Ahead of Pence Balkans Trip, Senior US Diplomat Vows Sustained Regional Commitment

As Vice President Mike Pence prepares to visit Montenegro for talks with Western Balkan leaders, a senior State Department official says U.S. engagement in the region remains strong.

The comments by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, Hoyt Brian Yee, come amid concerns that deep cuts in the proposed State Department budget could diminish Washington’s role in fragile democracies exposed to Russian interference.

On issues where U.S. and Russian interests align in the region, such as counterterrorism, Yee said the United States will try to work closely with Russia.

“But where Russia and the United States do not see eye to eye, where we are perhaps working along different lines, the United States, as Secretary [Rex] Tillerson has said, as Vice President Pence has said, the United States will defend the interests and the values of the United States and its allies very firmly, and that’s what we are doing.”

Russian influence

The Western Balkans are one example of where, Yee says, the United States thinks it is important remain vigilant without exaggerating the seriousness and magnitude of Russian election meddling and influence campaigns.

“We are taking steps where we can to strengthen countries of the Western Balkans against malign influence—whether it’s from Russia or other sources, other countries, other factors—to be sure that it is not going to be as easy for Russia, or any other actor, to influence through malign means the foreign policy or domestic policy of countries in the Balkans,” he told VOA.

One case that should be worrisome to every democracy in Europe, he says, is Russia’s interference in Montenegro.

“If Russia is willing, as the evidence overwhelmingly indicates, to not only interfere in elections, but to topple the government of a democratically elected state, of a state which just became a member of NATO, then other countries in the Balkans need to be very cautious,” Yee said. He was referring to Podgorica’s trial of Russian-funded coup plotters who allegedly planned to kill Prime Minister Milo Ðukanovic in order to derail the small Balkan nation’s bid to join the Western alliance.

That thwarted coup plot, which would have been carried out on Montenegro’s election day in 2016, was followed by its June 2017 accession to NATO.

Moscow had strongly opposed not only Montenegro’s NATO bid, but has actively sought to deter other Balkan countries from getting closer to Euro-Atlantic institutions, including the European Union, and to expand its presence in the region. Russia has reportedly been meddling in Macedonian internal affairs for nearly a decade, and has tried to use its traditional ties with Serbia to maintain its clout.

The United States recently expressed concern about (( a disaster relief center Russia is operating in Serbia https://www.voanews.com/a/united-states-sees-russia-humanitarian-center-serbia-spy-outpost/3902402.html )), which some Western groups and military analysts see as a subtly disguised military base set up by the Kremlin to spy on U.S. interests in the Balkans.

Vucic meeting

Pence’s upcoming Balkans trip comes on the heels of a White House meeting with newly inaugurated Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

According to analyst James Hooper, a former senior State Department official on the Balkans, Vucic used the meeting to prove to Serbian people that he’s trying to strike a diplomatic balance between East and West.

“Serbia has a very close relationship with Russia, and … I think there was some criticism, some concern that they were getting a little too distant from the West, from the United States,” Hooper said. “After all, Serbia wants a future within the EU.”

Because a non-alignment policy may not be sustainable in a globalized world, Serbia, Hooper added, should align its foreign policy with the goal of EU integration.

Pence and Vucic also discussed the need to normalize relations with Kosovo, whose independence is not recognized by Serbia or Russia.

Yee also says the recent White House meetings and Pence’s upcoming Balkans trip only affirms the new administration’s commitment to the region.

EU, NATO integration

Although Yee believes Balkan-wide EU and NATO integration will continue to square with U.S. interests—as it has across numerous administrations and party lines—Daniel Serwer, professor of conflict management at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says it may be too soon to say.

“Like the previous administration, they have a lot of issues on their plate; like the previous administration, they have delegated the Balkans to the Vice President, which is not all bad, but it is not all good either,” he said. “It seems to me that it is doubtful that there will be a great deal more attention, but I don’t think we know yet.”

What may compound the situation in the Western Balkans is the fragility of its democracies. Reform benchmarks required for NATO and EU accession have so far been mixed.

“They need our support and we realize that,” said Yee. “We intend fully to provide that support, but we need on the other side the political will, the resistance to corruption, the commitment to focus on solutions rather than political games. If there is this genuine partnership between both sides, than I believe we can be successful.”

Yee also said Balkan leaders who are resolved to see through the reforms that enable European integration will make their countries more resilient in the face of outside influences and be better positioned to determine their own national fate.

Although Serwer would like to see a more robust engagement in the Balkans, he agrees with Yee.

“We didn’t do what we did in the Balkans in order to control the Balkans,” he said of prevailing U.S. policies. “We did what we did in the Balkans so [those] people … could control their own destiny.”

This story originated in VOA’s Albanian Service. 

Jela DeFranceschi, Jovana Djurovic contributed to this report.

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