Trump Has a Fix for Kosovo. He’s Ignoring It.

The White House is hosting another summit on the Balkans—while failing to apply its most promising model for solving the conflict.

A picture taken on Jan. 25, 2017 shows a mural, vandalized with paint, depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump and bearing the Cyrillic letters reading "Kosovo is Serbia," in Belgrade.
A picture taken on Jan. 25, 2017 shows a mural, vandalized with paint, depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump and bearing the Cyrillic letters reading "Kosovo is Serbia," in Belgrade. ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images

The White House is hosting the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo this week for what is billed as a major negotiation. The outcome, however, is likely to be underwhelming. Even if the Trump administration manages to broker a deal on mutual investment and economic cooperation, the heavy burden of convincing Serbia to normalize relations with its bitterly departed former province is left to the EU. The current negotiation is essentially posturing: Serbia pretends to engage in earnest and Kosovo pretends to have an avenue toward recognition.  Much-needed economic growth, if it comes, will not alter that.

Without a course correction, the talks will ultimately devolve to the same question of “compensating” Belgrade for the loss of Kosovo that led to the destabilizing land swap the administration backed until last year. Fortunately, a completely new approach is available, inspired by the recent UAE-Israel breakthrough.

In both situations, a common threat—Iran in the Middle East, and Russia, China, and Turkey in Europe —can convert an intractable problem into a unifying solution. Moscow’s violations of sovereignty from the Baltics to the Balkans, from Ukraine to the United Kingdom, have turned the Kosovo case into a catalyst. The alarming prospect of pro-Russian forces sharing power in a NATO ally, Montenegro, after this week’s stunning elections reinforces the urgency of finally breaking Moscow’s chokehold over Kosovo and the region. A standing US-EU-NATO dialogue on sovereignty, territorial integrity, and human rights would strengthen international norms against secession, creating space for full recognition of Kosovo by all EU and NATO members. This would open the door for Pristina’s accession to NATO, circumventing the Russo-Chinese UN Security Council veto and closing the Kosovo question.

Rather than grasp reality and create a pathway for Kosovo’s recognition, the Trump administration clings to the same religious belief in “economic normalization” that undergirded its failed so-called deal of the century. No matter the scope of the administration’s economic deal unveiled this week, it will not transform relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Unlike the UAE’s and Israel’s matched economies, Kosovo’s economy is simply too small to matter to its larger neighbor. Increased trade without increased competitiveness could actually make things worse for Kosovo, which runs the biggest trade deficit in the region. While the administration’s infrastructure projects could create jobs in a region that desperately needs them, a massive infusion of funds could exacerbate the endemic corruption in the region. In the end, the negotiating theatrics will continue as Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic happily participates in economic projects while continuing to prolong the talks.

The proven method for attracting investment is completing the rigorous accession process for NATO and EU membership. Serbia cannot enter the EU until it normalizes relations with Kosovo. And Kosovo can neither begin the NATO or EU process, or fully enter the international system, until Serbia lifts its diplomatic blockade. In other words, the political obstacle that the administration skirts – mutual recognition—is also the primary obstacle to economic growth.

Nor will the far-off promise of EU membership bring Serbia around to recognition anytime soon. Belgrade has closed only two of 35 required reform chapters, making a planned 2025 accession date even more implausible. Under autocratic Vucic, trends are in the wrong direction. For the first time since it opened EU negotiations in 2013, Serbia has gone a full six months without opening a new chapter.  Besides, Vucic has declared that EU membership alone – the West’s biggest carrot — is not enough to convince Serbia to recognize Kosovo, a reminder of the persistent appeal of partition.

China and Russia are proving more congenial partners for Vucic than the West. Serbia is now the “strategic anchor” for Beijing’s wider regional and European ambitions. The relationship spans the economic, defense, and security sectors, effected mainly through Chinese loans. And contrary to speculation in Belgrade about a supposed break with Moscow, the two capitals remain in close alignment on Kosovo. In June, Vucic and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov each stated that any deal over Kosovo would have the consent of both Russia and Serbia. In fact, the longstanding stalemate over Kosovo endures for only one reason: the diplomatic backing that Serbia receives from Russia and China. By staunchly blocking Kosovo’s UN membership, these two Security Council members sustain Belgrade’s rejectionism, ensuring that negotiations proceed on Serbian terms and revolve around seeking Belgrade’s assent.

The US and EU must create a completely new framework whereby Serbia can no longer deny Kosovo access to the international system. The aim is not to punish Belgrade, but to finally enable the parties to negotiate on a level playing field. In this new context, Serbia would have the ability and incentive, with US and EU assistance, to negotiate protections of its permanent, legitimate interests in a sovereign, integral and equal Kosovo—not dictate its division. Relieving Belgrade of the ability—and need—to deny Kosovo its ambitions would allow Pristina to make concessions, symbolic and practical, that would honor Serbia’s permanent connection to its former province.

The UAE shift—putting aside a futile negotiation in favor of third-party diplomatic recognition—achieves that aim. Taking the UAE role are the four EU countries that do not yet recognize Kosovo: Spain, Slovakia, Romania, and Greece. Cyprus, which also doesn’t recognize Kosovo, is unnecessary at this point. Cyprus is not a member of NATO and, as Kosovo expert and ambassador Lulzim Peci has observed, the republic’s NATO accession is all that matters now.

NATO membership would provide Kosovo with what it needs most: security, stability, and international legitimacy, attained through a Euro-Atlantic perspective. UN membership, as shown by three precedents, is not required to join NATO. Accession to the alliance has long been the steppingstone to fulfillment of the lengthier process of joining the EU, which also poses no UN membership requirement. Even beginning the NATO track would be a signal of stability to foreign investors, more potent than anything the Trump administration is proposing.

Opening Kosovo’s pathway to NATO would infuriate Putin, but his options would be limited. Moscow shrinks from direct military confrontation with NATO, particularly so far from the Russian border. Instead, Moscow would likely boost its military relationship with Belgrade, supplying more weapons and deploying more Russian troops. Beijing, too, would likely step up military cooperation with Belgrade.

All this would leave Vucic with a dilemma. Russian and Chinese armaments would do nothing to stop Kosovo’s growing international legitimacy, precisely what Belgrade fears most. Any bid to spark unrest by Kosovo Serbs against KFOR, the NATO peacekeeping force, would violate Belgrade’s commitments under the 1999 Kumanovo agreement, which ended NATO’s hostilities with Serbia.

On the other hand, freed from political dependence on Moscow and Beijing, Belgrade could reconsider its strategic orientation. The US conducts more joint military operations with Serbia than Russia does. The US, EU, and NATO could assist Serbia in managing its concerns about the Presevo Valley, where Serbia has established its biggest military base and where about 50,000 ethnic Albanians live across the border from Kosovo. Serbia’s arms industry would benefit from adopting NATO standards.

Relieved of the need to divide Kosovo, Belgrade could focus on a shared Western agenda to secure the standing of Kosovo Serbs and promote their return. Local Albanian and Serb experts have produced detailed, off-the-shelf plans, endorsed by EU officials, awaiting only the sides’ agreement.

In other words, the most intractable, unsettling conflict in the Balkans could be resolved if four EU-NATO countries recognize Kosovo. Geopolitical forces increasingly put Washington and Brussels into convergence with those non-recognizers. Anxiety over separatism is what drives fears of a Kosovo parallel in Spain, Slovakia, and Romania. Washington has no wish to see Catalan secede from Spain, or watch ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia and Romania (or Serbia, for that matter)—backed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the revanchist and Moscow ally—mount secessionist campaigns. Nor does Washington want to witness other European countries fracture in Kremlin-supported divisiveness. In the case of Scotland’s potential secession from the United Kingdom—a step that President Vladimir Putin promotes after supporting Brexit—there is a strong possibility that the U.K.’s nuclear deterrent could be lost.

The United States now has a strategic interest in keeping Europe—and individual European states—whole and free. It’s time for Washington to go beyond its unilateral opposition to individual cases and lead a trans-Atlantic effort to refine state sovereignty in a way that discourages secession while maintaining commitment to human rights. The standing U.S.-EU-NATO Dialogue on Sovereignty, Territorial Integrity and Human Rights would produce a formal document setting out core principles and practical steps to define and promote the shared commitment to state order, and to the expression of self-determination within it, leaving secession for extreme cases.

This is entirely consistent with Kosovo’s independence. The U.N. Charter favors territorial integrity and international law frowns on secession, creating very narrow space for exceptions—which Kosovo easily fills. Following Serbia’s request, the International Court of Justice ruled in 2010 that Kosovo’s declaration of independence violated neither international law nor the governing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244. The Court said that its decision did not address the question of self-determination and remedial secession, clearly signaling that the case was not a precedent. Ironically, it was Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic who conceded this point in the U.N. General Assembly, insisting that the court’s decision “would prevent the Kosovo crisis from serving as a deeply problematic precedent in any part of the globe where secessionist ambitions are harbored.”

There are at least a dozen elements in the drive for Kosovo’s independence that are glaringly absent from any current European secessionist movement, including years of state-sponsored repression and denial of political rights. Unlike Catalonia, which this year played the key parliamentary role in forming Spain’s government, Kosovo has never been offered commensurate political representation in Serbia’s parliament. While Belgrade did not consent to Kosovo’s declaration of independence, it was hardly unilateral. The United States and the majority of the EU strongly backed it, insisting on a constitution with strong protections for Kosovo’s Serbs. No remotely similar experience exists in Europe to include Crimea, site of another specious parallel repeatedly drawn by Putin.

As the EU’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell once stated when he fulfilled the same role for Spain, “Catalonia is not a colony, it is not occupied, it is not a state like Kosovo. It is not an occupied state.” Borrell could chair the Territorial Integrity and Human Rights Dialogue, sending a strong signal to Moscow, Madrid, and Barcelona that the trans-Atlantic community is firmly opposed to dismemberment of Spain or other European countries.

This powerful international alignment against ethno-territorial demands would be supplemented by diplomatic gestures. Washington could help Athens obtain final agreement from Albania on maritime rights. The United States and the EU could help Bucharest check illegal ethnic Hungarian paramilitary efforts, including the financing and planning of minor terrorist attacks, reportedly supported by Moscow and Budapest. Pushing back on Orban’s revanchist tactics could build confidence in both Bratislava and Bucharest.

In sum, the way for the EU-NATO four to isolate the Kosovo case is to accept it—underscoring its many convincing distinctions—while working with allies to strengthen and embrace the norm of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Doing so would relieve the EU of the complication of having both its Foreign Minister, Borrell, and its Special Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo, Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia, hail from non-recognizing states.

Like most governments, Madrid, Bratislava, Bucharest, and Athens may flinch at taking political risk. But unlike Abu Dhabi, they face no reprisals from Iran or Turkey, or potentially from jihadists. Working with the United States and fellow EU and NATO members, these governments could rid themselves of a burden while liberating a country, stabilizing a region, and unifying a continent.

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