Interview with Tanya Domi, Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Prior to her faculty appointment at Columbia in 2008, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender and sexual identity issues and human trafficking. During her previous policy work in Bosnia and Herzegovina implementing the Dayton Peace Accords for the OSCE Mission 1996-2000, she served in the position of Spokesperson, Counselor to U.S. Ambassador Robert Barry and Chair of the OSCE Media Experts Commission. She has also worked on democratic transitional projects in Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia.

European Western Balkans: Rex Tillerson is no longer the Secretary of State. Do you think this change will somehow influence the US policy towards Europe? Do you believe that the Balkans will be in the focus of the future foreign policy?

Tanya Domi: U.S. foreign policy with respect to the Western Balkans during the past year under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has essentially been “status quo” in so much as its continued support of the EU project: support for EU enlargement and NATO expansion, as well as support for a continued dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. On paper it has supported Bosnia and Herzegovina, as a single multiethnic state under the Dayton Peace Accords rubric.

The main U.S. diplomat in the Balkans during the first year of the Trump Administration was Deputy Assistant Secretary Hoyt Yee, who is no longer engaged, as he resigned in January.

Finally, nearly a year without leadership in the European division, Dr.A. Wess Mitchell was confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs in October 2017.

Mitchell just returned from his first trip to the region visiting Pristina, Belgrade, Skopje (and Athens and Nicosia). During his public comments in Belgrade he indicated its continuing support of the ongoing dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, but surprisingly caused a stir when he voiced support for Kosovo’s right to standup an army in self-defense, which is strongly opposed by President Vučić.

Currently, career foreign service officer Jonathan Moore, the former Head of Mission of the OSCE in Bosnia and Herzegovina is rumored to be in line for Yee’s position.

Mitchell appears to be a classic Atlanticist, but his views on the Balkans are specifically unknown. In a relatively recent book chapter he authored for the John Hay Initiative, Rebuilding America’s Alliances, he is silent on the question of U.S. policy toward the Western Balkans.

The biggest advance of U.S. foreign policy in the Balkans last year was the entry of Montenegro into the NATO alliance in June 2017.  I was surprised that Trump signed the treaty without protest, which was overwhelmingly supported by the Senate in a bi-partisan vote of 97-2. It was not clear that he would support Montenegro’s entry into NATO given his harsh critique of it from the campaign trail and during a fumbling endorsement of the security alliance during his first swing through Europe last year before the vote.

Designated Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a classic ‘neoconservative hawk’ with respect to U.S. foreign policy. He was elected to Congress from the state of Kansas as a member of the insurgent “Tea Party” wing of the Republican Party in 2010, stepping down in 2017 when he was confirmed to lead the CIA. He strongly supports the maintenance of the Guantanamo Bay incarceration facility. He also was a strong supporter of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a euphemism for torture. When questioned about his support for the use of torture during his CIA confirmation hearings, he indicated he no longer endorsed its practice. He is considered more hawkish on Iran than President Trump. A search does not turn up anything definitive on Pompeo’s views on the Western Balkans, but one could estimate that he would be a hardliner on Muslim radicalism or extremism in the Balkans.

On the question of Russia’s present insurgent role in the Western Balkans, it remains to be seen whether he would disagree with Trump’s strong support of Putin’s Russia. He has delivered tough talk on Russia firstly as a Congressman when he stated that the “United States and its allies should exploit Russian President Vladimir Putin’s weaknesses and enact sanctions “to keep him in his box.” As CIA director he has expressed the view that Russia has worked against the interests of the United States. He also supported the United Kingdom’s charge that Russia had poisoned ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The question many lawmakers from both parties on Capitol Hill pose now — will Pompeo maintain these views on Russia in his new role at State? Can he persuade Trump to resume a classic American approach toward Europe’s democracies and in the Balkans; or will he cede to Trump’s impetus to embrace autocrats?

In the meantime, the State Department remains in flux until Pompeo takes the helm — hollowed out during Tillerson’s tenure; most of the senior leadership positions at Foggy Bottom remain unfilled. American policy is probably not completely thought through until personnel vacancies are filled. The biggest task before Pompeo at this moment is getting through his confirmation hearing successfully and unscathed. The foreign policy establishment in the capitol is lining up to leverage the Pompeo confirmation hearings for a broader discussion on America’s foreign policy. He is also currently opposed by Senator Rand Paul, a Republican. Additional opposition to his nomination may emerge. Stay tuned.

EWB: What do you consider to be the main security challenges in the Balkans? How would you describe the current security situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, having previously worked for the OSCE Mission?

TD: The most significant security challenge in the Western Balkans is the continued election and dominance of illiberal and corrupt governments throughout the region. In the global context, the Balkans is not much different from the world, which is experiencing a rise of illiberal governments from Delhi to Manila, Washington, D.C. to Moscow, including Warsaw and Budapest in between.

The basic principles and values of liberal democracies: human rights, access to information, transparency and accountability in all the aspects of governance, preventing violent extremism and eliminating endemic corruption will continue to challenge weak democracies in the Balkans.

Underscoring these problems are weak economies accompanied by continual “brain drain” and depopulation of youth, a serious threat to the overall future of the region.

As my colleagues at the “Balkans in Europe Policy Group” have pointed out, “democracy in the Western Balkans have been backsliding for a decade, which accelerated during the economic crisis in 2008, and compounded by multiple crisis that confronted the EU simultaneously.

The European project has lost some of its appeal with Balkan populations due to the failure to achieve a better quality of life in the transition to democracy, post conflict. Coupled with the inability to freely move around Europe without visas, and because of the longtime line before eligibility for EU accession, there is growing skepticism about Europe’s horizons and its inclusion of Balkan states.

The European Union has also demonstrated an inability to effectively address the excesses of the Orban regime in Hungary, including its crackdown on the media, which was one of his first acts after taking power in 2010. But more to the point, the EU has a very mixed record in seeing through full implementation of reforms required to fulfill in order to join the Union as stipulated under Chapter 23 on Judiciary and Fundamental rights and Chapter 24 on Justice, freedom and security. This backsliding has been a focus of continuing frustration and distress for local human rights activists throughout the region.

This political elasticity is not lost on Balkan leaders who are increasingly engaged in bilateral relations with Russia, China, the Gulf States and Turkey – geopolitical competitors with the EU and all are illiberal, led by leaders who are among some of the most autocratic on the planet.

A major benefit to the Balkan states in relationship with these powers is access to easy money, no questions asked, with few strings attached, unlike the accountability and transparency that is required by the EU.

Following a generation of “peace” characterized by recent social unrest and often hot rhetoric spewed by politicians in the Balkans, no one should be surprised by the continued governance of illiberal “stabilitocrats” or those autocratically minded leaders who govern through informal, patronage networks and claim to provide pro-Western stability in the region. Illustrative examples include the recycling of politicians who grew up in the political class as protégés of Slobodan Milosević in Serbia and the return of a right wing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) to power in Zagreb, losing only two elections since the conclusion of war in 1995. Milo Đukanović has never lost an election in Montenegro and he is running for president again next month and a winning outcome is assured. Change will not happen at the ballot box in the Balkans for the unforeseeable future. If change is forthcoming it will resemble the eruptions in Bosnia in 2014 and the Macedonian moment of citizens taking to the streets in protest to autocrat Nikola Gruevski, that eventually led to an election of arguably the most progressive government in the former Yugoslav space.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is in a precarious state of political crisis – indeed, it now appears to be in an acute crisis with no one in Brussels is seemingly engaged outside of advancing EU accession for Bosnia in 2025 or later, as if that long term prospect will sooth or interdict the current crisis.

The BiH political situation truly begs the rhetorical question “Is Nero fiddling while Rome burns?” I answer with a resounding “yes!” What is it going to take to wakeup Brussels to the reality on the ground in Bosnia? Despite the best intentions of Federica Mogherini and her cadre, what more do they need to know before launching a new diplomatic intervention to prevent further disintegration in Bosnia? Has the EU not learned anything from its checkered history in BiH more than 25 years ago?

It is highly improbable to expect the U.S. to initiate a substantial diplomatic effort to assist Bosnia given the ideology of the Trump Administration. Indeed, the U.S. lacks the capacity to even undertake a diplomatic effort to deescalate tensions with North Korea, which is arguably an existential threat to U.S. security, let alone launch a diplomatic effort in the Balkans.

Milorad Dodik is the source of many of the problems Bosnia faces, although not all. Nonetheless, he remains an openly belligerent political actor and blocks efforts to bolster the power of the State of BiH and is unrepentant in disrespecting its sovereignty.

He has mocked the Office of the High Representative for years and now he is the unchallenged master of moves because there no one is playing defense, let alone taking up a strategic offense from the International community. There has been discord within the Peace Implementation Council too; thus, there has been very little if anything accomplished since 2006. The Dayton Peace Accords are an ossified relic of the past. Since then, there have been major demonstrations and social unrest in Bosnia.

Dodik’s best friends outside of the Balkans are Moscow based and the Kremlin has eagerly filled ample vacuums there, undefended by the Europeans and the Americans. No one is home. Coupled with the efforts by Dragan Covic to advance a third entity for Bosnian Croats by offering a new election law allowed by the BiH Constitutional Court, which is infused with the worst ethnic impulses of Croat nationalism and advanced with assistance by Zagreb. With the clock ticking and not enough time to redraft a new law and implement it before October, it is very likely that elections in Bosnia could be jettisoned altogether. Many experts agree that the draft law as is would be thrown out by European Court of Human Rights.

Dodik’s arming of the RS MUP by purchasing 2,500 rifles is another escalation that follows a brash “thumbing” issued by Dodik to host a “RS” Day parade in violation of BiH sovereignty. Sadly, but not surprising, BiH also has a chronically high rate of formal unemployment and is frequently cited as having the highest youth unemployment in the world.

Dealing with Dodik is something that Europeans should do as soon as possible. I echo the sentiments of colleague Jelena Millić, the director of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies who recently called on the EU to “sober up” and sanction Dodik, following the American action in 2017, one of the last acts carried out by the Obama Administration.

EWB: It has been almost a year since Montenegro became a member of NATO. Do you believe this membership has positively influenced the overall security situation in the region?

TD: Despite Russia’s hacking of the Montenegro, according to media reports, I think it is better for Montenegro and for the Southern Balkans to be aligned with NATO and the Euro Atlantic security apparatus. I am sure it angered the Russians because with Montenegro joining NATO it closed off their access to the Southern Balkans via its territorial waters in the Adriatic Sea. As a member of NATO, Montenegro effectively denied a key chess piece that the Russians could have utilized to create further disruption and destabilization. They were outflanked by Montenegro and the NATO alliance in this instance. They will not give up in their efforts to undermine Montenegro and the NATO alliance. To be monitored.

EWB: With the recent European Commission’s enlargement strategy, the Balkans is again in focus of the EU. Do you believe that Russia will try to counter this by increasing its influence in the region?

TD: I think Russia will continue to do its utmost to destabilize and spoil efforts to advance democracy, irrespective of specific nation states and their national interests.  In a 2016 report “Eyes Wide Shut,” published by Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, the study indicated that the goal of Russian soft power is to “replace democracy with autocracy.” Secondary goals include reducing ‘support for European integration” and “discrediting the very concept of enlargement.”

Russia has been very active in Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia and in Montenegro. It has willing partners in the current governments in Croatia, Serbia and the RS entity in Bosnia, most prominently. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

The U.S. took note of Russia’s growing presence in the Balkans, specifically in Serbia in 2015 when then Secretary of State John Kerry identified that Russia had its eye on Serbia in the aftermath of its invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. But now the U.S. has a confused policy on Russia: led by President Trump who resists publicly criticizing Putin, and even goes out of his way to compliment Putin while the government has applied sanctions on those Russians indicted in the Russia probe of the 2016 U.S. election and recently dismissed 60 Russian diplomats for the chemical attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in the United Kingdom. Earlier this month, Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. Europe testified before a Senate committee saying: “Russia is at work in the Balkans and we have kind of taken our eye off the area.”

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s influence in Serbia has substantially grown and its level of engagement has been a concerted effort to appeal through mostly soft power instruments: exporting its media platforms to Serbia; providing financial support for Russian affiliated non-profits and citizen associations, as well as strong cultural appeal to the construct of “Slavic Brotherhood” and religious symbiosis between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Serbian Orthodox Church, are a few examples.

The EU needs to take the Russian threat as a serious one in Serbia and more broadly throughout the Western Balkans. It cannot be casual in engaging this threat to democracy in one of the most fragile regions of Europe.

EWB: Serious backsliding in terms of democracy and the freedom of media can be noted throughout the region and for now, the EU remained silent. Do you believe that the EU will pay more attention to these issues since it is something that it is requested throughout the recently published Strategy or it will continue to support the autocratic regimes for the sake of stability?

TD: I agree that the EU has been silent on the entrenched threats to freedom of the press in the Balkans from political leaders across the spectrum of ideology. Some critics have posited that the this threatening environment for journalists and independent media outlets, to the extent they still exist, is analogous to circa 1999 when the Balkan wars had been recently ended and the media was polarized in its reportage along ethnic lines. This is a sobering acknowledgement in 2018, nearly a generation following the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The EU must lead by example and deed.

Commissioner Johannes Hahn who has the Neighborhood and Enlargement portfolio, needs to speak out more forcefully on this issue and leverage Chapters 23 and 24 for accession particularly in Serbia and Montenegro. He should collaborate with the Harlem Désir, the OSCE Media Representative and the Council of Europe’s incoming Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović, a veteran media expert from BiH whom her colleagues can reliably turn to for collaboration and wise counsel. Leveraging this leadership strategically has the potential to pressure accession states to insist they rise to adopting and fully implementing rule of law and respect for the role of media in democratic societies.

Failure to insist that leaders respect the freedom of the press, not only weakens democratic societies, but ultimately weakens the EU project, moreover.

If EU leadership seeks “stability” in lieu of achieving implementation of Chapters 23 and 24 during the accession process, everyone loses, especially the youth which is the future of the region and Europe itself.

EWB: Many reports show a growing decay of institutions and the rule of law in the Western Balkans, but also basic human rights. Since you have previously worked on democracy development projects in the Balkans and you are an advocate for LGBTI rights, how would you assess the current situation when it comes to the human rights?

TD: It would come as no surprise that I think the state of human rights is very weak in the Western Balkans. If democracies are dominated by illiberal governments and autocratic political leaders, it stands to reason that the state of human rights is checkered; the rule of law is inconsistently applied and transitional justice in the aftermath of genocidal wars is extremely disappointing because there is prevalent reluctance, if not the lack of political will, to prosecute war criminals.

Tackling accountability is surely not an easy task, but it is one of the milestones to measure progress in democratic societies. This is the journey that strong leaders who embrace democracy must insist upon in order to build the foundation for a vibrant and healthy democracy.

Of all the social and political movements in the post-conflict Balkans the LGBTI human rights movement is arguably the most dynamic and organized. That is not to say that everything is perfect and gay people are able to lead lives of dignity and openness without fear of violence or stigma. But the movement forward is impressive and this movement is very organic and while it was violently oppressed and resisted for many years, nearly all the countries of the Western Balkans have had Pride marches and/or have celebrated International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia days of observation in recent years. Almost all the countries have adopted the EU criteria for accession with respect to LGBTI human rights. But implementation is another matter. Within major cities throughout the Balkans, life for LGBTI persons in the Balkans has improved, while life in the countryside and villages remains very challenging and difficult. Much more work must be done to obtain legal rights and cultural acceptance, but the work is being led by many strong leaders, who are very brave across the region.

A key to civil society leadership and their work across the region depends on sustained funding for democracy work that is invested by bi-lateral government funders and philanthropic foundations that can provide more than two consecutive years to sustain the work:  for women’s equality; for Roma people; to advance environmental policies and for work to address corruption and transitional work to reconstitute a society that must encompass respect for the dignity of all people irrespective of their ethnicity and religion. This is vital and important work. I urge donors to support these projects with enough funding issued in repeating years that can produce an outcome of success. The youth – the future of the Balkans deserve a fighting chance to carve out a future that insures a life of dignity and meaningfulness.


Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States