Fantasy diplomacy is failing to appease

By Daniel Serwer

Chris Hill, the American Ambassador to Serbia, tweeted Friday: “I’ve dedicated my life to diplomacy – to finding diplomatic solutions to seemingly intractable problems. In the course of my career, I’ve learned that sometimes diplomacy fails.  When it does, the results can be tragic. (1/4)

I offer my personal condolences to the families of those who lost their lives during the wars of the 1990s, including as a result of the NATO air campaign. I know that the Serbian people will never forget that terrible time, nor should they. (2/4)

The Serbian people will never set aside their grief, but I believe they are strong enough to set aside their grievances. The United States’ dedication to our partnership with Serbia is unwavering, as is our commitment to diplomacy. (3/4)

Together, we can build the better future the Serbian people deserve and want for future generations. (4/4)”

He had previously tweeted:

The most important outcome from the Ohrid talks: Serbia has embraced its European future and a clear plan for how to get there—a decision that took wisdom, integrity, and courage. Much work remains, and the United States will be with you every step of the way.

If this last were true, his tweets Friday would have been unnecessary.

Fantasy diplomacy

This is fantasy diplomacy. There is no evidence in the Ohrid talks or elsewhere that Serbia has embraced its European future. To the contrary, Belgrade continues to refuse to align with EU foreign policy and leans heavily in the direction of Moscow and Beijing. The former provides military help and the latter investments. Here is Vucic with his favorite “European” a week after the Ohrid meeting:

Viktor Orban is Putin’s favorite European too

Serbia no longer meets the EU’s Copenhagen criteria, if it ever did. Its “partly free” polity is moving in an authoritarian direction. Media are not free. The judicial system is not independent. And the opposition comes mainly from ethnonationalists who care not a whit about Europe. Belgrade has done nothing to apologize, or make amends, for the Milosevic regime’s brutal crackdown on Kosovo in the late 1990s.

It isn’t working

It is hard then to imagine what justifies condolences now for the action NATO took in 1999 to stop the murder and ethnic cleansing of the better part of a million Albanians from Kosovo. NATO caused around 454 civilian deaths (including more Albanians than Serbs and Montenegrins), according to the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center.

The condolences come from someone who was part of the team that initiated the bombing in response to the Serbian failure to sign the agreement negotiated at Rambouillet. American diplomats then argued that Milosevic would only respond to the use of force. If I stretch, I imagine Chris is thinking his tweets will assuage his own conscience, appease Serbia, and soften its attitude toward normalization of relations with Kosovo.

I see no sign yet that this is working. President Vucic has refused to sign the two agreements recently reached with Kosovo,. Though he has said his oral agreement is legally binding, it isn’t clear just what he verbally agreed to. He has said explicitly he will oppose UN membership for Kosovo, despite a provision in the normalization agreement that reads:

Serbia will not object to Kosovo’s membership in any international organisation.

He has denied that Serbia has implicitly recognized Kosovo, even though the first agreement includes recognition of its documents and symbols, and has made it clear he will pick and choose what provisions of the agreement he implements or not. The EU will be incorporating the requirements in the agreements into its accession process, but that could mean postponing Serbia’s compliance by years if not a decade or more.

Ukraine could make the difference

Vucic is still trying to walk with Washington and ride with Moscow. That’s a difficult game these days. Rumors have it that Serbian ammunition has reached Ukraine, but Belgrade denies it has sold a single bullet there. Nor has it aligned with EU sanctions against Russia, which it is obligated to do. Still, if your lobbyists can keep the American ambassador and Washington believing that you are sincere in seeking a Western future, the game can work for a while. Putin is blessedly distracted and the US committed to appeasement, which is easier than the alternative.

The question is when the State Department and White House will wake up to reality. Serbia is not choosing to come West. Only if Russia loses in Ukraine will Belgrade reassess. Until then, it would be best to forget the fantasy diplomacy. Realism dictates that the US back countries that back Ukraine. Belgrade doesn’t.

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