I’m just back from a four-day trip to the Balkans, and as is my custom after my diplomatic travel, I’ve written up a candid, behind-the-scenes account of my trip. So what follows is the short story of my visit to Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Belgium.
Connecticut is home to a large and active Albanian community. It’s that community, and the concerns they’ve raised to me about the fragile state of peace in their homeland, that originally sparked my interest in visiting southeastern Europe. But as I’ve traveled back to the Balkans over and over during the past decade in my role as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I have gained an appreciation for how the region — a place where global conflicts often begin — is a key region to the United States, and increasingly a battleground between U.S. and Russian interests.
Soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen — the Senate’s other Balkans leader — and I began discussing the importance of a congressional trip to the Balkans. As we watched our other Ukraine-focused colleagues make pilgrimages to Poland and the Baltics, we knew that Russia’s next target might not be a NATO state, but instead the combustible set of small countries in the southeastern corner of Europe. The Balkans are now more than twenty years past their set of civil wars in the 1990s, but the peace there is held together by weakening threads, and as Ukraine’s success in the war makes Putin more and more desperate, he will likely turn to the Balkans — where he has influence and proxies — to try to make trouble for Europe and the United States.
We also recruited Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina to join. On the Monday night after Easter, Shaheen, Tillis and I boarded our flights to start our trip.
This trip happened at a dizzying pace. Four cities in four days. One night each in four hotels. Fourteen-hour days Monday through Friday.
Our first stop was Belgrade, Serbia. Over the years, I have developed a relationship with the country’s powerful President, Aleksandar Vučić — we often have lunch when he visits Washington. As we arrived at the presidential offices, he warmly greeted our delegation. Neither Shaheen nor Tillis had ever met Vučić, so I began our meeting with a typical, long-winded set of diplomatic remarks about the long friendship between our two nations. Two minutes into my opening monologue, Vučić cut me off.
“Chris, Chris Chris…we know each other too well. Stop this formality. What do you want to know? I will tell you.”
“Ok, Aleksandar,” I replied, a bit thrown. “We want to know this — are you going to stand with democratic nations and sanction Russia, or are you going to keep playing both sides?”
This launched us into a long and candid conversation about Serbia’s historic desire to, as they say in the Balkans, sit on two chairs. One in Europe and one in Russia. Vučić had deftly managed this balance for years, but now the invasion of Ukraine has forced him to a decision point. No longer will the European Union — of which Serbia wants to become a member — let Vučić sit in both chairs. He is going to have to choose, and over the course of the hour, we pushed Vučić on several short-term steps he could make toward the right choice.
“Call me in sixty days,” he told us as the meeting broke. “Check to see if I’ve done what I am telling you I will do.”
“It’s a date,” I told him.
During my many trips to the region, somehow I had never been to one of the most magical Balkan cities — Sarajevo. Nestled in a small valley in the Dinaric Alps, Sarajevo is a spellbinding mix of Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman architecture, representing the two cultures that continue to pull at this international city. Moving through the city, you can see the evidence of its violent and recent past. Bullet holes dot the city’s main thoroughfare, nicknamed “Sniper Alley” because it was lined with Serb sniper posts which fired on city-dwelling Bosniaks as they traversed the besieged city.
Low cloud cover delayed our plane ride to Sarajevo from Belgrade Wednesday morning, so by the time we arrived, we had to skip our morning meetings and head right to the most important engagement of the day — our meeting with the three Presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Our excellent Ambassador, Michael Murphy, hurriedly briefed us in the van ride from the airport, and we strategized with him about how to approach the meeting.
Since the Dayton Peace Accords were signed over twenty years ago, the most difficult peace to sustain in the region has been in Bosnia. While most states created after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the 1990s wars had one dominant ethnic group, Bosnia’s borders included a big population of Serbs, Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks. Thus, the Dayton Agreement called for a formal power-sharing agreement where the executive branch would include three Presidents — one representing each group. For a while, the three presidents begrudgingly found the compromise necessary to keep the new nation running. But lately, mostly due to the obstinance and separatist rhetoric of the Bosnian Serb President, Milorad Dodik, the tripartite executive branch has lurched into crisis, unable to make any decisions. As a result, Dodik, backed by Russia, has begun to make plans to set up his own Serb-only government institutions. This could lead to civil war and disaster for the region — exactly the kind of chaos that Putin would root for and foment.
Our preparation for the meeting mattered little. From the jump, Dodik and the Croat and Bosniak leaders were more interested in arguing with each other than having an actual dialogue with us. We sat with our mouths agape as they lobbed insults and aired grievances, clearly interested only in exacerbating the existing crisis. We tried our best to explain to them how America has long struggled with the same issues Bosnia wrestles with — both our nations are multicultural with power-sharing between a strong national government and strong state governments. But they were barely listening to us, and we left the meeting deeply concerned about the short-term stability of this important country.
As we prepared for a press conference after the meeting, a U.S. embassy press officer told us she had two sensitive topics to raise in anticipation of questions from the Bosnian press. First, she flagged that the audio of the meeting introductions captured one of us saying to Dodik, who is the subject of U.S. sanctions, “Good to see you, President Dodik.” She was concerned about the connotation of suggesting it’s “good” to see someone on a U.S. sanctions list. We smiled and told her it wasn’t something to worry about. Second, she told us we might get a question about an allegation Dodik has made recently — that the U.S. and Britain are planning to kidnap him and lock him in a windowless basement. We laughed — and then realized that she was indeed serious.
“How about we agree to a one-word answer to that question if it comes up,” said Tillis. “Absurd.”
While in Serbia, our goal was to make diplomatic progress on goals important to the United States, here it was clear that our mission was going to be mostly one of fact-finding. Senator Shaheen, Senator Tillis, and I spent the rest of our trip discussing the implications of our meeting with the presidents and our other engagements in Sarajevo, and started to plot a strategy for how Congress could address the growing stability crisis in Bosnia.
Pristina is one of my favorite cities in the world. Kosovo is a young country in two ways: first, the state itself is only thirteen years old, having been established as the last of the new post-Yugoslavia states; second, the population is also very young, with over 65% of Kosovars being under the age of thirty. It gives the small capital city a brewing, energetic vibe that I’ve come to deeply admire.
In Pristina, we had two primary tasks. The first was to review the Afghan refugee processing program that operates out of Camp Bondsteel, a U.S. Army base south of Pristina, and to express our thanks to all the U.S. service members and civilians who are living and working under difficult conditions. The United States provided important moral and political support to Kosovo as it established its independence, and the friendship between our two nations is deep. So when we asked Kosovo to host Afghan refugees while they await vetting and screening before entering the United States, Kosovo quickly accepted.
Most of the refugees have already left Camp Bondsteel. Only about 75 remain — individuals who were flagged in the initial check and require follow-up screening. But for the 75, these are nervous times. They’ve watched hundreds of refugees leave Camp Bondsteel for new lives in America, and every time a bus departs, their names are not called. For some, their past may mean they are never admitted to the U.S. I spoke to a man waiting for a haircut who had been at Camp Bondsteel for months with his 13 and 14-year-old sons. He had worked closely with U.S. forces in Afghanistan, spoke fluent English, and explained to me how difficult it is to have his entire life in limbo.
“My children are suffering, not knowing if we can ever leave,” he told me. “What if we cannot get to America? It’s not safe for us to go back to Afghanistan. What do we do?”
It’s a question I couldn’t answer for him.
Our second task was to deliver a strong message to the new Kosovo government in our meetings with the young President, Vjosa Osmani, and the activist-turned-Prime Minister, Albin Kurti. Kosovo would like to join both NATO and the European Union, but in order for this to happen, Serbia and Kosovo must come to an agreement in which both recognize the legal existence of the other state. A dialogue toward this end is in process, but both the Serbian and Kosovar governments have not made enough progress, and lately, Kurti’s government has been particularly stubborn in keeping the talks going.
Inside both meetings, Shaheen, Tillis, and I were rigorously consistent in our message on the need to get back into serious talks with Serbia. On many domestic matters,we could easily find ourselves on different pages. I’m a progressive Democrat, Senator Shaheen is a more moderate Democrat, and Senator Tillis is a conservative Republican. I’ve traveled many times before with Shaheen, but this was the first time the three of us have worked together overseas. Our chemistry was natural, and in our meetings with Kurti and Osmani, I think they were both struck by the coordinated bi-partisan message.
On our way back to the States, we made a quick stop in Brussels to get an update on the war in Ukraine at NATO headquarters and to meet with senior European Union leaders on Balkans policy. Senator Shaheen left on a Friday afternoon flight, Senator Tillis headed to the hotel early to get sleep for his early morning Saturday flight back to Charlotte, and I headed off to dinner with our Ambassador to the European Union, Mark Gitenstein.
Ambassador Gitenstein gave me a tour of the Ambassador’s residence, which is immaculately appointed. Frankly, the humble Gitenstein, one of Joe Biden’s longest and oldest advisors and friends, was a little embarrassed by the grandeur of the design, so he let me in on the home’s secret. He explained to me that during the one year that Trump’s Ambassador Gordon Sondland (the one that was running Trump’s aid-for-election-help bribery scheme in Ukraine) lived in the house, he undertook a $3 million renovation, all at his own expense.
“Well, I’m glad he did one thing well while he was here,” I joked.
On Saturday morning, I headed off to the airport to get a flight home, deeply worried about the future of Bosnia. As our Ambassador told us while we were in Sarajevo, “if violence begins in Bosnia, the whole region will be drawn in.” I’m glad that Senator Shaheen, Senator Tillis, and I have agreed to form a bipartisan team to work on this potential crisis. Despite the foreboding signs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I left the region hopeful that — with the help of continued congressional engagement — maybe this is the moment that Serbia can begin to join with Europe in tougher policy toward Russia. That would be a great development for the United States.
Ultimately, as I settled into my seat on the United Airlines flight home, I felt optimistic that our whirlwind four-day, four-city trip will have made a difference.