Politics

Bolton Sacking Raises Hopes – And Fears – In Balkans

Analysis 17 September 2019
Bolton Sacking Raises Hopes – And Fears – In Balkans

Donald Trump’s abrupt removal of ‘Serbia’s White House ally’ as his National Security Advisor has worried Belgrade – but most experts believe his likely successor, Charles Kupperman, will not be very different.

John Bolton’s forced resignation as President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor has made noises in the Balkans and drawn conflicting responses from Serbia and Kosovo. Serbian media outlets expressed shock about the news while those in Kosovo were cheering.

“Has Serbia lost it’s ally in the White House?” asked the Telegraf in Serbia. “‘Kosovo’s only White House opponent’, Why is Bolton’s firing good news?” asked the Gazeta Express in Kosovo.

However, experts in Washington are less certain that Bolton’s removal will have much impact on the Balkan region – and doubt his likely replacement, Charles Kupperman, will be very different.

Bolton’s best-known intervention in the Balkans came in August 2018 when, after Kosovo President Hashim Thaci controversially mooted a land swap with Serbia as part of a resolution of their long-running dispute, Bolton dismayed US allies in Europe – who mostly oppose border changes – by supporting the idea.

Bolton said Washington would not oppose an exchange of territory provided that Belgrade and Pristina worked out a “mutually satisfactory settlement”.

“He didn’t seem to have a ‘position’ on the Balkans, [except being] open to considering land swaps [between Serbia and Kosovo],” Daniel Serwer, Director of American Foreign Policy at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said.

“What stands out is his support for a land-swap arrangement between Kosovo and Serbia. Other than that, I’m not very familiar with his views on the Balkans,” he added.

But Serwer says people were right to consider Bolton “closer” to Serbia than Kosovo. “Bolton opposed Kosovo’s independence [made in 2008] at the time. He gave Belgrade a sympathetic hearing on land swaps,” he said.

Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense with responsibility for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, said he was less certain that Bolton actively sympathised with Serbia.

“I’m not sure whether he’s closer to Serbia than Kosovo, but he’s got one of the worst track records on foreign policy in all of Washington,” he said. “Bolton has held misguided, reckless positions on a myriad of issues, such as supporting the Iraq war, wanting to bomb Iran, and suggesting the US should invade Venezuela,” he added.

But Carpenter said he did not think the change in National Security Advisor would impact much on recent US efforts to get more involved in the faltering EU-led Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, aimed at “normalising” relations between Serbia and its former province – whose statehood it does not recognise.

This is especially after the State Department in late August appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Palmer as special representative for the Western Balkans, with a mandate to help integrate the region into Western institutions. “Palmer is a professional and will continue with his work,” Carpenter said.

President Trump has said he has 15 candidates to replace Bolton. In the meantime, the White House named Kupperman, the deputy national security adviser, to temporarily fill the post.

The New York Times said Kupperman was likely to get the post – but the question was, for how long. It recalled that “acting officials have a way of sticking around in this administration for indefinite lengths of time”, and warned: “Kupperman’s track record as someone ensconced in Mr Bolton’s inner circle could shorten his tenure.”

Bolton himself has praised Kupperman’s record, suggesting a close similarity in terms of foreign policy views. “Charlie Kupperman has been an advisor to me for more than 30 years … Charlie’s extensive expertise in defense, arms control and aerospace will help further President Trump’s national security agenda,” he said in January, when Kupperman joined the Trump administration.

According to his official biography, Kupperman has more than four decades of national security policy and program experience. He served in the Ronald Reagan Administration, holding posts in the Executive Office of the President, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the President’s General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament. He also worked as a Defense and Foreign Policy Advisor to the Reagan presidential campaign.

Carpenter told BIRN he sounded just like Bolton in terms of holding broadly anti-Muslim views, which could affect perceptions of the Balkans, as most people in Kosovo are Muslim while Serbia is mostly Christian.

“Kupperman seems to be a clone of Bolton, having served on the board of a far-right think tank, the Center for Security Policy, which has spread some lunatic conspiracy theories, like the claim that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the US government,” he said.

The Council on American Islamic Relations, CAIR, said it would not welcome his appointment as Bolton’s permanent replacement. “The National Security Advisor position has switched hands from the leader of one anti-Muslim hate group to another,” Robert McCaw, Director of the Government Affairs Department at CAIR, told BIRN.

“Bolton was chairman of the Gatestone Institute from 2013 to 2018. Kupperman served on the Center for Security Policy’s board from 2001 to 2010. Both are conservative anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim think tanks,” he said.

“Bolton’s ties to an anti-Muslim think tank could have easily made him partial to Serbia over Kosovo,” he added.

“Bolton’s support of the Serbian government’s proposed land swap with Kosovo … gives the picture of at least having closer ties to the Serbian government. CAIR does not necessarily believe that Kupperman will be any different to his predecessor,” he concluded.

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