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Anatomy of a Kosovo Summit Catastrophe

The Trump administration is hosting Balkans leaders this week to culminate a peace process that’s gone wrong from the start.

By , a conflict management expert who teaches at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
U.S. envoy Richard Grenell
U.S. envoy Richard Grenell
Richard Grenell walks to his vehicle after greeting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at Tegel airport in Berlin on May 31, 2019. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images

In March of this year, the Trump administration successfully engineered the collapse of a friendly government in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. Rather than a covert CIA operation, the administration and the U.S. Embassy mounted overt pressure. Within weeks of suspending development assistance and threatening to withdraw U.S. troops from the NATO peacekeeping force, the government of reformist Prime Minister Albin Kurti was gone.

In March of this year, the Trump administration successfully engineered the collapse of a friendly government in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. Rather than a covert CIA operation, the administration and the U.S. Embassy mounted overt pressure. Within weeks of suspending development assistance and threatening to withdraw U.S. troops from the NATO peacekeeping force, the government of reformist Prime Minister Albin Kurti was gone.

While Washington was busy pressuring Kosovo, Moscow and Beijing were doing the opposite in Serbia: providing critical pandemic support as the coronavirus began sweeping across the Balkans. In addition to planeloads and truckloads of materials ranging from personal protective equipment to ventilators, Russia and China shrewdly sent personnel to perform highly visible missions. Russian biological warfare experts disinfected hospitals. Chinese public health experts from Wuhan guided Serbian officials in the strict test-and-quarantine model that became the basis for the Serbian response to the coronavirus.

The still-unfolding tumult from the COVID-19 pandemic, which threatens to turn the Balkans into a Sino-Russian influence zone, puts this week’s White House meeting between Serbia and Kosovo—billed as a “historic” breakthrough—in a new and troubling perspective. America’s national security interests lie in staving off Russian and Chinese designs on the region by closely cooperating with its European allies. Unfortunately, the Trump administration, in a rushed bid for a one-day public relations coup this Saturday, has shattered Western unity at the very moment when Russia and China are closing ranks on an agenda of regional subversion. What’s more, the short-sighted strategy has complicated achievement of a Kosovo settlement, instead, reinforcing the appeal to Belgrade of a highly-problematic land swap. Today’s bombshell announcement that Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci has been indicted for war crimes has kicked the legs out from under the administration’s strategy, spoiling its machinations in Kosovo’s politics, and setting up Saturday’s meeting to be a fiasco.

U.S. President Donald Trump himself set out the administration’s goals in letters sent in 2018 and 2019 to the presidents of Serbia and of Kosovo, urging them to reach a “historic accord” for a “comprehensive peace” that would include as its central element “mutual recognition.” (Serbia refuses to recognize its former province, leaving Kosovo out of the United Nations and most international organizations.) Trump appointed then-Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell as his special envoy for Kosovo and Serbia negotiations. Grenell dove into his assignment with gusto, focusing on job-creation in a region that is hemorrhaging its young people. But this Saturday’s anticipated deal on economic cooperation falls far short of Trump’s own terms for success—and may not go far to achieve Grenell’s. According to the U.S. envoy, the backbone of the talks will be agreements on air, rail, and motorway connectivity between Serbia and Kosovo. His vision is to create “momentum” from “economic normalization,” paving the way for a political settlement.

There are good reasons to be skeptical. First, the special envoy has skewed the negotiating dynamics in favor of the intransigent side, Belgrade. To get talks going, Grenell had in January demanded that each side reciprocally remove its obstacle—lifting tariffs on the Kosovo side and halting the d-recognition campaign against Kosovo on the Serbian side. (Serbia has persuaded a number of countries in the developing world to drop their recognition of Kosovo.) In his announcement of this week’s White House parley, Grenell moved the goal posts in Serbia’s favor. Beyond lifting tariffs, Kosovo had to agree to suspend its effort to join international organizations. This was the main reason the administration wanted Kurti, who has fought for equity in the negotiations with Serbia, removed. The concession was also a serious negotiating blunder. The Kosovo delegation has surrendered the one point of pressure that it had on Belgrade, which was forced to expend considerable diplomatic energy to keep Kosovo out of organizations like Interpol. This gives Serbia one more reason to sit on its hands. And Kosovo has gained nothing in return for this concession, not even stepped-up U.S. political support. To the contrary, Grenell announced this week that all the difficult political issues will be left to the European Union in a phase-two dialogue, while the United States focuses exclusively on the economy at the outset.

Second, Washington’s insistence on initially mediating by itself defies the record of success. The 2013 Brussels Normalization Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo was achieved with close-knit U.S. and EU political cooperation. Notably, it was Aleksandar Vucic and Ivica Dacic, now Serbia’s president and foreign minister, respectively, who accepted the Brussels Agreement. Their acquiescence is a reminder that with airtight diplomatic collaboration, the West can apply leverage to powerful effect.

Third, the expectation that the EU will later take the lead on resolving outstanding political issues defies common sense. Nowhere is Europe more splintered politically than on Kosovo. Five EU countries do not recognize Kosovo’s independence, including Slovakia and Spain, the home countries, respectively, of the EU special envoy on Serbia and Kosovo, Miroslav Lajcak, and the EU’s overall foreign minister, Josep Borrell. Because of the split, the EU doesn’t even speak of recognition, asking only that Belgrade “normalize” its relations in order to qualify for EU membership. Citing this weakness, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci has scorned Lajcak in favor of Grenell, but now Thaci is gone from the picture and the Kosovo side will have to depend on the EU envoy as its mainstay on political negotiations that look even more difficult. Pristina is now in complete disarray, with brand new Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti dragooned into a White House orchestrated meeting with Serbia’s President Vucic, whose powers have never been greater. Rarely has a sensitive diplomatic negotiation been so mismatched.

Fourth, even assuming that the Grenell theory of the case is correct—that economic normalization will lead to political breakthrough—the US special envoy has only made it harder to realize his vision, particularly for a free trade zone. The one goal that Serbia and Kosovo share with all their neighbors is to join the largest free trade zone of all, the European Union. Removing existing (pre-membership) barriers to commerce requires intricate knowledge of EU regulations because Balkan countries are at different stages of harmonization with the EU. Instead of partnering on this worthy endeavor, Grenell has gone out of his way to alienate the Europeans, including Europe’s biggest economic actor, Germany. The U.S. envoy has ignored the EU’s own efforts with business communities, bringing the heads of Serbia’s and Kosovo’s Chambers of Commerce together, for example. In so doing, he has made it less likely that Brussels will listen to Washington and grant Kosovo much-needed visa liberalization.

Fifth, Grenell ignores the severe impact of corruption and weak rule of law on Balkan economies. The exodus of young people from around the region’s economies is driven both by scarcity of good jobs and also the sclerotic system for allocating them—through connections, not merit. If economic growth and jobs were truly Grenell’s priority, he never would have expelled Prime Minister Kurti, who had already begun taking bold steps to fight corruption and boost transparency in Kosovo.

Sixth, even assuming that the United States overcomes all of these obstacles and manages, alone or with EU assistance, to catalyze development and trade between Serbia and Kosovo, that will still not alter their fundamental power and size imbalance. Expanded trade with Kosovo—however desirable and laudable—is unlikely to ever become of decisive importance for Serbia.

Seventh, and most sobering, there are few examples from the region of economic interest driving political agreement. For example, Greece has long been a top investor in North Macedonia, and yet for almost three decades Athens acted against its financial interest, keeping its weaker northern neighbor out of NATO and the EU, just as Serbia isolates Kosovo.

Instead of trade or growth, the biggest political breakthroughs in the region have come as a result of either concerted Western pressure or incentives (as in 2013) or visionary leadership, as shown by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who summoned the courage to finally resolve the Macedonian name dispute in 2018. In another profile in courage, Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, having taken a decisive turn to the West, apologized to Croatia in 2000 for the bombardment of Dubrovnik. In both cases, political breakthroughs paved the way for precisely what Grenell is seeking for Kosovo and Serbia: genuine reconciliation between bitter enemies and expanding economic cooperation.

Unfortunately, Serbia’s President Vucic refuses to take the decisive step that Djukanovic did toward the West, instead “balancing” Serbia’s EU and U.S. relationship 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. While Vucic speaks of compromise, he refuses to lay the groundwork for it, instead framing his core demand as compensation for a bitter loss. The autocrat almost totally controls the media and narrative in Serbia and faces no significant political opposition, yet he has never seriously pursued the promised “internal dialogue” on Kosovo that would open up acknowledgement of heavy Serbian responsibility for the Kosovo standoff and lower the threshold for a final settlement.. Today’s announcement by the Specialist Chambers in the Hague of the egregious allegations against Thaci and his associate, PDK party leader Kadri Veseli, only underscores the need for thorough Serbian self-examination. As the taboo in Kosovo on speaking about crimes against Serbs is finally shattered, so must be the case in Serbia with its own sordid past, going back to the original act of dismantling Kosovo’s autonomy and instituting repression. The need in Serbia and in Kosovo to confront the past is as overdue and essential as efforts to grow the economy—and now, with the facts in the open, far more feasible.

From time to time, Vucic sprinkles cryptic mentions of the need to “accept reality” on top of the baseline narrative of wholesale Serbian victimization in Kosovo at the hands of NATO and perfidious Albanians. There is little acknowledgement of progress, such as the growing sense of security among Kosovo Serbs and their diminished preoccupation with inter-ethnic questions. Curiously, Belgrade seems to have lost interest in establishing an association of Kosovo Serb municipalities, once a core demand that Kosovars had signed up to.

Standing next to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Vucic last week voiced his clearest demand for compensation for recognizing Kosovo, explicitly stating that EU membership alone would not be enough. Diplomats have long indulged Vucic on the topic of compensation, helping lead to the controversial land swap that Vucic reportedly agreed to with his counterpart, Thaci, last year. But trading territory between Kosovo and Serbia also means trading populations, a serious problem in Kosovo, where more than half the country’s Serbs would end up on the “wrong side” of the new border. Partition of Kosovo would also excite similar ethno-territorial impulses around the region, the primary reason that the EU envoy Lajcak along with other European figures have ruled it out. Grenell insists that the land swap is not part of his plan. Nonetheless, there is no evidence of Grenell having matched his pressure on Pristina with anything similar on Belgrade, a step that might stem the appetite for compensation.

Ironically, as the Serbian president becomes more dominant domestically—after Sunday’s elections, which were boycotted by the opposition, Vucic’s party and affiliates now control virtually the entire Serbian parliament—less is asked of him internationally. This trend seems set to continue. Vucic enjoys the protection of his neighbor, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban is Vucic’s closest EU partner and the most vocal champion of Serbia’s EU membership. So far, Orban is the only EU leader to congratulate Vucic on his dubious election victory.

Orban offers Vucic a political model for embracing Russia and China while keeping the EU at bay.. Belgrade has already taken an alarming turn toward the East, particularly as China builds on its COVID-19 “mask diplomacy.” The Sino-Serbian relationship has moved beyond the signature, opaque Chinese-financed investments into the realm of national security and even national values. To cite one troubling example, Belgrade has contracted with the Chinese company Huawei to install 1,000 security cameras in Belgrade. This step comes as Vucic has achieved wholesale party control over Serbia’s security, investigative, and intelligence apparatus, including the installation of loyalists at senior and even operational levels, raising the potential for abuse by Belgrade or Beijing alike.

Russia and China both enjoy highly favorable treatment in the Serbian media compared to the EU, which Vucic slammed at the onset of the pandemic for its self-centered initial response. The autocrat revels in fawning displays of sycophancy, like kissing the Chinese flag and dotting Serbia with cult-like billboards expressing gratitude to “Brother Xi.” Vucic just returned from Moscow and his 18th meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin whom Vucic has effusively thanked and whose instructions he seems to be following. The abject disparity in treatment between West and East has had a stark impact on public opinion in Serbia. Almost 3 in 4 Serbs mistakenly believe that Russia and China are the country’s most important trading partners, although more than two-thirds of Serbia’s trade is with the EU.

Unlike the West, China and Russia show no signs of rivalry over Serbia. To the contrary, the coronavirus pandemic has brought them closer together, while the Trump administration’s misguided Kosovo venture has driven another stake between the United States and its allies. As the increasingly shaky White House gathering of Serbia and Kosovo approaches, it’s time for senior officials like the nominal host, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, to have a closer look at Grenell’s handiwork. Trump’s own stated goals—on China and on Kosovo itself—are at risk.

Edward P. Joseph teaches conflict management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He served for a dozen years in the Balkans, including with the U.S. Army, and as Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.

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