A good hearing, if the Administration were listening

By Daniel Serwer

From the original: https://www.peacefare.net/2023/07/19/a-good-hearing-if-the-administration-were-listening/

The House Foreign Affairs Committee raised the alarm in a hearing yesterday about the situation in the Balkans. Member after member cited concerns. They worried about escalating ethnic tensions and instability, Russian malfeasance, Chinese inroads, failure of Serbia and Kosovo to implement agreements, failure to implement court decisions and secessionist moves in Bosnia and Herzegovina, endemic corruption, and flagging economies. They might also have cited substantial migrant outflows from the region.

There was a single witness: Gabe Escobar, Deputy Assistant Secretary. Despite the availability of many credible people who hold contrasting views, the Congress has unfortunately chosen in this and the previous recent Senate hearing on the Balkans to hear only from the Administration. Congressman Issa (R-CA) was at pains to lament this.

Say it fast and confidently

Gabe quickly cited EU accession as the US objective, without noting the diminished credibility of that prospect and unlikelihood that would happen any time in the foreseeable future. He averred that the “breakthrough” normalization (Ohrid) agreement reached in February and the annex added in March are critical. But he failed to note that Serbia refused to sign both and quickly violated them.

He insisted on the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities (ASMM) to coordinate culture, education, and public services as the keystone. But he failed to explain why the US has not insisted on the quid pro quo also agreed in 2013. That was the extension of the Kosovo constitution to the Serb majority municipalities of the north. Belgrade has repeatedly blocked that in many different ways.

Gabe noted the supposed agreement of Kosovo and Serbia to recognize each other’s documents and national symbols. But he neglected to note that this is a problem principally in Serbia. He repeated the canard that Serbia would no longer lobby against Kosovo’s international integration. Serbian President Vucic has pledged not to fulfill that provision. Belgrade failed to observe it at the Council of Europe days after signing the agreement.

In Bosnia, Gabe cited Milorad Dodik’s anti-Dayton activities. But he was at a loss to explain how the US would get Europe to join in the sanctions against him. He cited excessive reliance in the region on Russian energy. However, he failed to note that Serbia is the prime culprit in that respect.

The questioning was good

Chair Kean (R-NJ) wanted to know whether the US will bring strong pressure to bear on President Vucic if Kosovo Prime Minister proceeds with the ASMM. Gabe said a quick and confident “absolutely” and went on to claim that the agreement requires Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This it clearly does not do. He added that Serbia has agreed to remove the protesters and participate in new elections for mayors in northern Kosovo.

I suppose that might be true in diplomatic channels, but where is the evidence in public? Would you believe it just a few months after elections held because Belgrade agreed the Serbs would participate but that they then boycotted? Gabe went on to say that those demonstrators who attacked journalists Kosovo police and NATO should be punished. Where is the public US demand that Belgrade, which ordered the rioting, turn them over to the Kosovo justice system?

Ranking Member Keating (D-MA) focused on China. Gabe rightly emphasized Beijing’s political conditions but placed his hope entirely in the EU to institute (some day) contracting procedures that would counter Beijing and keep projects open to US competitors.


Representative Wagner (R-MO) underlined her bipartisan “Upholding the Dayton Peace Agreements Through Sanctions” Act. Gabe pledged to support it and to prevent financing from reaching those who are trying to dismantle Bosnia (in addition to support for EUFOR and the HiRep). That sounded serious. Maybe State has finally realized that staying silent on Dodik is not a winning strategy. The Congressman made it clear she wanted Hungary bent into allowing EU sanctions on Dodik.

Congressman Titus (D-NV) focused on Russian disinformation and the free press. Gabe skipped the opportunity to focus criticism on Serbia, which has seen a long decline in press freedom and a dramatic rise of Russian disinformation.

Congressman Huizenga (R-MI) asked about Serbia buying Chinese and Russian arms. Gabe claimed Serbia had curtailed its purchases from Russia “significantly” in response to the threat of sanctions but has increased procurement from China (which is not covered by the “CAATSA” sanctions in question). Huizenga also asked about the five EU nonrecognizers. Gabe took the opportunity to claim vaguely that action on the ASMM would be helpful.

Congressman Self (R-TX) focused on President Vucic’s incitement of the election boycott and import of heavy weapons from Russia. Why don’t we have sanctions on Serbia now? Gabe squirmed out by claiming that he didn’t control CAATSA sanctions and that other sanctions had been used in the Balkans, neglecting to mention they have not been used against Serbia. Self made it clear he regards Serbia as a Russian proxy in the Balkans.

Congressman Moran (R-TX) asked about Montenegro. Sadly, Gabe was unaware of the newly contracted coastal road there that the Chinese will build and mistakenly thought it was the already built north/south highway. He also took the opportunity to emphasize that Montenegro’s new government will make Podgorica a fast-achieving candidate for EU membership and that its new president as “pro-American.” I don’t yet see any guarantee of those two propositions.

A well-briefed committee, but the Administration isn’t listening

Well-briefed, the members of Congress asked good questions. The Administration responses were less convincing. They consistently avoided any serious criticism of Serbia and continued to hold Kosovo principally, if not exclusively, responsible for the current train wreck. There was no sign that Gabe was listening to the repeated indications that a tougher approach with Serbia is needed.

Two notable omissions. Gabe did not mention Open Balkans, a Belgrade initiative that appears to have died a merited death. But bad ideas never die in the Balkans. They return like zombies to haunt the region. Just wait a few years, or maybe months. It will be back, along with partition.

Unless I missed it, Gabe also failed to mention the recently sanctioned Serbian Director of the Security Intelligence Agency. No one asked what we are going to do about Aleksandar Vulin. That was an unfortunate omission.