Biden and the Kosovo Serbs

In westernmost Kosovo stands the 14th century Serbian Orthodox Visoki Decani Monastery, whose fresco-adorned main cathedral is the largest medieval church in the Balkans. The magnificent monastery is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, but it would likely be in ruins today had it not been for the behind-the-scenes intervention of Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for President.

On one of his many trips to Southeastern Europe, then-Senator Biden and I visited Visoki Decani in the winter of 2001. It was a tiny, isolated Serb enclave in ethnic Albanian territory. Armored personnel carriers of Italy’s KFOR contingent were parked up against the low stone wall ringing the monastery.

The well-known ‘’cyber priest’’ Father Sava Janjic described how in 1998–99 the monks had sheltered Serbs and Albanians alike during the vicious ethnic cleansing of Slobodan Milosevic’s troops and the warfare between Serbia and the Kosovo Liberation Army. The monastery, he said, continued to receive threats — this time from ethnic Albanian extremists — but until then had not been attacked.

A few days later we had meetings with all the leading Kosovar Albanian political figures, including Ramush Haradinaj, the former guerilla commander in the Decani region. Haradinaj impressed us with his understanding that a modicum of ethnic reconciliation was a precondition for Kosovo to attain independence. (Haradinaj, who subsequently was twice acquitted by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, served as independent Kosovo’s prime minister from 2017 until February 2020.)

When Biden returned to Washington, he pondered what could be done to help protect Visoki Decani, the only Serbian Orthodox monastery in Kosovo over whose security we might have some influence. He decided to send a private letter to Haradinaj, in which he wrote: ‘’I know that you have particularly great influence in the Decani region, and I would regard it as a personal favor if you would do all you can to guarantee the safety of the Visoki Decani Monastery and its monks.’’

A few weeks later we received word from Haradinaj that he would, indeed, see that the monastery and its monks were protected.

On March 17, 2004, violent pogroms against Serbs across Kosovo resulted in several deaths and dozens of Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries burned to the ground, despite the presence of KFOR international peacekeeping troops. A singular exception was Visoki Decani, which was spared by the mobs.

In August 2004, I returned to Kosovo for meetings with Albanian and Serb politicians. When Haradinaj entered the room, his first words to me were: ‘’Tell Senator Biden that I kept my promise.’’

Kosovo gained its independence in 2008. A diplomatic dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, brokered by the European Union and the U.S., has yet to yield major accomplishments. Inter-communal violence in Kosovo has lessened, but tensions remain, including around Visoki Decani. Biden, who as Vice President made two visits to Kosovo, has made clear to the government that it must uphold its commitment to protect the lives of Kosovo Serbs and their remaining churches and monasteries.

No other American political figure has Joe Biden’s credibility on Balkan affairs. As President, working with our EU allies, he would be in a unique position to reinvigorate the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo and to strengthen efforts to bridge the remaining divide between Kosovo’s Serb and Albanian communities. In doing so Biden would be serving America’s vital interest in a peaceful Balkan region, where we twice went to war in the 1990’s.

Written by

Mike Haltzel, Chairman of the Transatlantic Leadership Network, is Senior Fellow at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University.

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