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Townsend for VOA: The Balkans should not remain far from the attention of the USA and the EU

2023-12-05 20:09:00, Kosova & Bota CNA
Townsend for VOA: The Balkans should not remain far from the attention of the
Jim Townsend

Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Policy, Jim Townsend, estimates that one of the biggest disappointments of post-Cold War developments in Europe is the failure of the Balkan states to reach peace with each other. .

Mr. Townsend, who has played a critical role in expanding NATO and strengthening bilateral relations with the new democracies that emerged after the breakup of the former Soviet Union, says in an interview with VOA that thirty years after "the Christmas warning ” that President Bush made to Serbia over Kosovo, the likelihood of war breaking out is slim, but the United States, the EU and NATO must continue to focus on the problems in the Balkans and ensure that they are not left out of sight.

VOA: Mr. Townsend, your career spans more than three decades, during which you have been involved in formulating American policy on Europe and NATO, including the response to Russia and the expansion of the alliance. What is your assessment of the current security situation in Europe and in particular in relation to the Western Balkans?

Jim Townsend: I think the current security situation in Europe is a little surprising to all of us who worked to rebuild Europe after the Cold War in the 90s, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO with the Balkan states. We tried to envisage a Europe where integration would happen through membership in NATO and the European Union. At that time there was even talk that Russia could join NATO. This sounds like a crazy idea now, but in the early 90s, it was an idea that was seriously discussed. We did not think that developments would take this direction, especially what is happening with Russia. As you know, during the 90s there were also wars in the Balkans. Diplomacy at the time, some brave leaders... did a pretty good job of establishing peace in the Balkans, of managing the breakup of Yugoslavia. At the end of that decade, we had a vision for Europe, including the Balkans, envisioning a completely different future. Many of those predictions have come true. NATO expansion, EU expansion, many of the Balkan countries have joined NATO. But Russia is the biggest surprise, because it went in a completely different direction than we thought then. And this is one of the disappointments. The other disappointment was that we sincerely hoped that the Balkan countries would quickly reach peace with each other and integrate into European institutions such as NATO and the EU. It will happen, I believe it will, but more slowly than many of us want.

VOA: It has been 30 years since President Bush made the "Christmas warning" - then you were in government and contributed to the formulation of that policy, which ended the wars in the Balkans. Are you worried that history might repeat itself?

Jim Townsend: I don't think it's going to repeat itself in the way it did in the 90s when the fighting was really terrible. We witnessed many tragedies, many civilian deaths. I don't think there will be an outbreak of war like there was then. But we are all concerned that there is still the possibility of conflict there. During the last months, we have seen an increase in tensions between Kosovo and Serbia in particular, and there is also political unrest in Bosnia.

But what changes now from the 90s is the presence of the European Union and NATO with KFOR on the ground. Today we have tools available to manage the conflict and prevent its outbreak, which we did not have then. The 90s were a period during which the international community learned what kind of tools we needed there... I think we learned from that period as well as the Balkan countries. Conflict is always possible, but now we have the tools to prevent a repeat of what happened in the 90s.

Voice of America: You mention the tools and the disappointment at the speed with which the Balkan countries have moved. What do you think has held the region back?

Jim Townsend: Very good question, but not an easy one to answer. I think that some political personalities we know have not had the willingness to have aspirations or ambitions for integration, they are much more nationalist, more prone to conflict than diplomacy and communication and are not ready to make compromises between the aspirations of the peoples who live in the Balkans... And secondly, the entire political conflict and feelings towards each other have deep roots in many dimensions. It will take more than a few decades to overcome them. It will take a change of generations, new generations that will come to the political scene in the Balkans, to have a different view of the life they want for themselves and their children, different from that of their parents or grandparents. Perhaps a generation that will be more willing to make compromises and that embraces less nationalism, that wants to be European, a member of the European community and not just a local community that is constantly looking inward. That will make the difference more than anything else. Europe and the United States, the EU and NATO, must continue to focus on the problems of the Balkans and ensure that they are not ignored or sidelined because of the war in Ukraine or Gaza. We must continue to be patient and face the problems there. At the same time, we must react strongly to personalities who refuse to compromise, or who refuse to listen to the concerns of others and who become obstacles to peace. Therefore, I think that the West, its institutions and countries like the United States, should be firm in their positions and say clearly that they will support the continuous progress in the Balkans and we will not allow anyone to become an obstacle, to instigate problems. And in recent years, some states have managed to do just that. But some others have gone through cycles where, through voting or other means, autocratic leaders have come to power and interrupted the path of development and integration. NATO, the EU, the European states and the United States must really step up and keep the politicians of the region focused on integration and development and not return to nationalism and conflict.

Voice of America: NATO is considering the possibility of increasing its presence in Kosovo and Bosnia many years after the end of the war in these countries. The European Union has taken an initiative to condition Serbia's membership in the EU with the agreements that Serbia has signed with Kosovo, which lead to its de facto recognition. Do you think such an approach will be helpful in ending this conflict?

Jim Townsend: I think it's worth a try. I support the efforts of the European Union. I know that for years they have been engaged with NATO and with the US to try to come up with political approaches that can work, and not all of them have worked, but some have...

But I consider that if the EU is persistent, maybe in the meantime there will be a political change in Serbia. We must not give up, we must try different means and different ways that can influence to bring about political changes or change political attitudes, come up with a compromise. We need to sit at the table and discuss different ideas to reach a compromise. I support the efforts of the EU. I know it will be difficult, but we must try, just as we must increase KFOR forces and other missions when the conflict escalates. We must show our seriousness by increasing our forces to maintain stability.

Voice of America: How do you see the further development of the situation and what would be your advice to policy makers in Washington and European capitals?

Jim Townsend: My first advice is to keep up the pressure, to keep working there and not to divert attention from the Balkans because of developments in other countries. The stakes are high in the Balkans and a lot of good things can happen there if we work together. NATO Secretary General was there recently, also Secretary Blinken was in the region for the OSCE meeting, all good developments, but we have to be patient. It will take a generation or two to change and it is our duty to help those politicians who want the good. We must be there to help shape that development. And to do that, we have to be there because it's not something that can be done from Washington or Brussels...

We must always be looking for new approaches and we must be tough when we need to be tough with those Balkan leaders who fold their hands and say 'we will not move, we have a different future in mind.' We must be tough with them even if we have to send more forces to KFOR or EUFOR, even if it means sanctions, or postponing EU and NATO membership. We must be patient, but we must be determined. And we must always support those people in the region who aspire for better than we have seen in the past./ VOA

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