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Collapse of Kosovo Talks Amid Leader’s War Crimes Charges Are Rebuff for Trump

Serbia’s president consolidates his control as Belgrade edges toward autocracy.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, left, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic
Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, left, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic sign a declaration of intent at the 56th Munich Security Conference on Feb. 14. Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is having a good week. 

Last weekend, his party won a landslide victory in elections boycotted by opposition parties in protest of his strongman tactics. This coming Saturday, he was due to appear at the White House for peace talks with President Hashim Thaci of Kosovo, but the summit collapsed before it had even begun after an international tribunal announced on Wednesday that Thaci had been charged with war crimes. The prime minister of Kosovo, Avdullah Hoti, was due to take his place, but on Thursday he announced that he was canceling his trip too. 

Observers on both sides of the Atlantic are likely relieved at the collapse of the U.S.-led talks, which many feared could do more harm than good. U.S. President Donald Trump has been keen to bolster his deal-maker image by brokering a hasty agreement between the quarreling countries at any cost, taking a heavy-handed approach with U.S. ally Kosovo while asking little of Serbia. 

Trump’s envoy for the peace talks, Richard Grenell, initially heralded Saturday’s summit as “historic,” but he later downplayed it, saying that the leaders would focus on economic issues to create jobs and “bring capitalism” to improve ties between the two countries while thorny political talks over Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia would be left to the European Union.

With the U.S.-led talks now on pause for the foreseeable future, Vucic can now “kick the can down the road” for a little while longer, said Dimitar Bechev, a research fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

“Vucic was never interested in a solution. He was interested in talking about it, because that’s what he’s offering basically, really,” said Florian Bieber, a professor of Southeast European history and politics at the University of Graz in Austria. 

The United States played a decisive role in the collapse of the government of Kosovo in March, as Grenell had grown increasingly frustrated with headstrong then-Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who had resisted U.S. pressure. 

Kosovo has often been described as the most pro-American country on earth after a 1999 NATO bombing campaign intended to halt ethnic cleansing enabled Kosovo to break away from Serbia and later declare its independence in 2008. Serbia has refused to recognize the sovereignty of its former province. 

Kosovo’s politics will likely be plunged into chaos by the charges announced against the president, who was one of the top commanders in the Kosovo Liberation Army. A mainstay of Kosovar politics since independence, Thaci has seen his future as president thrown into doubt because of the new charges brought by a special tribunal based in The Hague, Netherlands, which accused him and nine others of being responsible for the murder of nearly 100 Kosovar Albanians, Serbs, and Romani people. While the charges are still to be confirmed by a pretrial judge, the court took the unusual step of announcing them on Wednesday because of Thaci’s efforts to “obstruct and undermine” the work of the Kosovo Specialist Prosecutor’s Office. 

Thaci is a key backer of Hoti, who has served as prime minister for only three weeks, so the president’s departure could lead to new elections. “I am doubtful that the Hoti government will survive for long in such circumstances,” Bieber said.

There was a time when a slide into authoritarianism came with a cost, but in an increasingly multipolar and transactional world, Vucic has effortlessly played major powers off against one another while shoring up his grip on power at home. “Twenty years ago, there was basically no alternative to the EU. There was no one competing for influence or authority in the region, so they all had to orient themselves to the EU. And that’s no longer the case, at least not economically,” said Eric Gordy, a professor of political and cultural sociology at University College London. 

While Serbia seeks to join the European Union, attacks on the media and opposition there have increased under Vucic, prompting Freedom House to downgrade its assessment of the country from free to partly free in 2019. The EU’s ability to check this has been hamstrung by flourishing authoritarianism within its member states. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was one of the first international leaders to congratulate Vucic after his faction and their junior coalition partners won a dizzying 230 of the 250 seats in the Serbian parliament on Sunday. “The European Union and the United States have not done enough to hold Serbian government accountable and enact political consequences on Serbian government for its blatant disregard of democratic rules,” said Majda Ruge, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

“Certainly the West is more circumspect when it comes to criticizing him because in some European capitals at least there’s a perception that if you’re too harsh on Serbia they may look elsewhere,” said Bechev, the author of Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe.

Candidates for EU membership are expected to align their foreign policy with that of the bloc, but Serbia has instead steadily drifted in the opposite direction. An analysis by the International and Security Affairs Centre, a think tank based in Belgrade, Serbia, found that in 2019 Serbia aligned with 57 percent of the foreign-policy declarations made by the EU, down from 99 percent in 2012. 

“The EU should be clear that Serbia has to choose its direction,” said Molly Montgomery, a former special advisor to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence for Europe and Eurasia. “I think there’s an argument that the EU should focus less on wooing countries like Serbia that are trying to play powers off of each other, and more on supporting countries that are dedicated to moving full speed ahead on membership.” 

Vucic has spoken publicly about this desire to continue balancing Russia and China with the West. While the European Union is by far Serbia’s most significant business partner, accounting for more than two-thirds of the country’s trade, the EU’s leaders have failed to translate this into political clout. Asked in opinion polls who they think is Belgrade’s most significant trade partner, almost three-quarters of Serbs said China and Russia. “This clearly suggests to me that there’s misunderstanding, deliberately fostered by leaders like Vucic,” said Bieber of the University of Graz. 

Russia’s ties with Belgrade run long and deep, and Moscow has proved to be an invaluable ally in international institutions when it comes to blocking Kosovo’s attempts to gain recognition. This week, Vucic met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow after attending a World War II victory parade previously postponed by the pandemic. 

Beijing’s footprint in the region is new, but it has expanded significantly over the past decade, with China making billions of dollars of loans and investments in Serbia. In March, as the coronavirus was picking up speed in Europe, China sent a shipment of medical aid to Serbia. In a press conference, Vucic said, “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper,” and he sent a letter of thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping in which he said he addressed the Chinese leader “not only as a dear friend, but as a brother.”

“China is seen as the big piggy bank arriving. Of course, this perception is flawed because the money is recycled into Chinese companies and local contractors won’t get much from it,” said Bechev. While Chinese investments in Serbia are expected to reach $10 billion, of the total $2.2 billion that has entered Serbia so far, almost two-thirds were loans. 

While Vucic’s balancing act may have paid off for him so far, he may end up painting himself into a corner, experts warn. The EU has typically led talks between Serbia and Kosovo, but under Trump the United States had sought to forge a parallel process. With the U.S.-led process likely now on pause, Europe may once again take the lead, and Brussels is less likely to be as accommodating of Vucic as Washington has been. 

With an overwhelming majority of the parliament now under his control, Vucic may face increased pressure from the European Union to make concessions with a view to striking a deal with Kosovo. For decades, Serbian leaders have used their fear of their political opponents as a reason for dragging their heels on peace talks. “He no longer has an excuse for doing things that he won’t want to do. Any failure to deliver is all on him,” said Gordy of University College London. 

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

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