Two months ahead of the US presidential election, most polls show the incumbent President Donald Trump is trailing his Democratic rival Joe Biden. A foreign policy triumph would help distract attention from the US president's disastrous handling of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the protests sparked by police brutality against black Americans. Can Serbia and Kosovo deliver this?
Top politicians from the two Western Balkan countries will meet in Washington on September 3 for a meeting that has been billed in advance as mainly focused on economic issues – though the endgame in this saga is clearly a political settlement of the long-standing conflict that would have to involve some form of recognition of Kosovo’s statehood by Serbia.
After years during which the conflict was largely ignored by both Washington and Brussels – despite the European Commission’s efforts to revive the EU enlargement process – the US role was reinvigorated with the appointment of Trump’s new envoy for the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, Richard Grenell, who announced a deal on the resumption of air traffic between the two countries’ capitals at the beginning of this year, followed by progress on restoring road and rail links.
Following on from last month’s US-brokered deal between Israel and the UAE, which became the first Arab Gulf state to announce its intention to establish formal diplomatic ties with Israel, the US administration is clearly hoping for more good news to come out of the meeting between Serbian President Alexander Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti this week.
“The Trump administration is rapidly turning its attention to the November 3 election. It will therefore push wherever possible for foreign policy and economic successes, cosmetic or substantive, that can be sold to voters as evidence of an effective presidential administration that should be returned to office for another four years,” says William Arthur, analyst, Asia-Pacific and North America at Oxford Analytica.
“Many US voters during elections are largely or wholly unconcerned about foreign policy, but foreign policy will be part of the Trump campaign for re-election … That being so, it is conceivable that any successful movement on Kosovo-Serbia issues will receive at least some mention on the campaign.”
Cvete Koneska, director at risk and intelligence consultancy S‑RM, makes a similar point, saying that a deal in the Western Balkans could be an “easy win” for the Trump White House.
“It would be attractive as a potentially quick foreign policy victory for Trump … invest some diplomatic resources, show a clear foreign policy success and build up his foreign policy profile, especially domestically.”
In a call with reporters on September 1, a US presidential adviser said the talks would focus on economic development and job creation. “We’re going to flip the script, and we’re going to try to first give people some excitement about growth in the economy and let some of these political issues come secondary,” said the official as quoted by RFE/RL.
The Serbian side has talked up the economic aspect of the talks, while Vucic has insisted that recognition of Kosovo will not be on the table.
“Serbia will offer a serious package for much better economic co-operation and infrastructure connection with its former province Kosovo and Metohija,” the director for the Serbian office for Kosovo, Marko Djuric, a member of Vucic’s delegation to Washington, said on September 1.
Meanwhile, Hoti said in a tweet on September 1 that the country will present major infrastructure and energy projects that will contribute to the development of Kosovo and its regional and European integration.
Michael Taylor, senior analyst, Eastern Europe at Oxford Analytica, describes an economic deal as “second best, they can’t get the political solution”.
“It has some sense in that in February, Grenell (who is driving this for the US side, as Trump’s appointed negotiator) said he had negotiated restoring air and rail links between Belgrade and Pristina. The then Kosovo government rejected that deal because they weren’t a party to the talks ([Kosovan President Hashim] Thaci was) but Washington might be able to say it has gained something this time if this deal is now approved by Hoti. ‘Tangible economic issues that will help people on the ground’ sounds a description of that deal,” Taylor tells bne IntelliNews.
US track record
Koneska is more sceptical about economic incentives from Washington, pointing out that the US has not historically been a big investor in the region, which has much stronger trade and investment ties with the EU.
However, she doesn’t rule out a diplomatic breakthrough at the talks. “The only thing that makes me wonder if the summit can be any different is this is clearly a US initiative. The track record of the US in the Western Balkans is they can get more things done or get them done faster than the EU. Whether they use carrot or stick, they use them more effectively,” she tells bne IntelliNews.
“Everybody on the ground is more exited because the US is driving the process: they think things could actually change.”
She points out that after years of discussion it’s unlikely there will be any new solutions put forward. “The discussions will have to be around the key issues we all know.” However, she speculates that “perhaps some of the negotiation and persuading tactics used by the US may be a little different from what we have seen before”.
Hoti has already indicated his faith in the US’ ability to bring about change in the region. “Strategic decisions have always been taken in the White House that have led to the freedom, independence and Euro-Atlantic integration of the state of Kosovo. It will not be different this time,” he tweeted.
On the other hand, US Representative Eliot L. Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and a member of the opposition Democratic Party, expressed his scepticism about the prospects for a deal in a statement on September 2, saying: “[A] clear-eyed view of the talks gives way to the reality that a conflict-ending deal is unlikely.”
He also accused Vucic of “leading his country away from the North Atlantic community and closer to Russia”. “[T]he Serbian delegation says it’s coming to the talks only to discuss economic matters. While there is nothing negative about increased trade and economic development, this is a political conflict which requires a political solution,” said Engel.
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but it is still not recognised by Belgrade as a separate country. The proclamation of independence came a decade after the Kosovo independence war of 1998-1999 that claimed more than 10,000 victims and ended with Nato attacks on Serbia.
After several years of slow yet steady negotiations mainly under the EU’s normalisation process, the punitive tariffs imposed on goods from both Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina by a former Kosovan government in late 2018 caused the normalisation process to stall. However, they were partly lifted this spring, and wholly removed as soon as Hoti’s government came to power, signalling a new approach to the process from Pristina.
A round of talks was originally due to take place in Washington in June, but was abruptly cancelled when Thaci was charged with war crimes. Hoti then attended a meeting in Brussels with Vucic on July 16, marking the restart of the EU-mediated dialogue between the two countries.
While the resumption of the dialogue was seen as progress, the main sticking point has not altered. Pristina wants any final agreement to include the recognition of Kosovo by Belgrade, but Serbian officials say that recognition is not an option. However, some form of recognition would be required to finally settle the conflict and allow both sides to progress towards eventual EU accession.
Just days after the Washington summit, Vucic and Hoti will meet again on September 7 in Brussels for a high-level meeting of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, a statement from the EU External Action Service (EEAS) said on September 2. The meeting – to follow expert-level talks on missing and displaced persons and economic co-operation – will address non-majority community arrangements, and the settlement of mutual financial claims/property, the statement said.
Back in the game
The sudden activity in both Brussels and Washington follows several years during which the Serbia-Kosovo conflict was low on the agenda in both cities.
“The significance of the meeting at the White House is that it suggests that the US is still in the game despite the removal of its main interlocutor in Pristina – Thaci – and the EU’s parallel mediation. In the longer term, that does hold out the possibility of an eventual resolution to Kosovo’s status,” says Taylor. “Any EU-led process is hobbled by the Kosovo Albanians’ distrust of Brussels and Germany's rejection of Serbia's proposed compromise to partition Kosovo.”
In addition, Serbia was one of very few European countries to welcome Trump’s election as US president. The US – and the Democratic Party in particular – were seen in Serbia as considerably more sympathetic towards Kosovo, and Belgrade hoped for a different approach from the Trump administration.
Koneska considers there is no direct rivalry between the two, though comparisons are inevitable. However, she points to other international conflicts where the efforts of the EU and US have complemented rather than conflicted with each other.
“The groundwork the EU has done over past few years may be the enabling factor to help [Belgrade and Pristina] focus on the few outstanding issues the US can resolve,” she says.
The third major international power with an interest in the Western Balkans – Russia – would clearly not be happy with a deal, as the ongoing conflict between Serbia and Kosovo has given it a foothold in the region. As other Western Balkans countries, Montenegro and North Macedonia, have entered Nato despite Russian efforts, Russia’s sphere of influence in the region has been whittled down to Serbia and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska. Specifically, Belgrade depends on Moscow’s veto to keep Kosovo out of the UN.
In the latest comment from Moscow on the issue, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted the efforts to restart the negotiation process in an interview with newspaper Trud in mid-August, quoted by the foreign ministry. “External assistance should be carried out without blackmail and twisting hands on one side, while encouraging the other's dubious political appetites,” he commented.
“From a foreign policy perspective it’s in Russia’s interest to keep the issue open as it has allowed Russia quite a significant influence over Serbia. A deal would make lot of Russian interference unnecessary and this wouldn’t be something they want to lose,” says Koneska.
Then there is the question of securing acceptance at home if and when a political settlement is reached.
Any deal involving recognition would be a hard sell in Serbia and would inevitably spark street protests. However, the most vigorous opposition is expected to come from the far right rather than the mainstream. Vucic would be helped in this by his Serbian Progressive Party’s (SNS’s) near total domination of Serbian politics and high degree of control over the media.
In Pristina, Hoti would not only have to get members of his own government behind a deal but also the two main opposition forces: Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and the left-wing nationalist Vetevendosje. Although a newcomer to the talks and Kosovo’s prime minister for just three months, he would benefit from a deal that could really make his political career.
There may not be much progress at the US summit — though the White House will be sure to push for it and heavily emphasise any successes. However, there are signs that the final resolution of the conflict may finally be within grasp.
The EU envoy for the Serbia/Kosovo talks, Miroslav Lajcak, told journalists on the sidelines of the Bled forum in Slovenia on August 31 that a final solution could be reached within months, even though there are still “very complicated issues to address”.
“Let’s see how much time we need but I am speaking about months, I am not speaking about years,” the diplomat commented.