WASHINGTON –Today, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, delivered remarks at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ Center for Transatlantic Relations. In his speech, Foreign Fighters, Russian Money, and Ethnic Tensions: Why the U.S. Needs to Re-Engage in the Balkans, Murphy emphasized that need for the U.S. to strengthen its relationship with the Balkan region.
Earlier this month, Murphy returned from an official trip to Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia, Albania, and Montenegro, where he met with government officials and civil society leaders to discuss and strengthen the Balkan region’s economic and political relationship with the United States.
The full text of the speech is below:
Bill Shankly, the famous Scottish footballer, once said, “Some people think football is a matter of life or death. I assure you,” he said, “it’s much more important than that.”
On Tuesday, October 21st, I landed in Belgrade, Serbia, the first stop on a five country trip to the Balkan region. My travels, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, would bring me to Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, and Croatia. Within a few hours of landing in Belgrade, I was handed the frame for my trip. At a soccer match between the Serbian national team and the Albanian national team, provocateurs piloted a small drone above the stadium during first half play. Hanging from the drone was a simple flag, portraying a map of the imagined territory of greater Albania, a fictional state unifying all Albanians living in the Balkans. The atmosphere surrounding the game was tense to begin with. Albanians complained that Serbian authorities weren’t allowing Albanian journalists into the stadium, and Serbian fans shouted inflammatory taunts at the Albanian players. The drone was the last straw, and it prompted a melee to break out on the field, amongst a confusing mélange of players and spectators turned hooligans. The game was called off, episodes of violence and vandalism rippled across the region, a historic visit between Prime Ministers was postponed, and the entire world was reminded of two things; first, football is still sometimes more important than life and death, and two, the ethnic peace that has settled on top of the Balkan region over the past decade is still thin and brittle.
It was only fifteen short years ago that Congress was consumed with the question of the Balkans. War had broken out in Europe. Allegations of genocide and mass atrocities rang loudly throughout the community of nations. America debated with passion over the right response, and ultimately President Clinton dispatched American planes and troops – troops that are still there, to this day – to end the slaughter. September 11th turned our nation’s attention to other parts of the world, and, quite honestly, American involvement and interest in the Balkans has receded consistently, year after year, over the course of the last decade.
But today, I want to argue that this turn away from the Balkans is a mistake, and perhaps a grave one, if not reversed. Why? I will argue today for three primary reasons why America needs to reinvest in the Balkan region, and then I will outline several specific recommendations for how we do it.
The first reason is the most obvious. We should not simply take for granted that the ethnic, religious, and political peace that has largely held within the region since the conflicts of the 1990s is permanent. That a flag at a soccer game could result in two Prime Ministers postponing an historic diplomatic meeting tells you all you need to know about the fragile nature of the region. I met with Serbian Prime Minister Vucic the morning after the match, and he was full of fire and brimstone, warning that this incident was going to greatly set back ethnic reconciliation efforts. I heard a similar concern during my trip to Albania later in the week. To be sure, major breakthroughs have been achieved – who could have guessed, five years ago, that Serbia would be on a path to recognize the existence of Kosovo. And despite the fact that Prime Minister Edi Rama’s visit to Belgrade has been put off, the visit of an Albanian leader to Serbia will be a momentous event whenever it occurs. Still, memories of the war are fresh, and potential flashpoints lurk everywhere. Peace cannot be taken for granted.
Second, as our nation’s attention appropriately turns to the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, we should pay close attention to the growing number of foreign fighters being recruited in Balkans. Up until recently, there has been no tradition of Islamic extremism in places like Kosovo or Albania or Bosnia. And even today, extremist mosques are outliers, exceptions to the rule. Muslims in the Balkans are serious about their religion, but these are secular states, and secular cultures, where people define themselves much more by their ethnicity than their religion. But money from terrorist funders has begun to creep into the Balkans, and some estimates suggest that over 200 young men from Kosovo alone have already been recruited into the ranks of ISIS. This happens in part because of the epidemic rates of unemployment and poverty amongst young people. In most Balkan nations, including Kosovo, upwards of 50% of young men are without jobs. This disconnection and disaffection leaves the region ripe for ISIS recruiters, who promise handsome sums of money to young men that have few, if any alternatives, to provide for their families. And ISIS is apparently developing safe haven inside Syria for these men, with reports that an Albanian community exists somewhere inside or near the conflict zone as friendly harbor for foreign fighters arriving from the Balkans.
Luckily, our friends in the region have recognized, perhaps a bit late, this threat, and are mounting a credible response. I met with the impressive new President of Kosovo, and I thanked her for recent enforcement actions that rounded up 15 terrorist recruiters within Kosovo. With U.S. assistance, law enforcement in the region is getting better at finding and arresting the bad actors, and this will make a difference in the fight going forward.
The third reason for increased U.S. involvement is the most important. To put it bluntly, as the U.S. pulls back involvement in the region, Russia is sitting on the doorstep, ready to take our place. I returned from my trip to the Balkans more worried about increasing Russian influence within the region, and what that might mean for our interests there. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not making a Cold War, neo-imperialist argument, where any position on the chess board occupied by Russia is automatically a loss for us. But I do believe that we will be better off with secure, non-corrupt, democratic governance in the region—and I am skeptical that such will be Vladimir Putin’s legacy.
In Belgrade, you can literally feel the growing Russian influence in the city’s air. Drive around, and you’ll see billboard after billboard with the Russian and Serbian flags wrapped together in an embrace, with a small, barely visible Gazprom logo in the bottom corner. On the day of my visit, the city was preparing for a visit by President Putin, and Vucic had organized a Soviet style military parade to coincide with Putin’s visit. As the deafening sound of MiG fighter jets, ostensibly rehearsing for the upcoming parade, zoomed over the top of Belgrade’s skyline, no one seemed alarmed by this rather extraordinary display of foreign military power.
And if you ask ordinary Serbians what they think of Russia, they will almost universally tell you they view Russia with some affection. This is, of course, natural, considering the history of Russian military support for Serbian independence, dating back to the fight against the Ottomans, and extending to today, when a friendship-slash-alliance with Russia reminds Serbia’s neighbors that it has a unique relationship that it could lean on in tough times. Coming off of a decade a war that ultimately rejected the notion of a pan-Serbian state, old rivalries die hard. Serbia, still infused with a sense of humiliation over its defeat, sees its relationship with Russia as a means to flex its muscle in the region.
Russia is actively probing ways to extend its influence inside Serbia. It still hopes to build the South Stream gas pipeline through Serbia, increasing the dependence of Serbia and the entire Balkan region on Russian energy. And even more dangerous is talk that Russia seeks to expand its military partnership with Serbia, perhaps co-locating Russian and Serbian troops somewhere in Serbia.
Serbia, for the time being, believes it can straddle a relationship with the U.S. and Europe on one hand, and Russia on the other hand. There is no denying Vucic wants an economic future with Europe – he would not have supported and helped implement the historic agreement normalizing relations with Kosovo if he didn’t think it was required to stay on a EU path. But in other areas, he sided with Putin, most recently when he rejected requests from the EU to join in the U.S.-EU sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
Now Serbia should be able to have a relationship with Russia and a relationship with the European Union. But I left Belgrade seeing some alarming parallels with Ukraine. And these are apples and oranges, but former Ukrainian President Yanukovych sought to have it both ways too, but the long process of application to, and negotiation with, the European Union left Russia with plenty of time to use a panoply of sticks and carrots to lure Yanukovych back into the Russian orbit. Serbia isn’t getting a full invite to join the EU anytime soon, and this leaves plenty of time for Russia to increase its leverage over Belgrade and to ultimately force it to choose, Mother Russia or Europe and the United States. That forced choice, in Kiev, resulted in chaos. We shouldn’t let it happen again.
In Montenegro, Russian ties are not as strong, but their intentions for gaining influence are no less than in Serbia. We have a good ally today in Prime Minister Djukonovic. His intentions are clear – he wants to be a NATO ally as soon as possible, and he wants full membership in the EU. But Russia sees this glaring NATO gap on the Adriatic, and hasn’t given up trying to step in and fill the role as Montenegro’s protector. Russia would like nothing more than to have a proxy in the middle of NATO’s Balkan arm.
It’s an open secret that Putin has made several multi-billion dollar offers to site a military base in Montenegro. So far, there isn’t any interest, but that kind of money, for a small and economically struggling country, is hard to keep passing up, over and over. And Russia is finding other ways into Montenegro. Like in Serbia, they are funneling lots of money to buy media outlets and to influence NGOs. And they are becoming major landholders. I visited a major American luxury housing developer in the resort city of Budva, and the majority of multi-million dollars units that he was selling were to Russians. There is so much Russian money along the coast that as you drive along the road, many of roadside signs that you see are actually in Russian. All of this influence is actually paying off – polls show a decreasing enthusiasm for Montenegro to join NATO, even while the majority of the Parliament supports the move. Disturbingly, it is hard for Montenegro to turn a blind eye to Russian money and influence.
So, to summarize – what could happen if the United States continues to allow its influence and presence in the Balkans to fade? First, there is a chance that ethnic and political tensions could boil over again, resulting in another global flash point. Second, foreign money could incentivize the radicalization of certain elements of Balkan Islam, leading to more foreign fighters leaving, and coming back to, places like Kosovo. And third, Russia could see the Balkans as the next front in their expansionist aims, and seek to giant holes in the territory of NATO and the European Union.
Luckily, it is not too late to do something about this, and America still has significant advantages and assets from which to draw. Most importantly, it is important to note that we are generally very well thought of in the Balkans. Albania reveres America. Bill Clinton has a street named after him in Pristina. And even in a place like Serbia, our great embassy there has done really important work to improve our image in the post-war era. But also, we have some relatively low-cost cards to play. All of these countries want a closer relationship with both Europe and with the United States. We don’t need to convince Balkan leaders to walk next to us, we just have to actually execute.
So, let me leave you with a few specific recommendations for how the United States can reinvest, both diplomatically and economically, and militarily, in the Balkans.
First, with Russia seeking to maintain influence over Serbia today, Belgrade needs to know that the U.S. is leaning into our bilateral relationship, not out of it. A high level visit from the Obama Administration would be an important signal the U.S. values this relationship. That would be a relatively easy thing to do, with disproportional benefit to the minor cost. But the other steps aren’t hard either. As Russia plows more money into Serbia, the United States is withdrawing aid. US AID, which funds efforts in Serbia to improve democratic institutions and the rule of law, has seen major cuts in the last few years. We should reverse these cuts, restore the money, and let Belgrade know that we are going to be a partner for years to come. And the U.S. can play a much larger role in helping keep Serbia on a path to the EU. This is Serbia’s intent, without a doubt, but in the case of Ukraine, the EU mismanaged the application process, giving Kiev too many excuses to turn away to Russia. Now with good reason, the U.S. doesn’t like to get involved in the weeds of the EU accession process, but we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines on this one. The EU’s inability to close the deal with Yanukovych ultimately drew the U.S. into a major international crisis. As a friend of both Brussels and Belgrade, the U.S. can play a more active role than we have in helping to keep the EU process moving constructively.
Second, NATO should offer membership to Montenegro as soon as possible. Russia is trying to muddy the waters as quickly as possible inside Montenegro, and we shouldn’t just assume that Montenegro will continue to spurn Russia’s security offers if NATO continues to spurn Montenegro. The reasons to keep Montenegro out of the alliance just don’t hold water any longer. Yes, the country has a long way to go when it comes to the rule of law and freedom of the press. But this is an incredibly young nation, and modern democracy takes time. And it’s worth asking the question whether they’ll get there faster as part of NATO’s umbrella or Putin’s. Finally, we shouldn’t fear upsetting Russia over a NATO invitation to Montenegro. In fact, we should fear the opposite. If Russia’s aggression in Ukraine chills, or worse, ends, NATO’s open door policy, then we are simply encouraging Russia to continue to engage in this kind of regional bullying. The best signal to send Russia right now is that NATO is open for business and growing, along the lines and rules that it traditionally has.
Third, we should increase our partnership with existing NATO allies in the region. I will give you one specific example of how we can do this. In Croatia, a dependable ally of the United States, they still rely on Russian hardware – particularly, Russian helicopters – within their military. The Croatians want to move away from Russian choppers and start buying U.S. made Blackhawks, but they need the U.S. to help them locate a couple used Blackhawks so they can save some money and begin now the transition period. If we had the will to do this – if the Balkans were a true priority – we could find a way. And we should.
Finally, a simple idea for a region that by and large, savors its connection to America. Exchange programs are in great demand in these countries, primarily because their inability to access our visa waiver program makes travel to the United States very difficult. In Pristina, I met with a group of students who had spent just a mere few weeks in the United States, but they were so enthusiastic about America that they were practically appendages of our embassy there. It would take scant resources to make a commitment to double exchange programs, for Balkans students to come to the United States, through great programs like Open World, over the next five years, it would make an enormous difference. In small nations like these, having a small, vocal group of pro-U.S. voices, who can speak about the real America from first-hand experience, will pay enormous dividends.
So these are some practical, reasonable, and I argue low-impact, low-cost steps the United States can take, in fairly short order, to reassert our presence and our priority over and in the Balkans. It’s a region that Congress, and the State Department, used to know well. But other crises, and time passed since the wars, have caused us to lose a little too much focus on this critical region. And as our sightlines move to different regions of the world appropriately, Russian eyes are becoming transfixed on the Balkans as their potential next project.
It’s a difficult region to understand, and in the end, I think it’s why a lot of members of Congress choose not focus there anymore. As I left my meeting with the Serbian Foreign Minister, he put a hand on my back and he told me, “The best advice I have for someone trying to comprehend the Balkans is – don’t.”
Well, it’s certainly not that inscrutable, and it’s worth our time and attention. We’ve put too much American blood and treasure into this region to turn away now. These are proud nations full of wonderful, proud people – with strong connections here in the U.S., not the least of which to my state of Connecticut. And the good news is that today, at we sit here now, a little more U.S. effort in the Balkans, will go an awful long way.
Thank you very much for having me here today.