Trump is looking for a foreign policy coup in the Balkans
In 2016, Donald Trump won the United States presidential election partially on the promise that he would clinch the best deals for the US in the international arena. Four years into his presidency, however, that pledge rings a bit hollow. Neither the “phase one” trade agreement he signed with China nor his newly unveiled deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan quite qualifies as a shining foreign policy coup.
Could he score a major win in Europe, though? That is what he seems to be working towards.
On Monday, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic and his Kosovar counterpart Hashim Thaci were both in the White House for a meeting with National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who has also been Trump’s special envoy to Serbia and Kosovo since last October.
Many Balkan watchers see the meeting as a clear sign that the US president has set his sights on getting Belgrade to normalise ties with Pristina.
Relations between Serbia and Kosovo have been strained since the 1999 War, which claimed more than 10,000 lives and ended in 1999. NATO forces, led by the US, intervened to stop the conflict. Kosovo’s independence, declared in 2008, has not been recognised by Belgrade, Russia and five European Union nations. The US and more than 100 other countries have recognised Kosovo’s independence.
Convincing Serbia to extend recognition to Kosovo, in exchange for concessions by Pristina, would expand US influence in the region and, locals speculate, may even secure Trump a Nobel Peace Prize down the road.
A settlement of the protracted sovereignty dispute would also make the EU, a bloc for which the White House’s current occupant has no love lost, look bad by underlining its failure to resolve the spiralling tensions in its back yard.
Grenell has already made some headway. On February 14, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, he oversaw the conclusion of a deal to restore railway travel and build a highway between Pristina and Belgrade. A month prior, Grenell had brokered another agreement that allowed for commercial flights to resume between the two Balkan neighbours.
Trump’s envoy then moved on to resolve an even more critical issue – the punitive tariffs the Kosovars charge on Serbian imports. This is no trivial matter. The government in Pristina slapped a 100 percent tariff on Serbian imports back in November 2018 in response to Belgrade’s Russia-backed campaign to have countries around the globe withdraw their recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Since 2017, 15 nations, mostly in Africa, have withdrawn recognition.
The US wants Kosovo to abolish the duties imposed on Serbia, which are in violation of CEFTA, a regional free-trade arrangement. And Pristina seems to be prepared to heed the call. On Monday, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti sent a letter to Trump informing him that his country will gradually remove the tariffs on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (which similarly does not recognise Kosovo, due to the pressure coming from the Serbs in the country) as a goodwill gesture.
It is not surprising that US diplomacy works in Kosovo. Washington still carries a great deal of weight with the Albanian majority, as well as other Albanians living across the Balkans, thanks to the 1999 intervention. Even though many in Kosovo undoubtedly have misgivings about the lifting of trade sanctions, they see Washington as their foremost international ally, and do not want to upset it.
By contrast, the EU’s stock in the country is in steep decline. Brussels’s reluctance to remove the visa requirement for Kosovo’s citizens, despite the country’s full implementation of all the necessary technical conditions, touches on a raw nerve. Everyone else in the Western Balkans, but also nationals of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, are entitled to enter the EU without a visa. Kosovars similarly begrudge the fact that Serbia is negotiating its accession to the union, while they are kept at arm’s length.
Though things are clearly moving behind the scenes, normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia may not be in the offing yet. President Thaci, who is lobbying hard for a settlement, even floating the idea of a land swap to secure a deal, increasingly looks like a lame duck.
Since the October 2019 elections, Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo is in opposition. The new prime minister and leader of the Self Determination party, Albin Kurti, takes an uncompromising line on Serbia.He has castigated the plans proposed by Thaci and Vucic to exchange territory. Kurti has also been critical of the alternative foreseen by the EU-brokered Brussels Agreement from 2013 – granting the Serbian community in Kosovo autonomy.
Kurti is keen to take foreign policy out of Thaci’s hands. His foreign minister, Glauk Konjufca, recently dismissed ambassadors in several key capitals, including the one in Washington, DC. Kurti might occasionally give in to US demands – as his letter to Trump demonstrates – but he will not be rushing to cut a deal with Vucic.
The ball may ultimately fall back in the EU’s court. Trump’s short attention span and the looming US presidential elections are sure to push Kosovo far down his administration’s priorities in the coming days. Trump’s envoy to Kosovo and Serbia, Richard Grenell, has recently been appointed as the acting director of national intelligence. His new duties will likely divert his energies away from the Balkans.
The EU, meanwhile, will continue to engage closely with the tensions brewing in its back yard. In May, the Croatian presidency of the Council of the European Union will host the annual EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb. Croatia will no doubt put Kosovo’s visa liberalisation demands on the summit’s agenda. By taking immediate action on this contentious issue, the EU can win back Kosovo’s support and once again become the main instigator in negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina.
Despite recent positive developments, a Trumpian grand bargain on Kosovo looks unlikely. But, as the success of recent diplomatic efforts demonstrates, much can be done to resuscitate the stalled normalisation talks between Belgrade and Pristina. As the Trump administration is unlikely to remain on course and conclude the negotiations, the EU should up its efforts to resolve the situation.