While You Weren't Looking

Why the United States Is Stoking a Crisis in Kosovo

Even amid an unprecedented pandemic, Trump wants a deal above all else.

Kosovo's prime minister, Albin Kurti, gestures during a press conference in Pristina on Feb. 26.
Kosovo's prime minister, Albin Kurti, gestures during a press conference in Pristina on Feb. 26. ARMEND NIMANI/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news. Here’s what we’re watching this week: The Trump administration’s Kosovo strategy threatens a political crisis, South Korea holds national elections amid the pandemic, and UNICEF warns that measles and polio could surge as immunization programs are put on hold.

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The U.S. Stokes a Political Crisis in Kosovo

U.S. President Donald Trump relishes a good deal, but his efforts to broker international agreements have often fallen short. Even so, his administration is looking to score a foreign-policy victory by brokering a final peace deal between Serbia and Kosovo, which fought a war in the late 1990s. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but Serbia and Russia have so far refused to join the United States and 100 other countries in recognizing its freedom.

On Monday, top U.S. Democrats on the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, accusing the administration of being “heavy-handed” in its approach to Kosovo. In addition, they say Washington is overlooking Serbia’s campaign of derecognition against Kosovo and has failed to sanction the country over its purchase of Russian anti-aircraft weapons.

Why it’s relevant. Successive U.S. administrations have supported Kosovo’s sovereignty, but regional experts and Democratic lawmakers fear that the Trump administration is now putting its desire for a deal—at any cost—ahead of the best interests of its long-standing ally. A normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo is a precondition to their joining the European Union, but some Kosovar officials fear being forced into redrawing the border with Serbia.

“The real puzzle is how U.S. diplomacy came to this extreme—a contorted effort to bully a weak, vulnerable U.S. ally to placate a Serbian strongman,” Edward P. Joseph wrote for Foreign Policy, referring to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who visited the White House last month.

Government collapse. Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s government collapsed on March 25, less than two months after it was sworn in. Kurt Bassuener, a co-founder and senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council, a Berlin-based think tank, said that U.S. support for the vote of no confidence in Kurti’s government had a “decisive” role in the outcome.

The U.S. special envoy for Serbia-Kosovo peace negotiations, Richard Grenell, was reportedly frustrated with Kurti’s refusal to lift tariffs on Serbian goods, seen as an obstacle to the peace deal. “Kurti has been determined not to let his government’s regional policy be dictated by the United States,” said Eric Gordy, a professor of political and cultural sociology at University College London. Kurti has also opposed the plan to redraw the Kosovo-Serbia border along ethnic lines. Grenell, a Trump acolyte, has a lot on his plate: He also serves as the U.S. ambassador to Germany and acting director of national intelligence.

The art of the deal. Kosovo is often described as the most pro-American country in the world. The United States led a NATO bombing campaign in 1999 to repel Serbian forces, which had begun a new wave of ethnic cleansing against Kosovar Albanians. But the Trump administration’s approach to Kosovo has thrown a wrench into the country’s politics as it grapples with how to respond to the coronavirus. It also follows a pattern that is increasingly familiar to observers of Trump’s foreign-policy making, Mieczyslaw P. Boduszynski and Victor Peskin write for Foreign Policy: Allies and career diplomats have been shunned while loyal political operatives take center stage, putting deal-making above diplomacy.


What We’re Following

South Korea’s parliament moves left. On Wednesday, a former North Korean diplomat became the first defector to South Korea to win a seat in the country’s parliament. Thae Yong-ho served as Pyongyang’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, but in 2016, he became the highest-ranking North Korean official to defect to the South. On the campaign trail, Thae said that if he were to be elected it would be a significant blow for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. This week’s parliamentary elections were widely seen as a referendum on the government’s response to the coronavirus. President Moon Jae-in’s governing Democratic Party won by an unprecedented landslide.

For the first time in 16 years, left-leaning parties now hold a majority of seats in the South Korean parliament, a shift that could permanently reshape the country’s politics, “With the latest victory, we may be witnessing South Korea’s version of the Reagan Revolution: an electoral victory that may well set the course of politics for the next generation toward an entirely new direction,” S. Nathan Park writes in Foreign Policy.

Vaccination programs put on hold. Global health experts fear that epidemics of infectious diseases such as polio and measles could surge in developing countries as vaccination programs have been put on hold amid coronavirus-related lockdowns. On Monday, UNICEF cautioned that over 117 million children in 37 countries could miss out on receiving potentially life-saving measles vaccines.

The Trump administration’s decision to cut U.S. funding to the World Health Organization could also undermine global efforts to end polio, leaving eradication efforts hundreds of millions of dollars short, reports NBC News. It risks piling further pressure on straining health care systems in the global south.

Growing food insecurity. On Tuesday, the U.N. World Food program announced a 30 percent cut in food rations distributed to 1.4 million refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda. El-Khidir Daloum, the World Food Program’s Uganda country director, told the Guardian that the consequences of the food reduction extended well beyond malnutrition. “These latest cuts will put children’s lives at risk and will inevitably mean that more children face abuse and exploitation,” Save the Children’s Uganda country director, Brechtje van Lith, said in a statement.


Keep an Eye On 

Poland’s abortion restrictions. On Wednesday, the Polish Parliament debated legislation that would strengthen already stringent restrictions on abortions. Previous attempts to impose further limits were withdrawn in 2016 after mass protests. Activists fear the government is now taking advantage of the coronavirus lockdown. The new bill was sent back to a parliamentary committee for further consideration—likely a way to allow it to quietly languish, although it could still resurface, the Guardian reports.

Congo is not yet Ebola-free. The Democratic Republic of the Congo came within days of being able to declare an end to its devastating Ebola outbreak, which has killed 2,276 people since it began in August 2018 but was brought under control with the use of two vaccines. For the outbreak to be declared over, 42 days must pass with no new cases reported. Forty days had elapsed when a new case was reported on April 10, and Congo has since confirmed five more cases. WHO said that while there is little risk the disease would spread beyond Congo, it remains a public health emergency of international concern.

Giuliani’s associates. On Wednesday, a U.S. federal judge delayed the trial of two associates of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani until February 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were indicted in October on charges of campaign finance violations for allegedly using a shell company to make an illegal donation of $325,000 to a committee supporting Trump’s reelection. During the House impeachment investigation, Parnas and Fruman emerged as key players in the bid to oust then-U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from her post in Ukraine.

The trial was set to begin on Oct. 5, which would have thrust the potentially damaging case into the spotlight in the final few weeks of Trump’s presidential reelection campaign.


That’s it for this week.

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to newsletters@foreignpolicy.com.

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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