US presidential election: overall, the impression is that the Balkans does not have a special preference for either of the candidates although it aligns with the wide-European sentiment which prefers Obama

04/11/2008 -  Risto Karajkov

Today's vote for a US President is widely seen as historic for the United States. All agree that the election is very important for the future of general transatlantic and international relations. The world in 2000 is very different than the world in 2008. Before the attacks on 9/11, the US stood as the unchallenged benevolent giant in the young unipolar world. Much has changed in the meantime.

Nobody should dare deny that the United States played a critical role in the Balkans during the past 15 years. If Washington, in the words of Secretary James Baker, had felt it had a "dog in the fight" back in 1991, and had become involved earlier in the unfolding chaos, the Balkans today would undoubtedly be a different, more prosperous place.

Despite its reluctant intervention - and the ensuing insistent desire to eventually disengage, the US carried the burden of shaping some of the region's most serious decisions: the Dayton peace agreement in 1995, the 1999 NATO intervention and, most recently, the recognition of Kosovo. No matter how discomforting this might sound to Europe, none of these decisions would have been made without the US leadership.

Although the region is much different then it was a decade ago, much work lies ahead. This raises the question of future US involvement in the region, and how the outcome of today's vote affects the region. Is Barack Obama or John McCain a better option for the Balkans?

Most analysts agree that ultimately - it does not matter. The Balkans region does not have a high priority in US foreign policy. Washington wants regional stability and wants to eventually further disengage from the region. Whoever becomes President will pursue that interest. In brief, advancing this interest, involves a fully recognized and functioning Kosovo; a reconciliation between the western world and Serbia, a functioning and stable Bosnia, and complete regional integration into NATO and the EU. Some strongholds of US presence in the region will remain, such as Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, or the new colossal US Embassy in Skopje, but apart from that, Washington wants out. Regardless of the differences in the personal or party positions, both Obama and McCain would stay on this course.

These analysts expect a "normal" course of events, if there ever is such a thing in international politics. Early this year, the US entered into a strong confrontation with Russia over Kosovo's independence. The Balkans region alone is a small chip on the table, but when it becomes part of larger deals, the US President's ideology could make a great difference. Analysts argue that Obama will be more inclined towards multilateralism, whereas McCain is more likely to stay closer to George Bush's unilateral way of doing things. Which one is better for the Balkans? It depends on the particular situation. Multilateralism is generally positive because it involves wide international consensuses that reduce conflict and produce stability. Alas, multilateralism can sometimes be a hostage to special interest. Multilateralism of the type that, because of Greek pressure, barred Macedonia from NATO earlier this year, and impedes Macedonia's entry into the EU, is likely not in the best interest for the region's stability.

Overall, Balkan public opinion does not especially favour either of the candidates, although it aligns with the European-wide sentiment preferring Obama. Macedonia (and Greece) are the exception because of the name issue. The Democratic Party supports the Greek position in the name dispute. Obama has voted for a US Congressional resolution that reflects Greek views and he has made some statements favouring the Greek side. On the contrary, the Republican Party is more sensitive to the Macedonian position. Accordingly, the Greek diaspora in the US vote for Democrats whereas the Macedonian diaspora support the Republicans.

Yet, experts say that even though Obama is closer to the Greek position, the US policy on the name issue would not change if he becomes President. This means that the US will not revoke its decision to use Macedonia's constitutional name. This is a fair assessment. But nevertheless it could mean stronger pressure on Skopje to compromise. Macedonia counts greatly on US support and the change of tone in Washington would make it feel alone out in the cold. Europe generally sides with Greece.

Apart from Skopje, most other countries in the region do not strongly support a candidate in the big race today. Albanians feel their independence came from the Democrats - Pristina's main street is Bill Clinton Boulevard - but George Bush recognized Kosovo's independence. Because of these same issues, Serbs are bitterly, instead of positively, neutral on the US political parties. As in all things, Bosnian political forces divide in supporting US candidates. Croatia has the comfort of looking on the issue as a more "European" country and prefers Obama.

Some analysts argue that a Democrat would pay more attention to the Balkans. Some of Obama's advisors, such as Madeline Albright, have been closely involved in the region over the 1990s. Some speculate that Richard Holbrook could be a candidate for Secretary of State if Democrats win. People like their jobs and diplomats often learn to like the subjects of their missions. It would be difficult to imagine Holbrook, the architect of the Dayton peace accord, as a Secretary of State indifferent to events in the Balkans.

Overall, at the end of the day, not much is expected to change in the US involvement in the Balkans. However, more work needs to be done before the region has reached the end of its history and sailed quietly into the calm EU waters. The US should stay engaged on that journey.