Donald Trump apologized to Serbia for the U.S.'s bombing of Serbia during Bill Clinton's presidency, which lines him up with rhetoric Russia has used to stir Serbians against the United States, according to Newsweek.
In an email interview with the Serbian magazine Nedeljnik, Republican presidential candidate Trump said, "The bombing of Serbs, who were our allies in both world wars, was a big mistake. Serbians are very good people. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration caused them a lot of harm, but also throughout the Balkans, which they made a mess out of."
Nedeljnik's managing editor, Marko Prelevic, said the interview was conducted by email with Trump campaign senior adviser Suzanne Ryder Jaworowski. However, Politico reported Jaworowski said no such interview happened.
"I don't know where that came from," Jaworowski said. "I never facilitated any kind of interview with a Serbian reporter."
She said she met a man of Serbian descent at a fundraiser who said he was running for president of Serbia and was interested in supporting Trump. Joworowski said her exchange with the man might have led to what she said were false reports of an interview.
The U.S. and NATO allies carried out the bombings against the Yugoslav regime and targeted ethnic Serbian troops in 1995 and 1999. The first attack was in support of groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, who were seeking independence from Belgrade. The second campaign was supporting similar forces in Kosovo. Trump had been asked to comment on the 1999 bombings.
A professor in southeast European politics at University College London, Eric Gordy, told Newsweek that Trump used a tactic the Russian government used to earn support among the Serbs.
"The most obvious interpretation of his statement is that it is another sign of alignment with Russia," Gordy said. "To be honest, this kind of statement is usually more a symbolic attempt for Russian politicians to drum up resentment towards the U.S."
Bill Clinton, husband of Trump's Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, was president through the collapse of Yugoslavia, in which ethnic Serb militias engaged in ethnic cleansing against predominantly Muslim groups in the area. The bombings stopped the advance of Serb troops, at the cost of hundreds of civilian lives, according to Newsweek.
Trump said he would have "a new policy" in the area if elected, but did not name specifics.
The professor said the U.S. has been "consistently supportive" of Serbia since the bombings.
"I suspect this is probably just rhetoric by Trump . . . otherwise it is hard to imagine that the U.S. could be more pro-Serbia at the moment," Gordy said.
Russia is aiming to strengthen ties to Serbia, and is sending troops on their first military drill on the Balkans, in Serbia. Russia has emphasized the religious bond between the two Orthodox countries, as well as their part in fighting against Nazis in World War II, according to Newsweek.
Russia's rhetoric appears to have shown some success. The Washington Post reported when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Serbia in August, protesters greeted him with pro-Trump chants.
Gordy said Trump's comments were consistent with Russia and the far right in the U.S. viewing the Yugoslav conflict as being between the religions of Islam and Christianity. The far right believe Islamists got footholds in Europe thanks to the conflict, Gordy said.
Trump could also be looking for an advantage with U.S. voters whose heritage is from the area. Gordy said, "If you look at the states that Trump would like to contest in the election, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, they are states with the biggest concentration of voters that trace their roots back to the Balkans."
Newsweek senior writer Kurt Eichenwald criticized Trump's statements about Serbia on his Twitter account.
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