December 14, 2015
The recent visits of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to Belgrade and U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden to Zagreb within a week of each other show that both the U.S. and NATO are in the process of trying to augment their influence in the Balkans.
For more than a decade, after the overthrow of the regime of Slobodan Milosević in Serbia in 2000, the Balkans have been perceived by the U.S. and NATO decision-makers as their own fairly secure geopolitical playground. It is true that there has been a certain degree of displeasure with the behavior of various Serb political leaders both in the Serbian political entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Republika Srpska) and in Serbia proper. However, considering that these contrarian activities were essentially sui generis and did not depend on external support, they were criticized rhetorically, but were, in real terms, simply swept under the rug, hoping that in time they would go away by themselves. They were treated like the case of a bad cold. Sure it is obnoxious and slows you down, but if you just rest for a while, it will disappear even if you do nothing about it. And, after all, almost all politicians in contemporary Balkans have plenty of financial “skeletons” in their respective luxury closets, so that they are not all that difficult to keep on the short leash.
However, starting about two years ago, but intensifying after the outbreak of the violent confrontations in Ukraine in early 2014, the Balkan geopolitical chessboard suddenly became much more complex. Not only did the Chinese government institutions and banks begin to be active in financing various large-scale infrastructure projects in the Balkans, but also the Russian government started to comment publicly on internal political developments in various Balkan countries. In many respects, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs began to play the role reserved since the end of the Cold War only for the U.S. State Department. This could hardly go unnoticed in Washington and Brussels and became the cause of an increasing concern.
The first time the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted in this way was during the wide-spread anti-government protests in Macedonia (FYROM) in the first months of 2015. It sided with the official narrative of the government of Nikola Gruevski and against the activities of the opposition. It perceived the Gruevski government as favorable to Russia’s own geopolitical interests and the opposition as doing the bidding of the Western powers, especially the U.S.
It is interesting to note that not long afterwards, reacting to an internal political crisis in another Balkan state, this time in Montenegro, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in its public pronouncements took the side of the opposition as against the government. In fact, the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Milo Djukanović, directly accused the Russian government of assisting the opposition protests in the country. Most observers interpreted Djukanović’s claim as a Machiavellian strategy to get support and sympathy from NATO and the U.S. despite the documented abuses of the corrupt, authoritarian regime he has been running for more than 25 years. Djukanović’s accusations received a stinging rebuke from Moscow. In fact, having read the original statement of the Ministry in Russian, I can say that I have not seen such a strongly worded statement issued by the Russian government against another state’s leader since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It appears that the decision-makers in Brussels and Washington noticed the same thing and, as a result, decided to initiate the on-going diplomatic initiative in which the visits of high-level officials play a crucial role. That is the context in which the visits of Stoltenberg and Biden should be placed.
However, in addition to understanding the general context, it is also important to look at the specific content of these visits in order to be able to discern the shape of things to come.
Stoltenberg in Belgrade
Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Belgrade was the first visit of a NATO General Secretary in ten years. As is well known, Serbia (at that time still a constituent component of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) suffered tremendous human and material damage during the 78-day long NATO bombing campaign in the spring of 1999. Even conservative estimates indicate that several hundred civilians, including children, were killed by the bombs. It is no surprise then that opposition to NATO and NATO-led activities runs high among the ordinary people in Serbia. This represents a big problem for NATO geopolitical expansionists who would like to assimilate Serbia into the fold.
If we examine the choreography of Stoltenberg’s visit carefully, we begin to notice the cogs in the propaganda machinery to sway the “hearts and minds” of the Serbian citizens in favor of NATO. This effort centers on the figure of Stoltenberg and uses the facts of his personal biography in a manipulative way. Namely, Stoltenberg’s father – Thorvald Stoltenberg – was a diplomat at the Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade when Jens was a small child. So, in all his public appearances in Belgrade, Stoltenberg stressed the experiences of his early childhood. He recited the Serbian children’s song. He recalled his Serbian governess (and his first ice-cream) with a great deal of emotion. He confessed that he adored the Serbian cuisine. The culmination was when he twitted that, in his heart, he was in fact a person from Belgrade (Beogradjanin). No doubt, a true Hollywood scenario, but for a B-movie. The NATO PR specialists know well that the first step to accepting the message is to trust the messenger.
But, it did not stop there. The Prime Minister of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić, actively wooed by NATO as well as by the U.S., announced with an air of triumph that NATO has “returned” 25 kilometers of the Serbian airspace to the Serbian control. The fact that Serbia did not have a complete control over its airspace was not widely known and Vučić would probably have tried to avoid talking about it, if asked even a week earlier. Now, however, NATO’s “return” of the airspace was the front page news.
Was there anybody to ask the basic question as to under what legal authority NATO held on to this part of the Serbian airspace at all? The 1999 military intervention itself violated international law, including the Charter of the United Nations. In other words, this situation is equivalent to that of a thief returning a piece of your property after 15 years and, instead of reporting him to the police, you throw a party in his honor. Would any credible leader, committed to the well-being of his or her country’s citizens, do something like this? Obviously, Vučić has his own reasons, which appear to have little to do with the public interest, but, arguably, quite a lot with the issues he discussed privately with Biden during his visit to Washington in September.
Biden in Zagreb
Biden himself has come to the Balkans yet again. I have chronicled his Balkan connections in two previous BFP articles. On November 25, 2015, Biden came to Zagreb to take part in the summit of the Balkan presidents called the “Brdo-Brijuni Process.” It is an annual summit organized jointly by the presidents of Croatia and Slovenia and the name comes from the two well-known conference resorts (Brdo kod Kranja in Slovenia and Brijuni in Croatia). It is a recent invention which started in 2013 and is a kind of the consolation prize for those Balkan countries which are not the full members of the European Union. The way things stand, however, it appears that they will remain in this status for a long time to come.
Biden was specifically invited by the president of Croatia Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. As I have shown in my previous BFP articles, Grabar-Kitarović is the key champion of the U.S.-NATO power in the Balkans. She has served both as the Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Croatian Ambassador to the U.S. and her most recent function, before being elected president in January 2015, was NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy. In many respects, Croatia is NATO’s hub for the Balkans and it plays a large role in NATO’s anti-Putin designs. Croatia, for instance, granted citizenship to one of the most vocal Putin’s critics, the former world chess celebrity Gary Kasparov.
That there was a certain degree of urgency to this summit is exposed by the fact that the annual “Brdo-Brijuni” summit was already held in Budva, Montenegro in June 2015. This is why this summit was labeled “extraordinary” even by the organizers. In other words, the geopolitical winds started blowing from the direction which is not particularly pleasant for the U.S.-NATO long-time “orderers” of the Balkans.
Biden’s statement at the summit echoed the unabashedly expansionist spirit now under the increasing strain from both Russia and China. He admitted that the region was “of extraordinary significance” for the U.S. which should be interpreted to mean that the U.S. and NATO would protect their geopolitical gains using any and all means at their disposal. The implication is that, in case it becomes necessary, this may also include the long-favored method of the “regime change” as well as the violation of the democratically expressed will of the majority. This strategy has already been put into practice in Montenegro where the majority of the population does not want NATO membership and yet the government of Milo Djukanović, in tight coordination with the embassies of several NATO states and the U.S.-based lobbyists, has been trying to shove it down their throats for years.
However, the most revealing statement at the summit was made by another new-Cold-War warrior against Russia, former Prime Minister of Poland Donald Tusk, now in the position of the President of the European Council (the figurehead EU President). He spoke more concretely about the “Euro-Atlantic” (NATO) future of the region than about its integration into the EU, even though he did express the opinion that all of the Balkans would eventually be invited in. If we disregard Tusk’s bureaucratic platitudes, the picture that emerges is that the EU expansion has definitely stalled and that those Balkan countries left out on the other side of the “Fortress Europe” should begin thinking about political alternatives. Otherwise, the augmented NATO militarization of the Balkans is imminent and, in the context of the deep economic and social crisis brought about by the anti-humanist neo-liberal model, this will likely lead to the flare-ups of violence all across the region.
 For a more detailed analysis, see my earlier BFP article “China and the Balkans,” http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2014/12/15/bfp-exclusive-china-the-balkans-this-geopolitical-battle-in-its-beginning-phases/
 http://www.blic.rs/Vesti/Politika/607535/BEOGRADjANIN-U-SRCU-Znamo-gde-je-sef-NATO-odrastao-ali-jednu-jos-vazniju-stvar-ne-znamo; http://www.blic.rs/Vesti/Politika/607996/Vucic-Svaka-vrsta-naseg-loseg-odnosa-sa-NATO-moze-da-nam-steti
 See my BFP articles – “Joe Biden in Munich: Incentivizing the U.S. Balkan Vassals,” http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2015/02/17/bfp-exclusive-joe-biden-in-munich-incentivizing-the-us-balkan-vassals/ and “Biden’s Balkan Sphere of Influence,” http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2015/06/07/bfp-exclusive-bidens-balkan-sphere-of-influence/
 See my BFP articles – “The Balkans Presidential December: A Test for the U.S.-NATO Empire, ” http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2014/12/23/bfp-exclusive-the-balkans-presidential-december-a-test-for-the-us-nato-empire/ and “The Balkans Elections Update: Croatia & Greece,” http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2015/01/29/bfp-exclusive-the-balkans-elections-update-croatia-greece/
Originally published by Sibel Edmonds’ BFP, November 30, 2015.
Kovacevic on Geopolitics