Category Archives: Foreign Policy

What About Serbia?

As the catastrophic Syrian civil war carries on, the exodus of refugees into Europe has become a security issue, creating a crisis that has become dangerously divisive within the EU – and has left hundreds of thousands of refugees within Serbia’s borders. But, there is more to it. This crisis has the potential to either supercharge or undermine Serbia’s domestic and foreign policies by becoming domestically divisive or altering its EU accession potential.

This gives rise to an extremely important question the EU must ask itself – what about Serbia?

Refugees in Gazelle Park, Belgrade, Serbia
Refugees in Gazelle Park, Belgrade, Serbia. Photo: Tanjug/Zoran Zestic

As Nick Avila wrote in “Flashpoint Europe: The Refugee Crisis and the Fate of the Union,” Syrian refugees are increasingly using travel routes through the Balkans since the cessation of Operation Mare Nostrum. These routes have been of critical importance since antiquity, being used for trade and war between two mighty continents. Therefore, the Balkans have always been considered on “the crossroads” between them – a coveted geostrategic location that has given it a tumultuous past, including 500 years of foreign occupation by multiple empires.

But Serbia is now on the crossroads in terms of the migration crisis. In the geographic sense, this is obvious. However, in an ideological sense, Serbia finds itself in a liminal state between the EU’s “community of values” and rationalist security paranoia of its members on the periphery. Sonja Licht best summed up this sentiment in her appeal to the EU given at the 2015 Belgrade Security Forum:

The EU is witnessing the 21st century’s first large migration wave moving towards its borders. This influx of people has forced countries on its Balkan route to manage hundreds of thousands of desperate, destitute people. Not yet EU members, these countries met the task with humanity and relative efficiency – only to find out that some EU countries had suspended the principles of human rights and other basic values that the Union is built upon. The image of the EU as a community of values with high standards of human rights protection is seriously undermined.

Setting the Security Stage

Currently, the EU’s Balkan periphery states are treating the influx of migrants as a threat to their social and economic sectors. This has come about in large part by institutionalizing post-war “securitizations.”[1] To clarify, after WWII, Europe “securitized” itself in order to prevent another war. This meant the creation the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of the EU. Along with NATO, this secured Europe during the Cold War. However, this strategy was disrupted by the disintegration of Yugoslavia, which significantly traumatized both the Balkans and the EU. From a liberal perspective, the chaos that unfolded in the 1990s highlighted the EU’s inability to mobilize and act internationally in the name of its liberal core values.  From the rationalist perspective, it highlighted an inability to protect regional stability at its borders.

This trauma intensified and expanded Europe’s institutionalization of security in the social, political, and military sectors. More specifically, these considerations led Europe to “securitize disintegration,” and adopt a policy of “universal values,” eastward expansion, and integration. It even led to “the European pillar” of NATO – the European Security and Defense Identity (ESDI).[2] With all of this in mind, it becomes clear why and how EU members became so security-focused.

Serbia’s Move to Europe – a Delicate Balance

Serbia’s move toward Europe has not been easy, in large part because of deep-rooted domestic political divisions. These divisions, combined with Serbia’s international role in the migrant crisis, have created a delicate balance which, if disturbed, could lead to significant European consequences. This balance has two main facets – the “us/them” dynamic and security divergence.

"Bulldozer Revolution" Belgrade, Serbia 2000. Image Source: www.suedosteuropa.uni-graz.at
“Bulldozer Revolution” Belgrade, Serbia 2000. Image Source: www.suedosteuropa.uni-graz.at

First, there exists a delicate balance with regard to  the “us/them” relationship between Serbia and the EU. Even after the NATO air campaign, Serbia has made it a priority to move towards a stable, modern Europe, thus reducing the “us/them” gap. Serbia has arguably been on this path since October 2000, when the “Bulldozer Revolution” symbolized a popular intolerance of totalitarianism, communism, aggression, and violation of human rights. This is not to say that nationalists stood by; they put up a fight to widen the gap between Serbia and Europe, and the two primary discourses in Serbia – the nationalist-liberational  and the civil-democratic (pro-EU), became deadlocked.[3] This became readily apparent in 2003, when Dr. Zoran Đinđić, the “first democratic prime minister,” was assassinated for his pro-EU reform agenda and his abrupt extradition of Milošević to The Hague in 2001.

In 2008, the pendulum arguably swung in the direction of Europe when Serbia reelected Boris Tadić as its president, and his coalition won a victory soon after in the parliamentary elections. However, due to recent delays in Serbian EU-accession, the Greek financial crisis, and the EU’s proclaimed “enlargement fatigue,” the nationalist-liberational discourse has been gaining momentum, swinging the pendulum away from Europe.  According to the Serbian Office for EU Integration, public support for EU membership fell from 72% to 51% between 2003 and 2012.[5]  Similar numbers were shown by other polls, including one done in 2014 by the EU Delegation to Serbia and Medium Gallup.[6]

However, the “us/them” dynamic isn’t the only complicated balance. The second one is a divergence in terms of security. Instead of moving closer to Europe’s culture of securitization, Serbia has been prodded along the path of desecuritization. Sanctions, war crimes tribunals, and international isolation have pushed Serbia to abandon nationalism and accept responsibility for the breakup of Yugoslavia. Furthermore, EU accession requirements have driven desecuritizations with regard to minority rights, normalization with Kosovo, and economic privatization.

This divergence of securitization and desecuritization has led to a emphatic conflict between the liberal universalism sold by the EU and the massive border securitization/nationalist bickering among EU member states. More problematic is the deportation and isolation of refugees in Serbia by EU neighbors who have rebuked Serbia for ethnic intolerance in the past. Some Serbs find this hypocritical.

Image Source: www.balkanmagazin.net/
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Serbian Prime Minister Alexandar Vučić. Image Source: www.balkanmagazin.net/

Upsetting the Balance

So, what does this mean?  It means that people in Serbia are already on the fence collectively with regard to EU accession, and as time progresses, the EU loses supporters within Serbia. This negatively upsets the political balance in Serbia, but so far not too severely. However,  the bickering and the closing of borders with Serbia by EU members as a result of the immigration crisis, further endangers the balance by (1) exacerbating the “us/them” dynamic between Serbia and the EU and (2) emphasizing an ideological tension with regard to security and values.

Along with added political peril, however, this situation also provides opportunity and political capital for both Serbia and the EU. For instance, as early as December, 2014, according to the UN Refugee Agency, Serbia was already dealing with over 270,000 “population of concern” as a result of the crisis.  In response, the Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, praised Serbia for treating the refugees “with dignity, in line with international standards.”[7]  This is a change in tone from the same man who announced last September that “enlargement fatigue” would prevent Serbia from joining the EU for at least five more years due to “technical issues.”

The Potential

Serbia’s involvement in this matter is a more than a technical issue, and it will likely influence Serbia’s EU accession. Therefore, the migration crisis connects Serbia urgently to European Union security politics. In other words, the attraction of the EU is waning in Serbia’s view, and the degree of how well (or poorly) Serbia is supported during this crisis will influence the degree of Serbia’s impact on European affairs.

That being said, Serbia’s positive reaction to this crisis represents an enormous bargaining chip with potential to influence its accession negotiations and possibly re-prioritize or hasten them. It also gives Serbia political leverage when dealing with its regional neighbors on a bilateral basis. Serbia is even better-positioned considering its current chairmanship of the OSCE. The elites in Serbia are proven rational actors, so it should be expected that they will immediately translate Serbia’s goodwill and emphasis on humanitarian assistance into political capital domestically, regionally, and throughout Europe.

Conversely, if Serbia misses this opportunity to leverage its political capital with regard to its handling of the refugee crisis, the nationalist-liberational discourse will continue to gain momentum by selling the crisis as another instance of abuse by the West. Serbs are already frustrated with changing conditions regarding EU accession, and lack of support on the part of Europe could push the Serbs away. This is a security risk in multiple sectors, both for Serbia and the EU. If Serbia is forced to face this risk alone, it will potentially seek resolutions eastward, (and already-degraded hopes for a re-emergence of positive OSCE influence might be undermined).  According to the Serbian President, Tomislav Nikolić, “Serbia cannot resolve this issue, and Serbia is not the migrants’ final destination, but only a transit country…that the migrants do not want to stay in Serbia because the country does not have enough jobs even for the people who were born in it… [t]he EU has now been put to the test.”[8]  The Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vučić, has echoed a similar tone, hinting at relations with the East: “We seek to join the EU, to achieve its standards, but also to preserve our good relations with Russia…”[9]

What About Serbia?

So, again, what about Serbia?  The specific answer remains to be seen.  Europe has spent the post-WWII years securitizing in order to protect its sovereignty and its values, but this institutionalized security culture has now collided head-on with those values, leaving a desecuritized Serbia in a unique position. There is no question that this crisis represents a potential watershed event with regard to Serbia’s political future, both domestically and internationally, but at a tertiary level, this delicate situation represents a significant turning point for European security policy.  Even President Obama and President Putin have recognized this at the UN General Assembly, highlighting Serbia’s position and importance. When thought of this way, the consequences for Serbia take on a greater level of significance.

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MAJ Michael Anderson is a U.S. Army Armor Officer with extensive combat and humanitarian experience with the 82nd Airborne Division’s RSTA units and a 2013 Olmsted Scholar in Belgrade, Serbia. He received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from USMA in 2004 and his M.A. in International Security from University of Belgrade, Serbia in 2015.  The views expressed here are his own and not those of the US Army or the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation.

[1] “Securitizing,” in the non-financial sense, is to frame an issue as an existential threat to some highly-coveted referent object.   Securitzations occur throughout a linked series of sectors, including social, economic, and military.  In the case of immigration, the referent object is usually cultural identity or economic stability.  See Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1997) by Buzan, Wæver, and de Wilde.

Also, this article will not delve into the Iraqi or Syrian power vacuums or their causes – that merits a separate analysis.

[2] The ESDI has evolved as a way for Europe to decisively intervene internationally without NATO, and is now known as the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP).

[3] See “Security, Culture, and Identity in Serbia” (2007) by Filip Ejdus.

[4] Ejdus, “Serbia, Culture, and Identity,” 47.  Originally, the nationalist-liberational discourse is a product of the 500-year struggle to free Serbia from occupation and imperialism.  More recently, it has asserted general disdain through polemics against the EU, NATO, the West, and the US.  On the other hand, the civil-democratic discourse in Serbia is newer, rooted in political freedoms, respect for human rights, democratic values, and shared identity with Europe.

[5] “Podrška građana članstvu u EU pala na 57 odsto – Politika”.

[6] “Serbia: 57 Percent of Citizens in Favor of EU Membership – Poll 

[7] “Migrants: EU, Commissioner Hahn in Serbia, Visits Centre

[8] “Nikolic: It is not possible to let migrants settle in Serbia permanently” 

[9] “Vucic: Obligations Will Only Change when Serbia Becomes EU Member State”

Intervention Tension: Burundi’s Moment of Truth

On 10 July, the tiny central African country of Burundi announced that its presidential elections, slated for 15 July, would be postponed by one week. The move marks the second electoral delay, and since April there have been protests, violence and a population exodus as the president postures for an unconstitutional third term. As one of the world’s poorest countries with limited strategic and resource importance, one has to wonder what the international community’s response will be should Burundi plunge back into the dark days of civil war and genocide. The moral lessons of history teach us that we must respond, but if historical events are any indication, it is unlikely that we will see much more than a token effort to restore stability in this part of the Great Lakes region.

Burundi’s Challenge

The events in Burundi have been coming to a slow boil over the past year and a half. Last year, President Pierre Nkurunziza’s party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) unsuccessfully attempted to reform the constitution in a way that would not only upset the balance of ethnic representation in government, but would also allow their leader to run for a third term. International condemnation was swift, however the CNDD-FDD persisted and announced Nkurunziza as their candidate earlier this year.

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A  leader of an African nation overstaying his term limit is nothing new. Image Source: aidleap.org

Public outcry and hostilities in Bujumbura quickly followed, and less than one month later members of the military attempted a  coup d’etat while Nkurunziza was in Tanzania. Since then, ruling party supporters, to include the violent CNDD-FDD youth wing known as the imbonerakure, have sent scores of refugees fleeing into Burundi’s neighboring countries. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, one camp in Tanzania has swelled to 122,000, a number expected to increase as Election Day draws closer.

Last week on the international stage, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed “concern” over the compromised political and human rights environment unfolding in Burundi. The United States also condemns the ongoing violence and claims that it will “seek to hold accountable those responsible for gross human rights abuses.” Meanwhile, the Burundian Ambassador to the UN suggests reports of a rapidly deteriorating situation in his country (a place that only ten years ago emerged from a 12-year civil war that left 300,000 dead), are overblown. The most recent report from the UN states that we can expect more violence.

According to Burundian law, elections must be held at least one month before the final day of Nkurunziza’s second term,  26 August, and they cannot be pushed back again. This means that sooner rather than later, this Sub-Saharan country will enter a new phase of uncertainty and with stability in the country already compromised, the outlook does not look good. This summer Burundi already held parliamentary elections which the UN says were not free or credible. An increasing number of high level government officials, to include a Deputy Vice President, several electoral commissioners, and a senior judge—all citizens who do not agree with the ruling party’s measures—have fled for fear of being targeted as non-supporters of the CNDD-FDD.

An African leader aiming to overstay his term limits is nothing new, and indeed neighboring Rwanda faces a similar scenario in the run up to elections in 2017. As poor countries like Burundi experience upheaval as a direct result of this rule bending, the question then falls to the international community: how are we to respond? When does interference become a necessity in the name of safeguarding human rights? And if a response is needed, the more pertinent question must be pondered: will the international community be moved to act?

Never Say Never Again

I would argue that countries with little to offer in terms of strategic location and exploitable resources are the ones the world will most likely ignore.  In Rwanda, a Central African country of comparable size and composition, the genocide of 800,000 Rwandans was completed over 100 days while the international community largely leaned back on its heels and watched from afar.  The United Nations woefully under resourced its Assistance Mission For Rwanda (UNAMIR) from the beginning despite repeated requests for increased support by the mission’s force commander, Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire.  When the atrocities finally saturated the world media, cries of “never again” echoed throughout.

The reasons behind the Rwandan genocide as well as the international community’s response to it are complex and not identical to what we see taking place today in Burundi. Still, the broader question of “How much should we care?” persists. If the situation reaches a point where Twitter becomes saturated with images of crimes against humanity, will there be a call to action? Big players like the United States are undoubtedly already asking themselves whether they have the political will, resources, and most importantly, any real regional interest to link arms with the international community and put a swift end to bad behavior. Sadly, I’m not so optimistic that we really ever mean it when we vow, “Never again”.

The United States, much like other asset-rich countries, is stretched thin as it battles enemies on multiple fronts in the Middle East and Central Asia. These campaigns speak nothing of the myriad other “fires” that currently rage on the African continent: Al Shabaab in east Africa, Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region and of course the Islamic State’s move into northern Africa. With so many other high-priority missions to tackle, does anyone really care about a tiny nation of 10 million that most Americans could never find on a map? Would the public really approve of troops being sent to a place that has no apparent impact on their day-to-day lives? Again, I am not so optimistic.

Masf. Image Source:
Violence attributed to loyalist factions such as  CNDD-FDD, continues to force citizens to leave their homes to seek safety elsewhere. Image Source: www.unhcr.org

General Dallaire wrote in his memoir that he doubts the world will pay anything but lip service to these far off countries of little immediate consequence to the international community.

“We have fallen back on the yardstick of national self-interest to measure which portions of the planet we allow ourselves to be concerned about. In the 21st century, we cannot afford to tolerate a single failed state, ruled by ruthless and self-serving dictators, arming and brainwashing a generation of potential warriors to export mayhem and terror around the world. The leaders of the free world are well versed in the importance of regional stability, but it would appear that they are hedging their bets when they choose which ones they will assist and which they will supply with only a string of strongly-worded condemnation.”

The clock is ticking for Burundi, and as the hour draws near for their electoral moment of truth, there’s a good chance that the rest of the world, as they stand-by and watch, will face a moment of truth of their own.

Megan Hallinan is an active duty US naval officer who holds a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from Trinity College in Dublin as well as a master’s in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She lived for three years in Dakar, Senegal under the Olmsted Scholarship program. The views expressed here are her own and not those of the US Navy or the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation.

Asian Aspirations: NATO Looks East

As NATO’s mission in Afghanistan completes its transition from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the non-combatant Resolute Support Mission (RSM), the question on the minds of senior Allied leaders is how to maintain Alliance cohesion without the massive political-military gravity of the war to keep the Nations engaged with one another. Cohesion may seem like an odd thing to worry about after 70 years of Allied success but what is not apparent to many is that for the last 14 years, the war in Afghanistan has given NATO tremendous energy and unity of purpose. Now, even with events in the Ukraine giving the Alliance renewed vigor, NATO finds itself adrift, searching for a purpose that all 28 member states can agree on even as Europe is beset on all sides by complex and serious challenges to its security.

The Ukraine crisis aside, NATO’s answer to this dangerous environment is to look outside its borders. With compound threats from transnational terrorism, illicit drugs, human trafficking, and seemingly endless instability on Europe’s southern flank, it is very easy to see why this strategy makes sense. While the Alliance has a growing number of legal vehicles at its disposal for reaching out, it was adoption of the Berlin Partnership Policy in 2011 –specifically the creation of the Individual Partnership Cooperation Plan (IPCP)– that truly opened doors to military cooperation beyond Europe and North America. Since that time, Japan, South Korea, Iraq, New Zealand, Sweden, Mongolia, and Australia have finalized IPCPs with NATO.

Measuring Asian Engagement

While all the military diplomacy sounds very promising, in real terms it has not yet amounted to much. The Nations all agree that military cooperation with non-NATO partners is important but other than to support RSM or Operation Ocean Shield, an ongoing operation in the Gulf of Aden, NATO forces have not ventured beyond Europe since the 2011 Foreign Ministers meeting that led to the Berlin Policy. While it would be a good first step to have Asian forces participating in NATO exercises, military cooperation will need to occur on partner nation territory to meet the goals of the Allied strategy. This is no small matter. Funding, organizing, supplying, and controlling multinational exercises is a complex and expensive endeavor; even with 70 years of procedure to guide the planning. IPCPs lack the administrative backbone necessary to run a large-scale NATO exercise outside its borders and a notable exercise failure could make such cooperation very unpopular very quickly. In this sensitive space at the intersection of politics, military action, diplomacy, and fiscal restraint, the utility of one tool rises above all the others: Special Operations Forces or SOF.

Reliable, rapidly deployable, relatively inexpensive, and capable of secrecy and discretion, SOF has long been a favorite tool of nations for building new relationships of this type. In Asia in particular, Special Operations Forces have broader utility than naval or air units for the simple reason that while not all potential Asian partners have viable navies or air forces, most have credible SOF. Paradoxically, when it comes to Special Operations, limitations on engagement lay with NATO partners which rarely share their SOF capabilities with the Alliance. Even those member states that maintain robust relationships with Asian SOF units (the United States and the United Kingdom, and to a lesser degree, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Portugal), rarely commit their special forces to NATO missions. But as Asia grows in economic, social, and political importance, there are many reasons why Allied nations may be more likely to share their SOF in the future.

Asian SOF Sniper
Credible SOF partners: Cold weather training of ROK Army Special Forces snipers in 2014

Asia is a Big Deal

The rough numbers behind Asia’s rise are no mystery to readers of The Affiliate Network: 60% of the planet’s population is Asian, their defense budgets comprise 25% of the world’s total, and their economies represent 30% of global gross domestic product; but relationships between NATO SOF units and their Asian counterparts are underdeveloped. It is therefore important to remember some things about SOF in Asia: with the exception of Thailand, Asian security services from India to Indonesia to North Korea trace their roots directly to the Japanese Imperial Army or to Allied efforts to counter it. During the Second World War, Japanese graduates of the intelligence school at Nakano mobilized the political and military leadership of occupied areas to maximize contributions to the greater Japanese economy.[1] This fact ties modern Asian security services to politics in ways that have been remarkably consistent over the last 70 years. Secondly, though Asian governments generally maintain active relationships with their former colonial sponsors, these relationships are not proprietary, nor have they been constant. The result is that with few exceptions, European SOF have very little experience in what is rapidly becoming the world’s most important geopolitical arena. Today, as NATO and its member states wake up to the opportunities and risks inherent in South and East Asia, this lack of experience collides squarely with a desire to build relationships there and to operationalize the Berlin Partnership Policy in a way that can provide a springboard to larger and more regular interactions.

Addressing this capability gap begins at home. European SOF seeking to operate in Asia will find themselves in a bewildering cultural and linguistic landscape where modern politics intersects 5000 years of history and religion in confounding ways. While vital cultural awareness is next to impossible to build in a classroom, language capabilities can and should be developed this way despite the time and money required to maximize these skills. Secondly, many Asian (especially Southeast Asian) top-tier SOF capabilities reside in national police forces whereas European SOF units are overwhelmingly military. This presents an obstacle for many European nations that maintain strict legal prohibitions on military relations with police forces. NATO nations interested in undertaking Alliance SOF missions in the region must take steps to eliminate these regulatory barriers before they cause a problem. Thirdly, European SOF forces lack strategic mobility. While military transport aircraft are available, even large powers France and Germany struggle with lift capacity. European SOF will need to develop a familiarity with the nuances of projecting power via global shipping, something that is often particularly tricky in situations involving weapons, narcotic medicines, and sensitive technologies. Lastly, European SOF will need to sort through a host of details required for success in Asia; from having contracting support and flexible funding for logistics, to having 220-volt power tools on hand, to coming to terms with murky associations between some Asian SOF units and national political parties, human rights issues, and wide variations in quality of their counterparts.

Engaging militarily in Asia will in some ways be a difficult undertaking for NATO, especially in light of growing threats close to the continent, but armed with the right knowledge and preparation, SOF will be a key tool in expanding partnerships in fulfillment of NATO’s Strategic Concept.  Whether this provides the cohesion Allied leaders seek remains to be seen.


[1] The founders of many post-war SE Asian governments and militaries were trained by the Japanese and later switched sides. Examples are Ne Win and Aung San (Burma), Subas Chandra Bose (India), Sukarno and Zulkifli Lubis (Indonesia), Bảo Đại (Vietnam), and others.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.