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Managing the Balkans.

For most of time geography has played as much of a role as has economics in foreign policy. Mountains, forests, rivers, oceans and deserts established boundaries between tribes and nations. The Balkans* in South Eastern Europe are an example of the troubles created by the flow of nature. Today the group embraces Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia. Eleven nations, a total population of 60 million covering 250,000 square miles of territory. The area is roughly the size of Texas with a population twice that of the lone star state.

Like Texas, each nation is fiercely aware of its heritage, of its natural beauty and of its strategic vulnerability.  The region has been at the cross roads of turmoil, a thousand year petri dish of warfare and the flux of empires. Its peoples largely missed out on the industrial revolution of the 19th century before plunging into the destruction of the 20th suffering from the wars, the aftermath of them and the occupation by fascists, the soviets and then terrorism and genocide right up to the end of the century.

The European Union provided an economic escape route after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then individual nations have looked broadly speaking to the West, to Europe and the US, and away from Russia as the route to their economic future. But missing out on centuries of new technology, continual warfare and tribal animosities do not make for a good start – they are Europe’s poor cousins. The I.M.F. estimates US GDP per cap in 2019 as $65000. Slovenia ($26K GDP per cap) and Greece ($20K) lead the Balkans where Serbia ($8K), Bosnia ($6K) and Kosovo ($4K) are under-performers. All the countries are at a risk exacerbated by the proximity to Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. Government’s are all struggling to cope with youth unemployment and with catching up economically. Most are tending towards dictatorships, the people desperate to share in the riches they see in the West. This is why it matters that wealthier member states such as Hungary and Poland are flouting the EU directives and cozying up to Russia. This is why it matters that Russia is interfering in the internal business of the Balkan States. And this is why it matters that the Serbian President Vucic has won a landslide victory of such a scale that he now has effective carte blanche to do anything he likes including changing the constitution, renegotiating the peace agreement with Kosovo and turning his country into a police state. Serbia is turning the spotlight of history back onto recent internecine wars, strong man brutalities and genocide.

This is the political minefield into which the US Administration sent Richard Grenell (a Trump acolyte). An alarmingly disruptive former US Ambassador to Germany, appointed at his own request over the heads of experienced and established experts. The aim was a last minute effort to push through a settlement before the US November elections. Grenell has pursued his mission without the Europeans, and he is in danger of conniving at betraying the original US achievement in stewarding the birth of Kosovo as an independent nation and its largely Muslim population. 

History is strewn with the unexpected consequences of capricious interference in national boundaries, local disagreements and tribal conflicts.  In this case the story has not gone well.  Grenell’s early initiatives have already led to Kosovo and Serbia signing rushed texts of an agreement that did not even match each other, and there has been a steady erosion of trust between the EU and the US. Only last week Grenell and his team were made to look ludicrous as a proposed White House meeting with the Presidents of Serbia and Kosovo had to be postponed. Unbeknown to the US, the Kosovan President Thaci had been charged by the Europeans with war crimes during the 1998-1999 Kosovan War!

Have a good day, James.