Edward P. Joseph
In March this year, the Trump administration successfully designed the overthrow of a friendly government in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. Instead of a covert CIA operation, the US administration and embassy chose open pressure. A few weeks after the suspension of development aid and the threat to withdraw US troops from NATO peacekeeping force, the government of reformist Prime Minister Albin Kurti collapsed.
While Washington was under pressure from Kosovo, Moscow and Beijing were doing the opposite in Serbia: they supported the critical situation of pandemic, as the coronavirus began to spread throughout the Balkans. In addition to shipments of materials ranging from personal protective equipment to fans, Russia and China sent personnel to carry out missions that caught the eye. Russian biological warfare experts disinfected hospitals. Chinese public health experts from Vuhani instructed Serbian officials on the rigorous testing and quarantine model that became the basis of the coronavirus management strategy in Serbia.
The evolving situation of COVID-19 pandemic, which threatens to turn the Balkans into a Kino-Russian sphere of influence, puts the meeting at the White House between Serbia and Kosovo – described as a “historic” progress – in a new perspective. and disturbing. American interests in the field of national security lie in the avoidance of Russian and Chinese schemes in the region by working closely with European allies. Unfortunately, the Trump administration, in a hasty attempt, has broken Western unity at a time when Russia and China are tightening the ranks of their regional reversal agenda. Moreover, this short-sighted strategy has complicated any achievement towards resolving the Kosovo issue, on the contrary, it has strengthened the call in Belgrade for a very problematic exchange of territories.
US President Donald Trump himself made clear the administration’s intentions in letters sent in 2018 and 2019 to the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo, urging them to reach a “historic agreement” on a “comprehensive peace” that would include its main element “mutual recognition”. (Serbia refuses to recognize what once was its province, leaving Kosovo out of the United Nations and also out of most international organizations.) Trump appointed then-Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell as his special envoy for negotiations in Kosovo and Serbia. Grenell took over his job happily, focusing on job creation in a region from which young people are fleeing. But this Saturday’s planned deal on economic co-operation is far from Trump’s conditions for success – and may not go so far as to reach Grenell’s. According to the US envoy, the backbone of the talks will be agreements on airlines, railways and the connection of the highway between Serbia and Kosovo. His vision is to create “momentum” from “economic normalization”, paving the way for a political solution.
There are strong reasons to be skeptical. First, the special envoy has reduced the dynamics of talks in favor of the tougher side, Belgrade. To begin the talks, Grenell called in January for each side to reciprocally remove its obstacle – the abolition of tariffs by Kosovo and the banning of the campaign by the Serbian side to recognize Kosovo. (Serbia has persuaded several developing countries to withdraw recognition of Kosovo’s independence.) In his announcement of this week’s White House talks, Grenell also shifted the focus to posting in favor of Serbia. Beyond the abolition of tariffs, Kosovo had to agree to suspend its efforts to join international organizations. This was the main reason why the administration wanted to remove Kurti, who has fought for equality in negotiations with Serbia. Such a release was also a serious mistake in the negotiations. The Kosovo delegation has been handed a pressure point on Belgrade, which has been forced to expend significant diplomatic energy to keep Kosovo out of organizations such as Interpol. This gives Serbia one more reason not to do anything. And Kosovo has gained nothing in return for this release, not even to increase US political support. On the contrary, Grenell announced this week that all difficult political issues will be left to the European Union in a second phase of the dialogue, while the United States focuses exclusively on the economy from the beginning. who was forced to expend considerable diplomatic energy to keep Kosovo out of organizations like Interpol. This gives Serbia one more reason not to do anything. And Kosovo has gained nothing in return for this release, not even to increase US political support. On the contrary, Grenell announced this week that all difficult political issues will be left to the European Union in a second phase of the dialogue, while the United States focuses exclusively on the economy from the beginning. who was forced to expend considerable diplomatic energy to keep Kosovo out of organizations like Interpol. This gives Serbia one more reason not to do anything. And Kosovo has gained nothing in return for this release, not even to increase US political support. On the contrary, Grenell announced this week that all difficult political issues will be left to the European Union in a second phase of the dialogue, while the United States focuses exclusively on the economy from the beginning.
Second , Washington’s insistence on mediating itself initially contradicts the record of success. The 2013 Brussels Normalization Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo was reached with close political cooperation between the United States and the European Union. In particular, it was Aleksandar Vucic and Ivica Dacic, currently Serbia’s president and foreign minister, who accepted the Brussels Agreement. Their involvement is an occasion to remind you that, with a hermetic diplomatic cooperation, the West can use its powerful influence.
Third, the expectations that the EU will later take the lead in resolving unresolved political issues run counter to common logic. Nowhere is Europe more politically divided than in Kosovo. Five EU countries do not recognize Kosovo’s independence, including Slovakia and Spain, respectively the countries of the EU special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo, Miroslav Lajcak, and the EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell. Due to the split, the EU is not even talking about recognition, asking Belgrade only to “normalize” its relations in order to qualify for EU membership. Mentioning this weakness, the President of Kosovo, Hashim Thaçi, has humbled Lajçak in favor of Grenelli, but now Thaçi has been removed from the picture and the Kosovar side will have to depend on the EU envoy, as the central pillar in political negotiations that seem even more difficult. Pristina is now in a state of disorientation with new Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, who is attending a White House orchestrated meeting with Serbian President Vucic, whose powers have never been greater. Rarely has a high-sensitivity diplomatic negotiation been so inconsistent.
Fourthly, even assuming that Grenell’s theory of the matter is correct – that economic normalization will lead to political progress – the US special envoy alone has made it more difficult to realize his vision, especially for a free trade area. The only goal that Serbia and Kosovo share with all their neighbors is to unite in the largest free trade area for all, the European Union. Removing existing (pre-accession) barriers to trade requires knowledge of complex EU regulations because the Balkan countries are at various stages of harmonization with the EU. Instead of cooperating with this worthy endeavor, Grenell has gone out of his way to alienate Europeans, including Europe’s biggest economic actor, Germany. The US envoy has ignored EU efforts with business communities, bringing in the heads of the Chambers of Commerce of Serbia and Kosovo, for example. In doing so, he has made it more unlikely that Brussels will listen to Washington and give Kosovo the much-coveted visa liberalization.
Fifth , Grenell ignores the serious impact of corruption and the weak rule of law in the Balkan economies. The exodus of young people from all the economies of the region is driven by the lack of jobs, but also by the sclerotic system for their distribution – through connections and not on the basis of merit. If economic growth and jobs were really Grenell’s priorities, he should never oust Prime Minister Kurti, who has already taken bold steps to fight corruption and strengthen transparency in Kosovo.
Sixth , even assuming that the United States overcomes all these obstacles and manages the situation, alone or with the help of the EU, to catalyze the development and trade between Serbia and Kosovo, this will still not change their basic strength and lack. of equality. Extended trade with Kosovo – however desirable and commendable – is unlikely to become crucial for Serbia.
Seventh , there are few examples from the region of economic interest that foster political agreement. For example, Greece has long been a major investor in northern Macedonia, and yet for nearly three decades Athens has acted against its financial interests, keeping its weakest northern neighbor away from NATO and the EU. , as Serbia is isolating Kosovo.
Instead of trade or growth, the biggest political advances in the region have come as a result of pressure or stimulation from the West (as in 2013) or visionary leadership, as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said, calling for courage to finally resolve the dispute. name with Northern Macedonia in 2018. Another bold profile, that of Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, who after taking a decisive turn in the West, apologized to Croatia in 2000 for bombing Dubrovnik. In both cases, political progress paved the way for exactly what Grenell is seeking for Kosovo and Serbia: genuine reconciliation between bitter hostilities and the expansion of economic co-operation.
Unfortunately, Serbian President Vucic refuses to take the decisive step that Djukanovic took toward the West, instead of “balancing” Serbia’s relations with the EU and the US on the one hand, with China and Russia on the other. Nor is he willing, like Tsipras, to preserve national honor through mutual respect and a genuine spirit of compromise. As Vucic speaks of compromise, he refuses to lay the groundwork for it and instead embrace his essential demand as compensation for a bitter loss. The autocrat almost completely controls the media and narration in Serbia and does not face any significant political resistance, however he has never seriously pursued the “internal dialogue” promised for Kosovo. which would open up the recognition of Serbia’s grave responsibility for the Kosovo dispute and create the conditions for a final solution. The announcement by the Specialized Chambers in The Hague of the strong allegations against Thaçi and his associate, PDK leader Kadri Veseli, only underscores the need for full self-examination by Serbs. While the taboo in Kosovo to talk about crimes against Serbs has finally been broken, so should Serbia do with its silent past, going back to the original act of dismantling Kosovo’s autonomy and creating repression. The need in Serbia and Kosovo to deal with the past is just as delayed and essential as efforts to boost the economy – and now, with the facts under the sunlight, much more feasible.
From time to time, Vuçiiçi camouflaged the need to “accept the reality” at the beginning of the narrative of Serbian victimization in Kosovo, in the hands of NATO and treacherous Albanians. There is little recognition of progress, such as the growing sense of security among Kosovo Serbs and their declining concern over inter-ethnic issues. Surprisingly, Belgrade seems to have lost interest in creating an association of Kosovo Serb municipalities, once an essential requirement that Kosovars had agreed to.
Along with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Vucic last week voiced his clearest demand for compensation for Kosovo’s recognition, making it clear that EU membership alone would not be enough. Diplomats have long taught Vucic the subject of compensation, leading to a controversial exchange of territories, which Vucic is said to have agreed with his counterpart, Thaci, last year. But the trade territory between Kosovo and Serbia also means the trade of the population, a serious problem in Kosovo, where more than half of the country’s Serbs would end up on the “wrong side” of the new border. The partition of Kosovo would provoke similar ethno-territorial impulses in the region, the main reason being that the EU envoy, Lajcak, along with other European figures have ruled out this option. Grenell insists the exchange of territories is not part of his plan. However, there is no evidence that Grenell has aligned his pressure on Pristina with anything similar to Belgrade, a move that could curb the appetite for compensation.
Ironically, as the Serbian president becomes more dominant in his country – after Sunday’s election, which was boycotted by the opposition, Vucic’s party and associates now control virtually the entire Serbian parliament – it is less sought after internationally. This trend looks set to continue. Vucic enjoys the protection of his neighbor, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban is Vucic’s closest ally in the EU and Serbia’s most vocal advocate for EU membership. So far, Orban is the only EU leader to have congratulated Vucic on his dubious election victory.
Orban offers Vucic a political model to embrace Russia and China by keeping an eye on the EU. Belgrade has already taken an alarming turn towards the East, especially when China builds with the COVID-19 “diplomatic mask”. Sino-Serbian relations have gone beyond official frigates, unclear Chinese-funded investments in the field of national security and even national values. To cite a disturbing example, Belgrade has contracted with Chinese company Huawei to install 1,000 security cameras in Belgrade. The move comes after Vucic reached full confidence in Serbia’s security, investigation and intelligence apparatus, including the installation of loyalists at high and even operational levels, increasing the possibility of Belgrade’s abuse in the same way as Beijing.
Russia and China both enjoy a very favorable treatment in the Serbian media compared to the EU, which Vucic criticized at the beginning of the pandemic for the selfish reaction at the beginning of the pandemic. The autocrat has spared no open sympathy since kissing the Chinese flag and filling Serbia with signs expressing gratitude for “Brother Xi”. Vucic has just returned from Moscow and his 18th meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he thanked effectively and whose instructions he seems to be following. Inequality in the way it treats the West and the East has had a severe impact on public opinion in Serbia. At least 3 in 4 Serbs mistakenly believe that Russia and China are the country’s most important trading partners, even though more than two-thirds of Serbia’s trade is with the EU.
Unlike the West, China and Russia show no signs of rivalry with Serbia. On the contrary, the pandemic has brought them closer, while the wrong administration of the Trump administration in Kosovo has provoked another confrontation between the United States and its allies. As the meeting approaches at the White House in Serbia and Kosovo, it is time for senior officials such as National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien to take a closer look at Grenell’s work. Trump’s own stated intentions – against China and Kosovo itself – are in jeopardy.