Interview with Thomas Countryman, retired US diplomat who served at the US Embassy in Belgrade from 1983-85, as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs from 2009 to 2010, and as Deputy Assistant Secretary for European Affairs from 2010 to 2011, responsible for the US’s relations with the Balkans. The interview was conducted at the Belgrade Security Forum 2017, which took place on 11-13 October and where Countryman was the speaker at the panel “EU – Balkans: What is our common future?”
European Western Balkans: What do you see as the biggest obstacle on the Western Balkans’ EU path?
Thomas Countryman: I will comment on exactly that point on my panel at Belgrade Security Forum this year – that the biggest obstacle for the Balkans on their path to EU membership is also the biggest existential problem facing all the countries on the Balkans, and that is how do we fight corruption, how do we ensure transparency in all government dealings, and how do we protect judiciary and an independent media.
These are the questions that matter regardless of what Brussels does or how fast the EU is prepared to move. These are the questions that would determine future prosperity and the future security of all the citizens of the Balkans.
EWB: Do you feel that “stabilocracy” is the correct term for some of the current regimes in the Western Balkans?
TC: It is an interesting word and a difficult trade-off. As a former diplomat, I can see the value of being able to deal with a stable government that does not change very much and I share frustration of diplomatic colleagues around the world who see great instability in the United States’ policy today.
But if “stabilitocracy” is meant to mean that there is not going to be a change in party governments and that the next elections will be controlled by this government and this party in a way that predetermines the result, it means intimidation and suppression of the media. It means ascendancy towards the kind of non-democratic processes that make the Russian Federation a stable state today, and that is very negative for citizens of the Balkans.
EWB: How do you see Serbian policy of balancing between NATO and EU on one hand and Russia on the other, including in military matters?
TC: I understand well the history of Yugoslavia and Serbia. I understand that there is a good reason that many citizens of Serbia are suspicious about cooperation with NATO. All of that said, I think that the government of Serbia understandably wants to preserve the best possible relations with all of its neighbours. Not just with European Union and NATO members, but also with Russia and a handful of countries that align with Russia.
There should be a very active open debate in Serbia as in any other country about the real choices that matter. I am not sure if there is an open debate, but I do understand the reasons why any Serbian government would want to be cautious about the approach to NATO and would not seek to align with Russia.
There are big differences on the economic side. I think there is a big difference between investment coming from the EU or USA, which are more transparent, and investments that come from the Russian Federation, which are by definition non-transparent and not necessarily in Serbia’s best economic interests. But these are choices that the government has to make and for which government must be countable to the Serbian voters.
EWB: Will it be hard to see the impact of non-Western actors in Serbia as in the Western Balkans such as Russia, Turkey or China?
TC: Of course I am concerned about the non-democratic direction that Turkey is taking, anti-democratic position of the Russian Federation and the mercantilist position of China – the best capitalist in a world today is found in a Chinese government. They are important countries with whom any country in the world has to deal.
But it is a fact that if you invite as your primary economic partners countries such as Russia or China, you are also invited to the same kind of enrichment of senior government officials that is the hallmark of the Russian or the Chinese economy. I am not saying you cannot or you should not deal with them, but I am saying you should be very aware that they will inevitably bring in non-transparent non-democratic values into your political system and your economic system.