With a Clinton at the top of the Democratic ticket, Tuesday’s United States elections are generating significant interest in the Balkans and are dividing some neighbors along familiar ethnic lines. A quick trip around the Western Balkans reveals Clinton footprints all over the region, some of which trigger feelings of immense gratitude and some of which are the source of long-lasting anger.
In the latter half of the 1990s, then-president Bill Clinton arguably delivered peace through strength to the Balkans. However, Clinton’s signature peace agreement is malfunctioning as a system of governance, and the U.S. interventions in the region have left a trail of radical Islam and unhealed wounds that are affecting geopolitics.
Peace through strength
Clinton-led NATO interventions effectively put an end to both the brutal Bosnian War, in which about 100,000 people were killed, and the Kosovo War in which more than 10,000 people died. NATO air strikes did kill numerous civilians, but they halted mass murders and ethnic cleansing which had occurred repeatedly during the Yugoslav wars. In the aftermath of the interventions, there were brief ethnic Albanian insurgencies in southern Serbia and in Macedonia. Also, minor clashes between Albanians and Serbs persisted in Kosovo for another decade. But, the majority of the killing ended, and in the current decade, the Balkans have been relatively peaceful.
Bosnian medical doctor Emina Bicakcic, 28, was 8 years old when the Dayton Agreement was signed in Paris in Dec. 1995, marking the end of the Bosnian War. While her family was watching the signing ceremony, Bicakcic authored a poem expressing her gratitude to Bill Clinton for restoring peace in Bosnia. A few months later, Bicakcic read the poem to Hillary Clinton after the first lady landed in Tuzla, Bosnia.
During an interview in Sarajevo, Bicakcic explained her gratitude to the Clintons for putting an end to the war. Prior to the successful peace negotiations, Bicakcic had spent much of her life under siege without basic amenities and, at times, threatened by grenade and sniper fire.
“All of a sudden you have cartoons, you have TV, you have electricity, you have running water,” Bicakcic said.
Similar sentiments are echoed by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo who had been oppressed by the forces of Slobodan Milosevic.
Elba Morina is a co-owner of the “Hillary” boutique, which lies on Bill Clinton Boulevard in the heart of Pristina.
“We wanted the name to be Hillary because of all the sympathy and respect we have for the Clintons,” Morina said. “What they did for us in the right moments is why we put (Hillary as) the name of the store.”
The 1995 Dayton Agreement was Bill Clinton’s signature diplomatic achievement in the Balkans. In addition to being a peace agreement, the Dayton accord set up a system of governance for Bosnia that divided the country into a Serb dominated entity and a Bosniak (Muslim)-Croat dominated entity. Additionally, a tripartite presidency was created, and international overseers were given powers to intervene in Bosnian affairs in order to implement the accord.
This system remains in effect today, though it is arguably on life support. The leader of the Serb entity, U.S. ally-turned-foe Milorad Dodik, is threatening secession and mounting successful challenges to Bosnia’s constitutional court, as well as the authority of international overseers. Those overseers are doing little to halt Dodik’s obstructions. Meanwhile, ethnic tensions and national-level gridlock are stalling Bosnia’s western integration process and causing many to wonder whether the country will break apart.
Bicakcic, too, is concerned.
“In moments, you don’t even know where you are living,” Bicakcic said. “Are you living in Bosnia and Herzegovina or just living in a country that will soon perish?”
Since the 1990s, Bosnia has also grappled with the problem of radical Islam.
During the Clinton Administration, radical Islamists gained a foothold in Bosnia as foreign fighters, or jihadists, arrived to join the war on the side of the Bosniaks. The fighters were known as the mujahideen, and they managed to recruit some locals to join their forces.
The Dayton Agreement mandated that the mujahideen leave Bosnia, but some remained, gained Bosnian citizenship and functioned as al-Qaeda’s branch in the Balkan state. That al-Qaeda branch, which received Saudi backing, produced two 9/11 hijackers, both of whom were Saudi veterans of the Bosnian War. Likewise, 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden obtained a Bosnian passport and was thought to have paid visits to Bosnian al-Qaeda camps on multiple occasions.
Much of the funding for jihadists in Bosnia came from the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The commission was headed by then-prince Salman, who is now the Saudi king.
Richard Holbrooke, who was Clinton’s top Balkan diplomat, told the Los Angeles Times in 2001 that the arrival of the mujahideen in Bosnia was “a pact with the devil.” Holbrooke made the comment shortly after 9/11, and he said Bosnia was still recovering from the pact.
Whereas in the 1990s Middle Eastern jihadists were coming into Bosnia, Balkan jihadists are now going to fight in the Middle East. Over the last few years, hundreds of Balkan jihadists have joined the ranks of the Islamic State and other Islamist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq.
In Europe, the per capita leader for exporting fighters to the Islamic State has been Kosovo. Like Bosnia, Kosovo has been a routine recipient of Saudi money since its war ended. Earlier this year, a New York Times article stated Saudi Arabia has been training and funding Islamic clerics who promote jihad and Sharia law in Kosovo. Additionally, Saudi money has been used to bribe impoverished Kosovars into adopting radical Islam, the New York Times piece states.
Coincidentally, Saudi Arabia is also a top donor to the Clinton Foundation, the private charity run by the Clintons. Recently, Hillary Clinton has faced accusations of using the foundation as part of a pay-to-play scheme during her years as secretary of state.
As with Bosnia, Kosovo’s government is currently crippled by internal strife. Over the past year, a nationalist opposition party has repeatedly set off tear gas inside the parliament, literally shutting down the government and stopping it from proceeding with reforms and EU-brokered agreements with neighboring Serbia and Montenegro.
Crossing over into Serb-dominated North Kosovo, a group of men are gathered on the main street in North Mitrovica. They refer to Hillary Clinton as “Hitlery.” Another person on the Serb side of the divided city of Mitrovica describes Bill Clinton as “the ultimate bad person.” When one man is asked if he has any preference in the U.S. elections, he says he likes Ratko Mladic and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mladic, a wartime Bosnian Serb military leader, is currently on trial in the Hague for war crimes.
In proper Serbia, the ruins of the bombed-out former Yugoslav defense ministry building still stand in the heart of Belgrade. The destroyed building serves as a daily reminder to Serbians of the destruction caused by Bill Clinton’s bombs. Coincidentally, Hillary Clinton’s Republican challenger, Donald Trump, had reportedly been in talks to turn the property into a hotel.
Many Serbs, including Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, are currently supporting Trump. Seselj and other nationalists, who recently returned to the Serbian parliament, are calling for ending Belgrade’s European Union membership talks and instead pursuing closer ties with Russia. Moscow, which blocked UN approval of the bombing of Yugoslavia, is seen by many as a protector of Serbia.
“Many people are personalizing politics,” said Aleksandar Kokotovic, a Belgrade resident and the director of the libertarian organization, European Students for Liberty.
Kokotovic said a consequence of Clinton’s bombing of Yugoslavia has been political debate in Serbia becoming personalized.
“It caused a great level of wrong perception or different perception of international relations,” Kokotovic said of the NATO bombing. Many people in Serbia now view geopolitics as “us, them,” rather than acknowledging the variety of possible trade and economic cooperation policies that Belgrade can pursue, he added.
Jockeying for influence
With Serbia, as well as Montenegro, currently in negotiations to join the EU, and Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Kosovo possibly to follow, the Western Balkans is the focal point of EU expansion. Following the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU, the bloc is trying to demonstrate to the world that it still has credibility. To do so, it may need to integrate its aspiring members in the Western Balkans.
The planned EU accession of both Bosnia and Kosovo is viewed as something that will occur, in the distant future, if at all. Macedonia’s European integration process is also stalled. Furthermore, recognition of Kosovo could be a roadblock on Serbia’s path to joining the EU.
In the years since the Clintons left the White House, U.S. influence in the Balkans has been on the decline. Though each of the Western Balkan states aspires to join the bloc, the EU has struggled to fill the vacuum left by Washington.
Meanwhile, Russian influence is arguably rising. Putin has given political backing to Dodik in Republika Srpska in an apparent attempt to halt western Integration. Also, pro-Russian media in the Balkans have been credited with instilling glossy views of Moscow in the minds of Serbia’s youth. Likewise, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other predominantly Muslim countries are vying for influence in Bosnia and Kosovo.
If the Clintons do reclaim the White House, this time they will not have the misfortune of inheriting war in the Balkans. However, they will inherit a mess, in part of their own making, in a region where the Euro-Atlantic world is trying to show it sill has credibility.