U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Serbia on May 20 during his three-day visit to the Balkans. His stop in Belgrade is bookended by visits to Bosnia and Kosovo. While in Belgrade, Biden said, "The United States does not — I emphasize does not — expect Serbia to recognize the independence of Kosovo," adding that such recognition is not a condition for U.S. support of the Serbian bid for membership in the European Union or for positive U.S.-Serbian relations. Biden's visit to the Balkans is intended to assure the Balkan states that Washington is still engaged in the region and that it supports the region's integration into the EU. However, it remains to be seen to what extent the Europeans are on the same page with the United States.
U.S. foreign policy toward the Balkans has essentially been on autopilot since the Sept. 11 attacks. The Bush administration quickly became entangled in the invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq, leaving Western policy toward the Balkans in the hands of senior U.S. State Department bureaucrats — most of whom were holdovers from the Clinton administration — and the EU. This was not a controversial move at the time, since the war in Bosnia was long over, regional troublemaker Serbia had begun serious democratic reforms and Kosovo was already de facto severed from Belgrade's control. Washington saw its hands-on role diminish as the Balkan states began what was expected to be a long road toward EU accession. However, the region hit a number of roadblocks in its progress toward democratic reforms and European integration. First, in Bosnia, the Serbian political entity of Republika Srpska has resisted the international community's moves to strengthen Bosnian federal institutions and has even hinted at outright secession
to join Serbia. Furthermore, tensions have recently erupted in Bosnia's other political entity, the Muslim-Croat Federation, with Croats demanding greater autonomy
. Biden's speech in front of the Bosnian parliament — described as "emotional" by commentators — included a stern warning for the nationalist politicians whom he said would reignite ethnic tensions and bring forth economic ruin if they continued trying to pull Bosnia apart. Second, tensions between Serbia and the West
re-emerged with Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence
in February 2008, a move that most Western countries supported. Serbia has pursued a diplomatic strategy of countering Kosovar independence
at every turn (including seeking an advisory opinion from the U.N. International Court of Justice) and tacitly supported the Serbs in Northern Kosovo
and their refusal to submit to the rule of the Kosovar Albanian government in Pristina. The government in Belgrade, led by nominally pro-Western parties, has also irked the EU by selling Serbia's state owned energy company Naftna Industrija Srbije (NIS) to Russia
. Belgrade also refuses to apply for NATO membership and recently refused to participate in NATO exercises in Georgia as a show of solidarity with Russia. But aside from the lingering tensions within the various Balkan states, there is also the issue of the EU's resistance toward enlargement. The accession of various countries that are former Yugoslav republics was always going to be a bitter pill to swallow for the EU, but it was one that the Europeans believed they would have to stomach in order to keep conflict from returning to the region. However, the failure of the Lisbon Treaty is likely to slow down enlargement
, while bickering between Slovenia and Croatia threatens to establish a policy of tit-for-tat brinksmanship
between former Yugoslav republics in the EU and those outside of it. Finally, there is the global recession, which is hitting Europe particularly hard
and has definitely put a stop to any talk of EU enlargement for the foreseeable future. Biden's visit is therefore meant to show that the United States has not abandoned the region and its progress toward future EU membership. The visit was more than just symbolic; it brought a senior U.S. official to Belgrade for the first time since a 1983 visit by then-Vice President George H. W. Bush. While Biden did not necessarily state anything new, his statement that Serbia does not have to — nor does the U.S. expect it to — recognize Kosovo in order to have Washington's support for EU membership will certainly help the current pro-EU government in power in Belgrade. However, the West's only current "carrot" for the Balkan states is EU membership. Biden in fact talked of EU membership more than any U.S. policy while in Sarajevo and Belgrade. But the inherent problem with that strategy is that EU membership is under the purview of EU member states, and no matter how much the current U.S. administration pushes for greater integration of the Balkans into Europe, it remains up to the Europeans to follow through with the strategy. In the foreseeable future, however, the EU will continue suffering from "enlargement fatigue" and will be too busy with internal issues to energetically pursue Balkan integration. The Balkan capitals will easily see this lack of energy, and then the question will become what happens when Balkan states realize that EU membership — essentially the only Western incentive to keep a lid on ethnic tensions — is nowhere in sight.