Donald Trump’s Big League Balkans Problem
The first victim of Trump-induced instability might not be Ukraine, or the Baltics – but tiny Kosovo.
FERIZAJ, Kosovo — Armend Miftari’s love for the United States is unwavering, even in the wake of Donald Trump.
Like many in the city of Ferizaj, home to the sprawling U.S. military base Camp Bondsteel, Miftari remains an America devotee, thanks to the role the United States played in freeing his country from the rule of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 1999.
While Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, is home to a famously jovial bronze statue of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, which looms over an eponymous boulevard, Ferizaj has its own Bill Clinton Sports Hall, to the west of the city, so named because the former U.S. president once gave a speech there. On a recent walk through town, it seemed at least one out of every 10 teenagers had a U.S. flag emblazoned on a backpack, T-shirt, or pair of jeans. Miftari, 38, who spent the war as a refugee in Germany, later went to work for the Americans at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan as a builder; it was there that he penned a schmaltzy song of gratitude: “Thank You USA.”
But Miftari’s allegiance now competes with anxiety. To Kosovo, he says, the prospect of Trump in the White House “feels like a nightmare” — and not just because the country is more than 90 percent Muslim. The danger, he says, is already evident in the comments under his music video, which is posted on YouTube: “Ever since Trump won, lots of people have been commenting on the video that it is Serbia’s dream come true. And that Trump is on their side and will return Kosovo to Serbia.”
In the weeks since the U.S. election, eyes have been trained on Ukraine, the Baltics, and other prominent geopolitical arenas. But tiny Kosovo has already become a testing ground for how the forces unleashed by Trump’s victory will play out on the international stage. The country, which sits in the Balkans sandwiched between four larger neighbors, still lacks an army and is therefore helpless without the U.S. security guarantees, and diplomatic reliability, that Trump has threatened to withdraw.
Since declaring independence in 2008, Kosovo has won recognition from some 113 countries. Russia and China, however, are among the countries that have demurred, supporting Serbia’s continued claims to the territory. The United States, one of the first countries to recognize its independence, advocates for Kosovo on the international stage; it lobbied heavily for Kosovo’s UNESCO bid in 2015, for example (which failed by three votes). More than 4,200 NATO troops, including some 650 Americans, are stationed in Kosovo. In a brief conversation with Trump before his inauguration, Kosovo’s ambassador to Washington said she told the incoming president that she represented “the most pro-American nation on the face of the earth.” With the advent of the “America First” era, however, it’s not clear that Kosovo, for all its fervor, will be a priority.
It’s no secret, then, why emotions ran high here during the U.S. election. The country is dominated by Albanians like Miftari, who remain ardent admirers of the Clintons (in addition to the Bill Clinton statue, Pristina is home to a few boutiques named after his wife, former secretary of state and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton). But it is also home to a Serb minority who live in the northern part of the country, feel trapped between Belgrade and Pristina, and have embraced Trump in part out of a desire to “stick it to the system,” said analyst Branislav Nesovic, who is from Kosovo’s northernmost municipality, Leposavic.
The U.S. campaign also inflamed Kosovo’s northern neighbor. Serbian Radical leader Vojislav Seselj led pro-Trump protests last summer during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Belgrade and urged Serbian-Americans to vote for Trump “for [the] future of Serbia.” When Trump won, Seselj played a song for the new president-elect in Serbia’s parliament; in the song, which was composed by members of the Serbian diaspora in Milwaukee, the singer revels in the fact that Trump and Vladimir Putin will become co-emperors of the world and hopes he — Trump — will deport Muslims from the United States as he promised in his campaign. Other responses were only slightly more restrained. Marko Djuric, a Serbian politician responsible for ongoing EU-brokered negotiations to “normalize” relations with Kosovo, said he whipped out a bottle of champagne to celebrate Trump’s victory. Serbia, which is a candidate for EU membership but also maintains close ties with Russia, sees Trump’s regard for Putin as a good thing, Djuric said. “Our hope is that the new U.S. administration led by Donald Trump could make a significant contribution to the global de-escalation of relations between the major powers,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Russian-allied Serbian nationalists inside Kosovo, who still see the country as part of Serbia, have been emboldened by an incoming U.S. president who they see as an ideological ally. In northern Kosovo, whose predominantly ethnic Serb residents still cling to Serbian institutions and see their capital as Belgrade, Trump’s victory was celebrated with raucous festivities and cheers. Days after the election, billboards went up in Mitrovica, a northern city divided between ethnic Serbs and Albanians. Emblazoned with Trump’s picture, the signs proclaimed proudly that “Serbs stood by him all along!”
These growing tensions boiled over suddenly this month when Serbia tried to send a new, Russian-donated train from Belgrade to Mitrovica. The train, adorned with icons from Serbian Orthodox monasteries in Kosovo and plastered with the provocative slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 languages, was stopped just before the disputed border, after Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said ethnic Albanians had put dynamite on the tracks. The Kosovo government sent special police units to the border to block the train from entry.
The rhetoric between Belgrade and Pristina continued to escalate sharply after the train episode: Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said he was ready to send the Serbian army to Kosovo, while Kosovo President Hashim Thaci countered by saying that Serbia was intending to annex the northern part of Kosovo using the “Crimea model.” After a meeting of the Serbian Security Council, Nikolic told reporters that he thought the timing of the events was related to the outgoing U.S. administration, though he didn’t elaborate. Relations have remained tense since; the two countries’ prime ministers are due to meet in Brussels Feb. 1.
Serbia remains unlikely to truly “take a leaf out of the Crimea playbook” for the moment, said Florian Bieber, the director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria. After all, the country still has aspirations of joining the EU, and Russia has not yet sent clear signals of support for the idea to tempted Serbian nationalists. But, he said, “I do think that Trump coming to power means that there will be a lot of testing the waters in the coming weeks and months.”
Lumir Abdixhiku, executive director at the Riinvest Institute, a Pristina-based think tank, worries that Trump’s victory will upend a global order that Kosovo’s existence has depended on for almost 20 years. “A small shift in U.S. foreign policy will mean major implications in this part of the world,” he said. “This part of the world needs international presence and international police, and if the U.S. is willing to let go of the power that it has, someone else will take its place, and for us that is bad news.”
It’s not clear that the train incident and the ensuing rhetoric stemmed from a new Trump-enabled sense of Serbian impunity; some analysts say the bold words might also have been the result of local factors. Serbia’s presidential elections are scheduled for April, and both President Nikolic and Prime Minister Vucic are contenders for the nomination from the Serbian Progressive Party. Vucic has been leading the relatively unpopular dialogue with Kosovo and may have sent the train to assuage concerns that too many concessions were being made to what Belgrade still views as its southern province. Nikolic’s aggressive statements after the train was turned back may, too, have been aimed at a nationalist base.
Regardless of the reason for the escalation, however, Bieber said the progress made since 2011 in the EU-brokered negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia, which are intended to result in “normalization of relations,” could now be upended. Keeping negotiations on track requires a strong EU, supported by the United States. “If the U.S. sends other signals, that brings ambiguity, and there is at least a risk that the process might falter,” Bieber said.
So far, Kosovo’s fate has received little attention during the tumultuous transition period and first few days of the new administration. It came up briefly during confirmation hearings for Gen. James Mattis, the new secretary of defense, during which Mattis reiterated U.S. commitment to the country, calling it “an example of what happens when the international community, led by America, commits itself to the defense of its interests and values.” It’s not clear, however, that Mattis speaks for Trump.
For now, however, Miftari is keeping the faith. He will never, he says, stop loving America, even though the next four years make him nervous.
“I am skeptical [of Trump],” he said. “But then I think to myself, he is an American, too.”
Photo credit: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images