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News 28 Nov 17

Report Urges Permanent US Military Presence in Balkans

A permanent US military presence in south-east Europe is necessary to stabilise the region, argues a report by Washington-based think-tank the Atlantic Council, which also warns of increased Russian attempts to exert influence.

Filip Rudic
BIRN
Belgrade
US Vice-President Michael Pence during a visit to Montenegro. Photo: Beta/AP/Risto Bozovic.

The report entitled ‘Balkans Forward: A New US Strategy for the Region’, published by the Atlantic Council on Tuesday, calls for a permanent American military presence in the Balkans, a "historic rapproachment" between the US and Serbia, and for the US to regain its reputation as an "honest broker".

The report warns that Balkan countries’ weak state institutions have been strained by the flow of migrants and refugees, while persistent unemployment, political gridlock and pervasive corruption, present "a recipe for the radicalisation of the region’s young Muslim population".

It also warns of increased Russian influence, arguing that "the last two years have seen breathtaking attempts by Russia to capitalise on the region’s lingering pathologies to undermine the European project".

The report says that political turmoil in the Balkans has again become a major problem.

It cites a failed, Russian-backed coup in Montenegro, a train decorated with Serbian propaganda stopped at the Kosovo border, a series of protests against corruption following the first-round victory of Aleksandar Vucic in Serbia’s presidential election, and lingering tensions in Macedonia after bitterly-contested elections led to a constitutional crisis.

The authors believe that establishing a permanent US military presence in the region would "anchor the United States’ ability to influence developments", as well as sending a clear signal that the US is committed to "preventing reckless revisionism of existing borders".

"Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo is ideal for this purpose. Troops would be used both to help strengthen local authorities’ terrorist interdiction capabilities through training and sharing of best practices, and to provide aid in humanitarian catastrophes, should they arise," the report argues.

The US should pursue a "historic rapproachment" with Serbia more actively, but Belgrade can only become a close partner and ally in the region if it begins to "meaningfully distance itself from Russia".

According to the report, Washington should "lean in" and help Serbia and Kosovo reach a "final deal" in 2018.

It also says that in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which it calls the most fragile post-Yugoslav state, Russia’s influence has been "particularly malign", citing the vetoing of a UN resolution in 2015 that would have declared the Srebrenica massacre an act of genocide.

It also says that Moscow has been "cultivating a client" in Milorad Dodik, the leader of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska.

"The Russians have repeatedly supported attempts by Dodik to edge his entity towards a referendum on independence, with Putin personally hosting the Bosnian Serb leader twice in Moscow in the course of the past year," the report says.

Russia is also accused of "playing games" in Kosovo, as the Pristina government has alleged that Russian intelligence agents are present in the country’s Serb-dominated north.

Russia is further accused of meddling in Macedonian affairs, with the report alleging that its diplomats in Skopje "exacerbated the situation" by backing then-ruling VMRO-DPMNE party "to the hilt" during the country’s political crisis.

The authors claim that Russia is seeking "leverage" by making "as big a mess as possible" in the Balkans region, which would require Moscow’s assistance to sort out.

"By calling into question the legitimacy of Bosnia and Kosovo’s existing borders, Russia hopes to create an opportunity to broach a broader discussion of borders with its Western interlocutors. In this context, Russia would likely raise not only the status of Crimea and Donbas, but perhaps also the Baltics," the report warns.

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