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United States Still Crucial to Balkan Stability

Risto Karajkov, Skopje, Macedonia, April 1, 2008

A man walks past graffiti reading "Long live Macedonia" in Cyrillic in central Skopje on Thursday. Greece will block its neighbor from joining NATO this week unless the name issue is settled. (Photo: Robert Atanasovski / AFP-Getty Images)

Ahead of NATO's summit in Bucharest this week, one thing seems very clear to many in the Balkans: the United States continues to play a crucial role in the region's stability.

It has been 13 years since the Dayton peace agreement that ended the war in Bosnia, 9 years since NATO's bombing of Serbia, and 7 years since Macedonia's confined ethnic clash. In each of these crises, the United States played a decisive role and carried the burden of leadership toward its resolution.

Europe, prone to indecisiveness and self-paralysis, was happy if it could give a hand to Washington and pick up the reconstruction bill afterward.

When Macedonia's peace accord was at risk of cracking under nationalist pressure in late 2004, it was again the United States' maverick political engineering that saved the day and kept the country on the course of stability. The European Union's autopilot rhetoric of the carrot and the stick was certainly not helping. To the contrary, it was likely aggravating things.

And finally, the United States had to bite the bullet and step forth with recognition of Kosovo's independence earlier this year. A move that was neither easy nor devoid of risk. Without the United States' lead, Europe would have likely never found the political will to do it. It would have kept Pristine in the limbo until violence broke out again, as in March 2004.

In the period before this week's NATO meeting, the United States has again assumed the burden of keeping things on the course of stability in the Balkans.

Washington has been pushing hard to see the countries from the so-called Adriatic group—Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia—ushered into the North Atlantic alliance. This should provide additional security to the Balkans in the event there are aftershocks from Kosovo's independence.

However, there is a problem with Macedonia, the country whose stability is very closely entwined with that of Kosovo.

Greece says it will veto Macedonia's entry into NATO unless a long-standing name dispute is resolved before the summit. There is nothing more to the Greek veto threat except the desire of the government in Athens to use its position as a member of a club to force Macedonia to give in.

As much as everyone in Europe understands, or must understand, the political hazards of Greece's behavior, nobody seems able to do anything about it. If left up to the European Union, it is clear that Greece will get its way, no matter the consequences to the region.

If these are the benefits of multilateralism, no wonder the United States has occasionally had its reservations about it.

In an attempt to fix things, Washington had to step in it with its full weight to force Skopje and Athens into a compromise. And it is possible 17 years after the issue's inception, that the dispute may finally be resolved just days, if not hours, before the summit. Intensified talks are underway.

If Macedonia stays out of NATO, it would become increasingly susceptible to pressures from outside but also from within. The country remains the only viable example of multiculturalism in the Balkans.

There is no doubt that without the United States there would be no solution, and things would be left to linger from bad to worse. This goes for the name dispute as well as for other crises in the Balkans.

In the past, Washington has had its doubts about engaging too deeply into the Balkans. In the early 1990's, in the words of then-Secretary of State James Baker, the United States " did not have a dog in the fight." Yet, it apparently proved right each time it did intervene.

It is fair to acknowledge the "transformative power," as Brussels likes to call it, of the European Union. It is true that the lengthy process of accession into the Union makes candidate countries gradually conform to democratic norms. But it is also true, that the Union's capacity to react promptly to crises is still very limited.

In addition, it is true that the European Union has deliberately been keeping the visa lid on the Balkans for far too long, thinking it could use it as a lever of conditionality. Does anyone really think that ghettoizing angry, unemployed young men is a good recipe for political stability?

The United States has wanted to disengage from the Balkans, and rightfully so, for quite some time now, and hand things over to the European Union.

However, as things stand right now, the Balkans will need the United States as a guarantor of its stability for some time to come.

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