The Trump administration has sown political turmoil in Kosovo at exactly the moment when stable governance is needed to face the COVID-19 threat. The challenge of responding to the outbreak in Kosovo has been compounded by the fallout of a U.S.-backed no-confidence vote that toppled Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s government at the end of March, after less than two months in power.
The ongoing political battle pits Kurti, who remains the caretaker prime minister and favors new elections, against President Hashim Thaci and some of his parliamentary allies, who want to form a government of national unity that would sideline Kurti and his Vetevendosje (“self-determination”) party, which campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and has balked at Washington’s outsized influence in Kosovo’s affairs. Thaci long led the Democratic Party of Kosovo, which emerged from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)—in which Thaci was a former top guerrilla—after the 1998-1999 war. Thus, a constitutional crisis has emerged over who has the right to govern the country. Angry residents on lockdown in the capital, Pristina, have taken to banging pots and pans to protest the machinations that brought down the Kurti government during the coronavirus crisis.
The Trump administration’s political intervention in Kosovo has been driven by what is now a familiar approach to a foreign policy characterized by the shunning of allies, decision-making led by operatives close to the White House who sideline career diplomats, blatantly political motives, and a disregard for human rights.
The United States has framed Kurti’s removal as a step toward an elusive final settlement between Kosovo and Serbia. To Washington’s chagrin, Kurti insisted on keeping 100 percent tariffs on Serbian trade in place, which both the Trump administration and Thaci viewed as an impediment to advancing negotiations with Belgrade. In addition, Kurti had opposed the highly controversial idea of land swaps between Kosovo and Serbia to win breakthroughs at the negotiating table. The Trump administration has expressed openness to the land swaps, as have Thaci and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
The merits of pushing for a settlement at this juncture and the broader regional implications of a land swap aside, the U.S. role in backing Thaci’s bid to oust Kurti has been criticized not only for jeopardizing Kosovo’s sovereignty but for disrupting governance during the pandemic. U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy has also been faulted for undermining Washington’s relationship with key European allies that had advocated for the need for stable leadership and warned against such heavy-handed interference during the pandemic. At home, the Trump administration has been sharply criticized by Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for undermining a newly elected democratic leader just when the government needs to be focused on developing an effective policy to address the ongoing health emergency.
The U.S. backing for the no-confidence vote to remove Kurti and elevate Thaci is troubling for yet another reason. It raises the possibility that the Trump administration may seek to come to Thaci’s defense by interfering with the work of a special tribunal investigating KLA crimes committed in the aftermath of the war two decades ago.
In 2011, Thaci and a number of other high-level former rebels were named in a Council of Europe report detailing KLA involvement in the postwar abduction of Serb prisoners and their torture in secret detention camps in Albania. A small number of these prisoners, according to the report, were allegedly killed for their vital organs. These explosive accusations led Brussels, with strong backing from Washington, to establish the European Union-run Kosovo Specialist Chambers. Thaci and other high-level former KLA commanders could face indictment at the new tribunal, which has long enjoyed American backing.
In working to engineer Kurti’s removal and throwing its support behind Thaci, the United States has signaled its renewed backing of Kosovo’s old-guard political elite, many of whom are tainted by alleged participation in human rights abuses and organized crime. During NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, Washington worked closely with Thaci, who then ran the KLA’s political arm. The United States and its Western allies—along with the United Nations administration that governed Kosovo for the first postwar decade—continued to support Thaci and other former KLA commanders-turned-politicians despite their suspected role in postwar crimes against their Kosovar Albanian rivals and ethnic Serbs.
The United States has used its substantial influence in Kosovo ever since it led the NATO intervention against Serbia’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians, subsequently championing Kosovo’s independence. Since that time, the United States worked closely with its EU partners to support the young country. In the current situation, the fact that key EU member states, including France and Germany, opposed the toppling of Kurti’s government over concern about destabilizing Kosovo as the coronavirus spreads is troubling. The willingness of the Trump administration to go against its European partners in order to sideline a democratically elected government during an unprecedented health crisis further damages an already strained trans-Atlantic partnership.
The Trump administration’s determination to see Kurti removed may lead to declining Kosovar support for the United States. Ordinary Kosovars, who have until now been reliably pro-American owing to the NATO military intervention and avid U.S. backing for their independence, may reconsider their support for the country in light of the strong-arm diplomacy that featured Washington’s threat to end its $49 million funding of a Millennium Challenge Corporation grant. In an unprecedented move, Trump-allied members of Congress even threatened to pull U.S. peacekeepers out of the country.
Many Kosovars have also grown weary of continued U.S. support for the corrupt political clique of former fighters led by Thaci, who have dominated Kosovo’s politics since the war but have delivered little in the way of effective governance. The Trump administration risks losing the deep reservoir of goodwill the United States has enjoyed in Kosovo for over two decades.
Like much of what we’ve seen from this administration’s foreign policy, its recent political meddling in Kosovo has been driven by a Trump confidant carrying out an ad hoc foreign policy that marginalizes other government stakeholders and experts and does so largely outside the formal policy process. In the latest instance, that individual is Richard Grenell, whose experience in the region is minimal but who, like many in the Trump administration, is keen to please a capricious and self-obsessed boss. Before recently becoming the acting director of national intelligence, Grenell had been serving as Trump’s ambassador to Germany and special envoy to the Balkans. In that capacity, he worked closely with Thaci and Vucic to push a peace deal forward, leveraging it with the promise of renewed transportation links between Belgrade and Pristina. In early March, Grenell hosted Thaci and Vucic at the White House, with top officials in attendance.
U.S. foreign-policy insiders and prominent observers say Grenell’s objective is to carry out another “domestic political errand” (as was done in the Ukraine scandal for which Trump was impeached): sidelining the democratically elected Kurti in order to hasten the long-shot possibility of Thaci and Vucic shaking hands in the White House Rose Garden and to deliver a major foreign-policy win for Trump ahead of the November presidential election. In normal times, this would stand out as merely a nakedly political act. But the effort to reach for a quixotic peace deal at any cost during a pandemic imperils the public and political health of a country that Washington worked so hard to create.