US stages dynamic return to the Balkans

US stages dynamic return to the Balkans

By publicly calling his country just “Macedonia,” Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has in a sense violated the regulations of the 2018 Prespes agreement; a bilateral pact between Greece and North Macedonia concerning the country’s name. According to US President Joe Biden’s recent executive order for the Western Balkans, North Macedonia should as a result be placed on America’s “blacklist.” This, however, does not appear to be the case. It would not make sense to impose sanctions on a key player in one of the most important agreements in the Western Balkans in the post-war era for what the PM himself described as a “verbal slip.” Especially when taking into consideration that such “diversions” by the North Macedonian premier are not intended to neutralize the agreement, but rather to aid his political survival, which is being internally tested with regard to this matter. 

Nevertheless, the United States has not stopped tracking the progress of the Prespes agreement, and as the spokesperson of the State Department clarified, “sanctions will be imposed on persons who, among other things, are responsible for participating in obstructing the implementation of the 2018 Prespa Agreement, 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement, 1995 Dayton Accords, and UN Security Council Resolution 1244 on the status of Kosovo.”

Interestingly, when asked whether or not “the Biden administration plans to extend sanctions to persons from other countries, particularly from Greece, which, as a signatory of the Prespes agreement, is subject to certain obligations regarding its implementation,” the spokesperson responded that “all those who oppose the Prespes agreement, including countries not in the West Balkans, such as Greece, risk finding themselves on the United States’ blacklist.” 

In Athens, the spokesperson’s statement caused discomfort among all those who strongly opposed the agreement and were unwilling to accept Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ pacta sunt servanda. It was perceived as “raw blackmail” in view of Parliament’s recent ratification of three memorandums derived from the Prespes agreement, especially considering that prior to the vote, leaks were made to the media that certain New Democracy MPs would abstain. Whether or not those who voted against the memorandums would have been sanctioned and placed on the USA’s “blacklist” will not be known for the foreseeable future. Zaev’s faux pas in speaking about a “Macedonian football team” without the agreed-upon “North” gave the Greek PM enough reason to postpone the ratification of the memorandums and in effect extract his party from its difficult position. 

Biden’s “bombshell” was not limited to the Prespes agreement, as highlighted above, but also concerned North Macedonia’s nationalistic opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, which denounced what it described as American plans to neutralize its strategy of “freezing” the Prespes agreement, pledging to do away with the deal if it becomes government. 

Biden’s text explicitly mentions the Prespes agreement, as well as the Albanian-Slavo-Macedonian Ohrid Accord on the prevention of civil war (2001), UN Security Council Resolution 1244 on ending the conflict in Kosovo (1999), and the Dayton Accords ending the bloody Bosnia and Herzegovina war (1995). Biden’s decree goes well beyond the Greek-North Macedonian name dispute, encompassing all the primary agreements focused on preserving peace and stability in the Western Balkan region. In doing so, Biden sends a clear message to those who are dreaming, or working toward, a redrawing of the Balkan map: American interests do not favor nor will they allow such a change. 

It is no secret that in recent years, with the chaos surrounding the Trump administration, the US was almost ready to pack its bags and exit the Balkans, leaving the region free for other geopolitical rivals, including China, Russia and Turkey, to pursue their own goals at the expense of Western interests. The US absence and the EU’s inability to bring less developed, weaker states under its wing led to the creation of a power vacuum. In it, the foundations of the four agreements on which regional peace depends had begun to crumble. 

Ideas for redrawing the Balkan borders based on nationalities, such as Serbian and Albanian, to settle the nationalistic historical issues which have bloodied this region in the past, have been circulating behind the scenes. Such ideas have been traced to non-papers from meetings of high-ranking officials. The most shocking of these unofficial documents is allegedly one by the Slovenian PM (he himself denies this but Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama claims to have read it) addressed to Brussels and proposing the division of Kosovo and Bosnia. More ideas proposing the emergence of Greater Albania, Greater Serbia etc have reached diplomatic missions, foreign secret services, or been leaked to trigger responses. 

The Balkan geopolitical landscape has taken on a strange aura reminiscent of the eve of the breakup of Yugoslavia. But in order for a similar process of border realignment to occur, the aforementioned existing agreements would need to be rebuked, perhaps even through the use of violence. And for what purpose? The creation of two, or at most three, poles of power in the Balkans: Greater Serbia, Greater Albania and Greater Bulgaria. Sofia’s recent veto of North Macedonia’s accession process shows that Bulgarian nationalists have not given up their pursuit of North Macedonia. 

Which of the other Balkan players (Greece, Turkey, Romania etc) would tolerate new, heterogenous correlations in their neighboring region? And if such a scenario played out, what would their reaction be? Following Biden’s assumption of the presidency, the State Department spokesperson clarified that the Western Balkans concern US national security, and for this reason the global power has returned to the region to work on preventing imminent chaos. The US says that it will not let the Russians, Turks and Chinese prosper in the region by displacing Americans and the Europeans from this hypersensitive region, which is also of key strategic importance as it borders the increasingly aggressive Russia and has been chosen by the Chinese as their gateway to Europe. On June 9, President Biden announced his doctrine for the Western Balkans, in which adherence to peace agreements will be the cornerstone of stability. 

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