Interview with Mr. Kurt Bassuener, co-founder and senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council, a Berlin-based think-tank. Mr.Bassuener is a Fulbright scholar and PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews, School of International Relations, Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence.Interviewed by Selim Ibraimi from the Institute for Security Studies and Development (@ISSDMacedonia)
ISSD:Mr. Bassuener, how do you assess the debate over border correction between Kosovo and Serbia?
Kurt Bassuener: The effort to sell it obviously continues, as demonstrated with President Thaci’s Washington DC appearances last week. The US administration seems to be maintaining its support of such a Vucic-Thaci-Mogherini deal, which remains undefined. The parameters discussed by some who attended his public discussion at the Atlantic Council – seeming to exclude North Mitrovica from the “correction,” while no clarity on any territory going the other way, seems unlikely to be saleable a) to Vucic and b) within Kosovo, where the idea of border changes is highly unpopular among the general population and politically. This includes Thaci’s PDK. The modus operandi appears to be to build-up tension while continuing to develop a bilateral deal, then presenting it as a solution to reduce those tensions. There is every indication the EEAS remains committed to such a deal. Germany is by far the most vocal against it. But the calculus in Brussels, Belgrade, and Thaci’s office in Prishtina appears to be that this will soften if a deal is presented. This is why it is important for Berlin to deepen and broaden support for its principled position, both within the Bundestag and among EU member states, many of which expressed their scepticism earlier in the fall.
ISSD:Mr. Bassuener, what are the risks to Kosovo’s statehood?
Kurt Bassuener: The risks are major – to territorial integrity, the social fabric, and the governance system. Kosovo’s independence – its recognition by most of the West – was predicated on building in safeguards for Kosovo’s Serbs and other minorities. While some engage in sophistry to say that a “border correction” is not ethnifying borders, noting correctly that more Serbs live south of the Ibar, they purposely evade the point. The likely reality is that shorn of the north (in whatever proportion), many Kosovars will question the need for these structural failsafes. Furthermore, the fallback that has been mooted to no “land swap” (and it is highly unlikely that any significant territory would come from Serbia in exchange) is making the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities a de facto entity, a la Republika Srpska in Bosnia. This gets at governance functionality. This is also broadly unsaleable in Kosovo. The potential for Serbs remaining in Kosovo – and Albanians in Serbia – to feel threatened in their homes following a “border correction” is high.It is important to note that for Vucic and Belgrade, this is not being pursued to ensure Kosovo Serbs’s rights. This is about Serbia being able to “save face” by getting a pound of flesh and square kilometres of territory, Belgrade’s pointman on Kosovo, Marko Djuric, made this clear in his statements at the Belgrade Security Forum just over a month ago, when he referred not only to Kosovo’s departure, but the whole of former Yugoslavia, as territory Serbia “lost.”
ISSD:Mr. Bassuener, specifically, to move ahead what Kosovo and Serbia should do?
Kurt Bassuener: To move ahead, Serbia ought to recognize Kosovo’s statehood. But absent clarity from EU and other Western capitals that this is the price for Serbia’s entry into the EU, this is not at all likely. A cross-party declaration from the Bundestag that Serbia cannot enter the EU unless it recognizes Kosovo in its current borders would unilaterally send that message. Among citizens of Kosovo, I think a lot more is possible in response to the attempt to make these decisions at the executive level, representing a sort of “big man” politics that long since should have been transcended in the Western Balkans. I understand many Kosovo Serbs, including those north of the Ibar, are not at all thrilled with the proposed “border correction,” for their own interests as well as those of their fellow Serbs to the south. The murder of Oliver Ivanovic has certainly contributed to a feeling of vulnerability and reluctance to speak out. So Kosovo Albanians at the civic and political level who wish to torpedo discussions of border changes need to recognize their most crucial potential allies in constructing a genuinely democratic and accountable, integral Kosovo are Kosovo Serbs, particularly in the north. A broadly acceptable common position on the sort of state that could be – including collective guarantees – would be the most certain way to prevent top-down solutions pursued for the political benefit of two men.
ISSD:Mr. Bassuener, what geopolitical influence could have the establishment of new borders for Macedonia and Bosnia/Hercegovina?
Kurt Bassuener: The acceptance by the Trump administration and the EEAS of the idea of border changes in the Balkans has acted as an accelerant to already unconstrained pursuit of the many unfulfilled nationalist agendas in the Balkans. This has already been seen in BiH, with support from within Serbia. Milorad Dodik, now on the state presidency, has never ceased his advocacy of RS statehood; Belgrade graffiti recently photographed by a friend reads “if Kosovo isn’t Serbia, Republika Srpska isn’t Bosnia!” There is no possible way BiH could collapse or break apart peacefully.
ISSD:Mr. Bassuener, The United States and the European Union have issued various reactions. Is there a rift between Washington and Brussels?
Kurt Bassuener: There is a transatlantic rift, but between Washington and Berlin. On Kosovo partition, there seems a Bolton-Mogherini axis in favour of a deal, any deal. Many other EU members – including among the five non-recognizers – are highly dubious, but have not openly backed Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Maas on this. Apparently, it’s seen as bad form. I personally think that’s a mistake. If they want to avert this, they need to be vocal and unequivocal.
ISSD:Mr. Bassuener, how do you see the future of the Balkans in next 10 years?
Kurt Bassuener: There is such a range! I think a lot will clarify, for better or worse, in the coming 2-3 years. If the EU can reset itself by recommitting to foundational values, if the US actively repudiates Trump and commits itself anew to both shoring up its own democracy and entering into collaborative multilateralism with European, American, and Asian democracies, the environment will be far more conducive for Balkan democrats. The maladies we are suffering in the West are ones your readership will intimately recognize. There is a reason I call Trump “our first Balkan president.” I recognize this operating system! Inat works in the West as well as it does in the Balkans…But the real change can only be assisted, not driven, from without. In the region, Macedonia is by far the brightest spot – the only locus of real bottom-up change, a chance for durable societal transformation. It’s not anywhere near done; it can all go terribly wrong and be arrested.
And the strategy will need to emerge from civil society, which was the launchpad for the positive opportunities the country experienced in the past two years. Had it not been for those brave enough to voice a different vision of the country when Gruevski’s dominance was strong, as well as tens of thousands demonstrating, and finally tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians voting for SDSM in Dec 2016, Macedonia wouldn’t have this chance. So that a) cannot be forgotten and b) cannot be squandered. It remains an inspiration for those who want to build inclusive and responsive democracies in Bosnia, Serbia, and throughout the region. It’s not just the government’s job.I remain an optimist about the potential for the region. And that is realizable. But it won’t begin or be sustained from the top, from government, from the West. It has to be pushed, relentlessly, from below with a vision not only of what people don’t want, but what they DO want.
ISSD:Mr. Bassuener, how do you see the future of Macedonia in regard to building state for both ethnic groups?
Kurt Bassuener: I think my answer above covers most of this. I’d only add that I see the country as not just a Macedonian and Albanian project – there are a tenth of Macedonians who are neither. They are often excluded from the equation; I am guilty of this as much as anyone in my own writing. But this is wrong. In fact, their role in systemic reboot could be very instructive for the larger two groups. In my own view, the decentralization envisioned in OFA was hijacked for political party control – making it real, with the resources necessary, is essential. Also, I believe an electoral system reform that links parliamentary representatives to their voters by directly representing municipalities would be a vital ingredient in an accountably democratic Macedonia.
ISSD:Mr. Bassuener, what is the role of Russia in Macedonia and in the Balkans?
Kurt Bassuener: An active and destructive disruptor. Certainly, Russia has an interest in preventing Macedonia from joining NATO next year, so I have little doubt it will do its utmost to “stir the pot” in both Macedonia and Greece in efforts to scupper the Prespa Agreement. Russia’s closest partner in the region is Milorad Dodik in Bosnia.More broadly, I worry about the heightened policy attention toward Russia (and other illiberal actors) in the region. This is not because I do not see their increased traction as menacing – it is. Rather, I fear that it will push the US and EU into a competitive mentality which local illiberal leaders will exploit to avoid opprobrium for their misdeeds in closing public space, subverting rule of law, and so on. Gruevski attempted to exploit this (and EU migration fears), not without success. Vucic and Belgrade have been far more successful. Even Viktor Orban, whose malign influence is known in Macedonia, has benefitted from a softer touch from Washington, which did not apply significant pressure on his now-delivered threat to close Central European University (where I completed my MA 24 years ago). Playing a values-free, transactional geopolitical game is accepting terrain on which Russia, China, and Balkan elites can outmaneuver us. The West’s most potent and popular feature is our liberal democratic values. Our real allies are numerous in each of the Western Balkan countries. This is where Western efforts should concentrate. Balkan citizens and civic activists can help themselves by being less deferential toward, and more demanding of, us on the values front. You should demand that we “walk our talk.”
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