Balkan Insider spoke with Congressman Filemon Vela (D-TX, 34th District) following his Congressional delegation trip to Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia, among other places with the US Helsinki Commission.

US Congressman Filemon Vela (D-TX, 34th district)

Representative Vela is not on the Foreign Affairs Committee, nor Helsinki Commission, and does not often travel. What was the motivation behind this trip to the Balkans?

At the invitation of Senator Roger Wicker, I was invited to represent the United States at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Berlin along with a bipartisan group of congressional colleagues. As part of this trip, the delegation visited Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina. Since the 1995 Dayton Accords, the United States has had a profound interest in promoting peace and democracy in Bosnia Herzegovina. Our meetings with US Embassy officials in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina, along with our visit with the members of the BH presidency gave us the opportunity to gain significant insight into the future of peace and democracy in both of these neighboring countries.

Partisanship is at record highs. What did you learn about your colleagues while traveling overseas?

In the American two party system, members of both parties often vehemently disagree on a number of issues. However, the most important thing to remember is that we are all Americans first – before we are Republicans or Democrats. What I learned most about my colleagues during this trip is that we have a shared vision of protecting American democracy, promoting democracy around the world, and in ensuring that people around the world live in peace.

Our understanding is that you also touched down in Dubrovnik. Year after year American tourist numbers continue to grow there. You also met the first political appointee Ambassador Robert Kohorst. What are your thoughts on Ambassador Kohorst and the beautiful city of Dubrovnik?

Ambassador Kohorst is passionate about his role as Ambassador to Dubrovnik. Although Dubrovnik is not usually listed on the typical American’s list of travel destinations, clearly it should be. It is a beautiful and historic city, and Ambassador Kohorst’s commitment to the American mission in Croatia makes him the perfect emissary.

On this trip, you also met with the Council of the Members of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In what ways can the United States support Bosnia and Herzegovina ahead of the October elections?

We had a very frank discussion with the members of the Presidency in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is clear that the path to the October election process is fragile. The most striking aspect about our visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina is that when one reflects on the tragic recent history of the nation while experiencing the warm and vibrant hospitality of its people today, the most compelling lesson one learns is that humanity must not ever allow history to repeat itself. For that reason, we encouraged agreement on electoral reform in agreement with democratic norms rather than the greater insertion of ethnicity into governance.  We also called on parties to avoid potentially violent confrontation in order to get what they want, and to make rule of law a campaign issue that could lead to real results after the elections take place.   Later, at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Berlin, we recommended continued focus on the Balkans including robust observation of the October elections.

Congress has become more focused on the region recently with Euro-Atlantic integration and resolving outstanding issues. Montenegro joined NATO 2016, Macedonia expects an invitation to NATO in the coming days, and all Balkan countries aspire to join the EU. What reforms must states in the region take in order to successfully complete Euro-Atlantic integration, and what can hold it back?

Looking at the region as a whole, nothing is more important than tackling corruption and establishing adherence to the rule of law through judicial reform, transparency in government  and accountability for the behavior of those in positions of public trust and service.   The countries of the region differ in many respects, but all could do more, much more, in this area.  A related concern that is also important is freedom of the media, especially for investigative journalists, which is under threat in some candidate countries right now.  Finally, all countries in the region could do more to develop better relationships with their neighbors, which means coming clean rather than denying the tragedies from the 1990s conflicts and even from World War II, and understanding that working together enhances the prospects for each of them to advance more quickly toward their own aspirations for integration.  It can also lead to more immediate benefits for citizens in the meantime.

As we know, growing Chinese influence has been a focus of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, and was listed in the National Defense Strategy clearly outlines China is “a strategic competitor.” During the trip, did you discuss growing Chinese influence in the region?

In Sarajevo, the congressional delegation was informed about numerous outside influences on the Western Balkans, the strength of those influences and their impact on stability.   That included, of course, China, as well as Russia, the Gulf States and Turkey.  Some of these outside influences are more malign right now than others, but all bear close watching.  The challenge faced by the United States and  Europe is that political considerations can over-ride the market viability of foreign investment in the Western Balkans, discouraging the countries of the region from taking the important but sometimes difficult steps of economic reform and putting U.S. and European investors at a disadvantage.   Quite simply, the West needs to more actively engage the countries of the region to ensure confidence in the European path, encourage a longer-term perspective for investment and make clear the risks of being bought by outside forces that do not necessarily share the interest in regional stability that Europe and the United States share with the countries of the region.