US senators seek closer ties with Western Balkans to combat Russia's 'malign influence'

US senators seek closer ties with Western Balkans to combat Russia's 'malign influence'
Members of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations have endorsed a new act on the Western Balkans.
By bne IntelliNews April 18, 2024

Members of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations warned repeatedly about the risk of destabilisation in the Western Balkans since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine when giving their support to a bipartisan act on the region. 

The proposed Western Balkans Democracy and Prosperity Act is intended to contribute to addressing corruption and bolstering democratic institutions in the region, as well as stimulating trade and investment between the US and the countries of the Western Balkans.

The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations gave its nod of approval to the proposed act on April 16.

It was introduced by Senator Jeanne Shaheen last year with the aim of stimulating increased trade and investment between the United States and the countries of the Western Balkans.

“Amid Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine and Putin’s clear ambitions to spread malign influence across Eastern Europe, the United States’ relationship with the Western Balkans is pivotal. That’s why I’m proud to introduce new bipartisan legislation that strengthens trade and investments between the U.S. and Western Balkans, while rooting out local corruption and codifying sanctions against destabilising actors – all of which pave the way for greater Euro-Atlantic integration,” said Shaheen.

“This bill would send a strong bipartisan signal that the United States is committed to supporting diplomacy in the region,” said one of the co-sponsors of the bill, Roger Wicker. 

Highlighting the persistence of corruption as a major obstacle to the region's economic and political advancement, Shaheen commented on the urgency of the proposed legislation in a statement on her website. 

“Today the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a message of renewed commitment to Western Balkan nations by advancing my bipartisan legislation,” she said. 

“I wrote this bill to focus on the opportunity to deepen our commitment and investment in the region by strengthening trade and economic cooperation and sharpening US tools to address malign influence, corruption and other efforts which attempt to undermine the democratic aspirations of the region.” 

She pointed out that if signed into law, the act it “would codify executive orders to address corrupt and anti-Dayton behavior in the Western Balkans, making clear that the United States will not tolerate efforts to undermine peace and stability in the region”. 

The Dayton agreement that ended the Bosnian war is currently being undermined by efforts of Bosnian Serb politicians to defy state-level institutions and rhetoric calling for secession. 

Also of particular concern are the recent elections in Serbia, held last December, which raised doubts about the state of democracy in the country. The act underscores the need for US support to strengthen democratic processes in Serbia, citing the final report of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which found "unjust conditions" during the elections.

"The parliamentary and local elections held in Serbia on 17 December 2023 and their immediate aftermath are cause for deep concern about the state of Serbia’s democracy," the act states, citing numerous procedural deficiencies highlighted by the ODIHR, including inconsistent application of safeguards, breaches in secrecy of the vote and instances of group voting.

The act also outlines conditionality measures, particularly concerning bilateral relations between Serbia and Kosovo. It stipulates that US initiatives to both countries should be contingent upon sufficient progress in implementing a bilateral strategic dialogue and advancing concrete initiatives to deepen trade and investment.

Moreover, the bill notes the potential of development projects and economic integration to combat corruption, outlining provisions to expand technical assistance, share best practices, and integrate the Western Balkans into the European Democratic Resilience Initiative of the Department of State.

With the Committee's approval secured, the bill will now move to the full Senate for a vote, where it will require a simple majority of 51 votes. Subsequently, it will proceed to the House of Representatives for further consideration by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.