On Serbia, Kosovo, and Kicking the Can Down the Road
On Friday afternoon, President Trump hosted the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, and the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Avdullah Hoti, in the Oval Office for the signing of what has been dubbed an “economic normalization” between the two countries. But the two-page deal brokered by Richard Grenell, the former US Ambassador to Germany, seems more like a list of good intentions, ambiguous promises by the Americans of a future infrastructure spending in the region, and an unspoken hope that the hard decision, mutual recognition of the two states, can be delayed.
The current conflict between Serbia and its former province Kosovo reached its bloody nadir in 1999. The Serbian military and police forces, under the command of strongman Slobodan Milosevic, waged a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s Albanian population. Burned by the slow response to stop the wars in Croatia and Bosnia earlier in the decade, NATO countries intervened in a 78-day air campaign, crippling Serbia’s military positions. Chastened, Milosevic handed over the control over the province to UN and NATO. In a reversal of fortunes, a majority of Serbian civilians fled Kosovo, leaving ethnic Albanians the control over its political future.
After years of stalled negotiations, Kosovo declared independence in 2008, and was recognized by a large majority of western countries, but not by Serbia and most of the countries outside the Muslim and the anglophone world. Serbia, which still claims sovereignty over the province for historical reasons, is allied with Russia and China, and hence the UN membership is still not a reality for Kosovo.
The two sides have been negotiating extensively for most of the past decade on practical matters – will the identification documents of Kosovo be recognized in Serbia, will Kosovo get its own international country code, will the title “Kosovo” or “Republic of Kosovo” be used on international agreements of which Serbia is a part of, etc. The two sides have had a free trade agreement since 2007, and the Brussels Agreement, signed in 2013, attempted to normalize the status of remaining ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo. Thus the talk of economic normalization ignores the achieved progress in the last 10 years.
What Each Side Gets
While the deal specifies several minor issues both sides have already agreed on, the real wins can be identified only by reading between the lines of this agreement.
Serbia will get a moratorium on any attempts of Kosovo to gain further international recognitions. Additionally, Kosovo will join the “mini-Schengen zone,” an integrated space of free movement of people and goods between Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia. This is important to Belgrade because of Kosovo’s history of violating the free-trade agreements and introducing tariffs on its goods. Mini-Schengen membership should make these kinds of unilateral moves harder. More importantly, Serbia’s President Vucic gets to go home and brag about another international success in his battle to preserve Kosovo as part of Serbia. Local media have already triumphantly declared that Vucic has energetically rejected the proposal that included the mutual recognition. In fact, he was so energetic in his refusal, that Grenell had no choice but to withdraw such a proposal.
Vucic has been threading the needle between overpromising to his western partners and stoking the nationalist passions back home. Up for re-election in 2022, he needs to delay Serbia’s inevitable recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. By being a reliable partner of the West, he was allowed free reign domestically. Almost no independent media and opposition exists any more in Belgrade. If he fails to deliver, he may lose his western support. But if he signs the mutual recognition, he may lose the re-election. Recognizing Kosovo’s independence is the third rail of Serbia’s politics, and a majority would rather abandon the EU membership path, than to officially recognize the reality on the ground.
Kosovo seems to be biding its time as well. Knowing that the Biden administration will be more propitious to its cause, Pristina is willing to accept the moratorium on new recognitions. Almost all countries that were planning to recognize Kosovo have already done so, and Israel’s recognition is an added bonus. Besides, it is not clear what political clout Hoti has back home. The former head negotiator, President Tachi, has been ignominiously indicted for war-crimes earlier this year by an international court. A not unknown fate of many a Balkan leader.
The Trump Administration knows that no one in America really cares about what happens in the Balkans, so Grenell added two bizarre points to the deal that have nothing to do with the two parties, but may sound good to President’s political base. The first one is the requirement that both countries use only the trusted vendors of 5G equipment, an obviously anti-China move. This is ironic given the huge Huawei neon signs reflecting over Belgrade. The second one is dragging Israel into an agreement it is not a party to. Israel and Kosovo are to recognize each other, and both Serbia and Kosovo will move their embassies to Jerusalem. This last point is a clear jab at Europeans, which have condemned the same move by the administration in 2018.
Will Any Of It Matter
Probably not. The real action happens on the EU turf. Europeans have a greater stake in resolving the conflict than Americans. In the end, this is their backyard. Both Serbia and Kosovo, at least officially, still strive toward a full EU membership. The talks guided by the EU continue, and are to resume in the fall. The final goal, what everyone knows will have to happen eventually, is the full recognition of Kosovo as an independent country by Belgrade, hopefully with some sweeteners from EU, like speeding up Serbia’s EU membership accession.
During the press conference, Grenell stated that the great benefit of the signed deal is its focus on the economic, and not political questions, and that this is a great innovation brought to the table by the great outsider, President Trump. But the focus on the things other than what really matters — mutual recognition — is not new. Parties have been negotiating about non-essentials for years. It is just kicking the can down the road. And all three parties to this agreement seem to be fine with it. At least for now.