Trump Administration’s controversial Kosovo gambit accelerates

Trump Administration’s controversial Kosovo gambit accelerates

While not unexpected, the Trump Administration has moved faster than many observers anticipated to restart its ongoing diplomatic initiative to resolve a significant piece of the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, possibly leading to an agreement covering an exchange of territories and normalisation of relations signed at the White House this month, providing a political windfall for the embattled Trump administration, although it is unclear whether it will account for much in the US elections.

The Washington Angle

The White House meeting has been scheduled for June 27, with word of the invitations getting out on June 15. Timing is important as Serbia is holding elections June 21, although Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its allies are certain to emerge victorious as the main opposition groups plan to boycott.  The day after the meeting is a symbolic holiday at least in parts of the region, Vidovdan, or St. Vitus Day, which is remembered for the 1389 Battle of Kosovo against the Turks, along with a few more recent anniversaries.

New Europe readers will recall that Serbian President Vucic and Kosovar President Hashim Thaci briefly met at the White House on March 3 just as the COVID-19 crisis was becoming the top global attention grabber.  Both had been independently invited to Washington for State Department consultations, and the White House encounter was described as a “goodwill meeting.”

President Trump’s Special Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo, Richard Grenell, had been transferred back to Washington in February from his posting as US Ambassador to Germany and briefly given the assignment as acting Director of National Intelligence until a permanent appointment was made in May.

In March, as now, Grenell was managing the talks with the State Department in a supporting role, with a focus towards generating a foreign policy win for President Trump, whom he has energetically supported a long period. Grenell is a skilled political operative who has served both the Bush and Trump administrations in a series of international assignments and has also vocally supported them in outreach to the LGBT communities.

Whatever the outcome of the June 27 talks, readers should be aware of the domestic US political equities involved.  Serbian Americans, like most ethnic groups from Eastern Europe, strongly support the Republican party in large part due to the party’s claims to winning the Cold War under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Americans of Albanian and Kosovar-Albanian origin, a more recent immigration wave, are strongly connected to and major donors in the Democratic Party due to President Clinton’s decisive role in forging a military solution to the Kosovo problem in 1999 which ultimately led to Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence in 2008 after nearly a decade of UN stewardship.

Accordingly, the White House and Trump campaign would not be expecting a surge in electoral support from either of those groups and it’s anybody’s guess whether other segments of Trump’s electoral base have any real knowledge or concern about the Kosovo-Serbia dispute.  Up to the present, presumptive Democratic Joe Biden has not reacted to the newly announced meeting.

Prospects for an Agreement

The prospects for a potential agreement have improved rapidly throughout June, and with a number of new pieces of the puzzle in place, the dealmaker Grenell was able to call for a resumption of talks.

First of all, a new coalition government was sworn on June 3 in Pristina, after former Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, leader of the Vetenvendosje (Self-Reliance) party was removed.  Kurti’s government was strongly opposed to surrendering territory to Serbia, while the new coalition government is seen as open to a deal.  Washington’s support for a deal and backchannel threats of US troop drawdowns may well have been the deciding factor in President’s Hashim Thaci’s slow but successful power play against his rival Kurti.

Kurti meanwhile is calling for fresh elections which are likely to see Vetenvendosje triumphant once more, as in October 2019.  It is also probable that any territorial concessions Thaci approves will boost Albanian nationalism in Kosovo, making the next elections, whenever they occur, all about territory.

Current reports indicate that Thaci appears willing to trade the Serb-majority segment of Kosovo north of the Ibar River for Belgrade’s acceptance of Kosovo as a sovereign state, whereas in the past mention had been made of a territorial swap whereby Belgrade would yield to Pristina some Albanian-majority districts of the Presevo valley in southern Serbia in exchange for the Kosovar territories.

In announcing the talks, Grenell said Kosovo and Serbia had committed to “temporarily pause the derecognition campaign and the seeking of international memberships” in order to meet at the White House to try to reactivate the talks. This would be a much more limited approach than any form of a territorial swap, which Grenell has repeatedly denied the US supports.

Tariff rollbacks complete

One major issue complicating the talks has now been resolved, that of unilateral Kosovar tariffs on Serbian and some Bosnian origin goods imposed in late 2018.  Although former PM Kurti began lifting some of the tariffs in the spring, on June 6 Kosovo’s new coalition government completed the task, opening the path to a resumption of talks.

EU remains sidelined

The European Union has seen itself sidelined, almost rudely, from the US-led negotiating process, and remains deeply suspicious of the Trump Administration’s election year motives. Because the EU deeply opposes any deal that could include territorial changes/swaps, any progress on that front in Washington talks will be seen negatively in Brussels.

The EU’s Balkan Special Envoy Miroslav Lajcak has been busy as well in the Balkans. He may have already cautioned Vucic about the risks of the US election year gambit, which in Brussels’ view could undercut the long-standing EU effort at normalising ties between Kosovo and Serbia. Of course, with EU accession remaining the ultimate objective for Serbia, any suggestions from Lajcak will not be easily disregarded.

Regarding Pristina, the ultimate prize at this stage remains visa-free EU entry for Kosovo citizens. Signing up to a US-sponsored deal that includes border changes will not bring that tangibly closer.

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