” McCain said. “There is nothing they would appreciate more than high-level visits.”

That attention, he said, should come in the form of increased commercial, cultural and diplomatic ties to keep countries such as Serbia from drifting deeper into Russia’s sphere.

It is particularly important to engage with Serbia, the largest country in the region and its political fulcrum, said McCain, who held extensive discussions with the country’s prime minister and soon-to-be president, Aleksandar Vučić.

“I think Vučić is trying to walk a very fine line between east and west,” McCain said. “He realizes that his population, particularly the young population, are western oriented. They don’t want to be like Russia. Yet at the same time, the orientation historically has been to Russia.”

During his visit, McCain observed a joint U.S.-Serbian special forces exercise, one of dozens of such collaborations the countries’ two militaries are engaged in every year. Unlike Serbia’s exercises with the Russian military, however, which are far fewer in number, the U.S. partnership gets almost no coverage in the Serbian media. The different treatment reflects Vučić’s concern about offending nationalists in Serbia, a key part of his base, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he has tried to maintain a rapport.

The recent coup attempt in Montenegro, which the government there blames on Russia, illustrates just how high the stakes have become. The plot is seen by analysts as a consequence of Montenegro’s decision to join NATO.

While Serbia has no plans to follow suit — NATO has been regarded with deep suspicion by Serbs ever since the 1999 bombing of the country by the alliance in the Kosovo war — Vučić has taken pains to stay in Putin’s good graces.

Though many Serbs support Vučić’s attempts to strike a balance between east and west, he has faced a recent backlash over what many consider his increasingly authoritarian style. Thousands have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest Vučić’s landslide election as president, alleging that the poll was rigged. So far, no evidence has emerged that the election was fraudulent, though outside observers have criticized Vučić’s influence over the country’s media and corruption in the government more generally.

McCain said such tensions were largely rooted in the region’s poor economic performance. Two decades after the Balkan wars, the area remains Europe’s poor house.

“He won the election … but there is a lot of unhappiness,” McCain said.