Last May, the European Western Balkans conducted an interview with Janusz Bugajski, a Senior Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington DC and host of the “New Bugajski Hour” television shows. We spoke on the consequences of Montenegro’s membership in NATO and position of Trump’s administration towards the Western Balkans. This time we wanted to know how much things have changed since then.
European Western Balkans: It has been almost a year since we did our last interview. What has changed since then, when it comes to global political players, in general?
Janusz Bugajski: Global politics is very volatile with a new US administration grappling with an assortment of challenges to international security. In the European context, threats to the EU project continue with the rise of populist and nationalist movements, the intensification of Russia subversion, and persistent uncertainties over US policies. Nonetheless, President Donald Trump’s national security team has demonstrated that it remains committed to NATO as the foundation of trans-Atlantic security.
EWB: There have been some major changes in the State Department recently. What kind of shift in the US politics can we expect?
JB: I do not expect any major shifts in the aims of US policy although there may be some changes of emphasis and intensity. The new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is known as a policy “hawk” which traditionally means a strong supporter of the US military, of the NATO alliance, and of America’s global role. I expect some changes in Middle East policy or with regard to North Korea but not in the European sphere.
EWB: A visit of the Assistant Secretary of State, Wess Mitchell, to some of the Western Balkan states is seen as the need of the US to increase participation in solving some of the burning issues of the region. Do you agree with this perception?
JB: It is important for the US to push for the resolution of domestic and regional problems that undermine stability and hinder each country’s progress toward NATO and EU membership. In this context, high-level visits are important to deliver messages, identify priorities, and assess the implementation of commitments. The new Assistant Secretary of State is a resolute Atlanticist who understands the dangers facing the Western Balkans and is determined to help bring the region fully inside the Atlantic fold.
EWB: When speaking of the visits of politicians to the Balkans, we can see a significant increase of visits of high-ranking officials from Russia, as well. Is the region back to being the focal point of the geopolitical interests of great powers?
JB: While US interests are positive for the region, Russia’s interests are negative. Moscow does not seek the resolution of regional disputes, the success of domestic reforms, or progress toward EU and NATO membership. On the contrary, it wants the region to remain unsettled as this creates problems for Western governments and international institutions who then remain embroiled in crisis management and conflict prevention. At the same time, this enables the Kremlin to inject its corrupt businesses in local economies and conduct disinformation campaigns to foster anti-American and anti-European sentiments.
EWB: Much attention has been given to the Russian influence on the region, but what about China? Is its political influence rising or do you believe it has only economic interest?
JB: China’s influences in Europe are mostly economic, as unlike Russia it has no imperial aspirations in the Balkans. However, China’s long-term strategy needs to be closely monitored and in some cases countered if it infringes on economic competition or injects anti-Atlanticist political influences on governments in the region.
EWB: Is it possible to say that the interests of the US and the EU in the region are complementary or there are certain differences?
JB: The interests and objectives of the US and EU are complementary in the Western Balkans, with the EU more reliant on economic carrots and the US possessing greater security instruments. Nonetheless, the US is rightly perceived as the more important player, as without American leadership the EU can become complacent, distracted, and ineffective.
Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States