As the coronavirus pandemic raises tensions, the Trump administration’s strategy of bowing to Serbia’s authoritarian president is coming completely undone.
As the world struggles to combat the coronavirus pandemic, an extraordinary development has been unfolding in the Balkans: a challenged, dependent, and typically pliant little country has been openly defying the mighty administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
The Republic of Kosovo has refused to knuckle under to hardball pressure from Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence who also serves as U.S. envoy for peace talks between Serbia and Kosovo. Neither country can join the European Union until they resolve the standoff over Kosovo’s independence, which Serbia refuses to recognize. Belgrade doggedly isolates the Republic of Kosovo, leaving the fledgling state outside the United Nations and most international organizations. Determined to conclude a deal behind closed doors with the two countries’ respective presidents, Grenell is furious with Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti. The neophyte premier has defied Grenell’s demand to lift Kosovo’s punitive, 100 percent tariffs on Serbian goods. In an unprecedented move against perhaps the most pro-U.S. country on the globe, Washington has suspended key U.S. assistance to Kosovo and one legislator even threatened to withdraw U.S. troops from the NATO peacekeeping force.
The pressure from Washington weighs on Kosovo’s ability to deal with the coronavirus crisis, aggravating tensions between the prime minister and President Hashim Thaci, who is fully in line with Grenell on the approach to Serbia. Just at the moment when national unity is needed, Thaci and Kurti are now battling over whether to declare a national emergency over the pandemic. The prime minister has just dismissed Interior Minister Agim Veliu, who backs Thaci’s emergency declaration, creating an untimely government crisis.
Lost in this drama is that Grenell is also being defied by the main antagonist in the long-running Kosovo saga: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. In January, Grenell called for Belgrade to halt its de-recognition campaign against Kosovo. Last week, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic again refused, suggesting that the campaign would continue even if Kosovo lifted its tariffs. Washington has said nothing about this.
There is no mystery why Grenell, eager for a deal, would side with the stronger, more intransigent party in the negotiations. The real puzzle is how U.S. diplomacy came to this extreme—a contorted effort to bully a weak, vulnerable U.S. ally to placate a Serbian strongman. This is especially confounding because the major obstacle to a Kosovo settlement is Vucic. Since Albanian riots in 2004 and angry Serbian remonstrations at newly installed border crossings in 2011, there have been only sporadic, smaller-scale incidents between the ethnic Serbian minority and ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo. While there has been no mass return of displaced Serbs to their former homes in Kosovo since the withdrawal of Serbian forces at the hands of NATO in 1999, neither has Kosovo’s 2008 independence caused any mass exodus.
Most of Kosovo’s Serbs continue to live in the country’s south, surrounded by ethnic Albanians, as a small minority. Life under ethnic Albanian rule is by no means paradise, but it is generally more stable than in the country’s lawless north, where separatist Serbs form the majority and where Belgrade’s writ prevails. Fear stalks all those living in the north, including Serbs, exemplified by the unsolved murder of the outspoken moderate ethnic Serbian leader Oliver Ivanovic in 2018. A leading suspect in Ivanovic’s slaying walks freely in Serbia, untouched by the authorities—a message to all who would challenge the ruling power structure. As for those 100 percent tariffs on Serbian goods that Vucic fulminates about, according to local accounts they have had little impact on daily economic life in the north.
Until Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party came to power in 2012, Kosovo had faded as a top concern for Serbian citizens. That year the party campaigned heavily on Kosovo, dramatizing the plight of Serbs and restoring the issue to prominence. The party pledged to put forward a plan to address the matter, though it has yet to materialize. In its place, Vucic has issued occasional cryptic appeals for realism on Kosovo alongside more frequent, strident rhetoric, declaiming, for example: “Drag me through the streets, I will never recognize Kosovo!”
Rather than lay the groundwork for diplomacy, principals in his government, including Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, have fired off caustic insults about ethnic Albanians. In December, Vucic dusted off the most inflammatory charge from the war years, alleging that a notorious 1999 massacre of ethnic Albanian villagers by Serbian forces in Kosovo was concocted to provoke Western intervention. For Vucic, the recent history of Kosovo begins with the 1999 NATO air campaign, and omits any mention of the prior, premeditated dismantling of Kosovo’s autonomy under former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic—well before the fall of the Berlin Wall and any agitation for Kosovo’s independence. A decade of systematic repression by Belgrade followed.
Despite the campaign to stoke nationalist sentiment over Kosovo, the Serbian public still shows readiness for a settlement. In a recent survey, less than one-third of Serbian citizens cited Kosovo as a priority issue, while standard of living (84 percent) and the related problem of corruption and criminality (68 percent) easily topped the list of concerns. What’s more, thanks to years of corrosive policies, Vucic has the ability to control the public narrative in Serbia like no leader before him, including his mentor, Milosevic. So intimidated are journalists and public figures in Serbia that self-censorship is common. So dominant is Vucic’s party that his greatest concern in next month’s elections is achieving an election victory so large that it will damage the credibility of Serbian democracy in Western eyes. Vucic controls almost all arms of government, including the intelligence services, and wields substantial influence over nongovernmental bastions of Serbian nationalism such as the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.
The point is that Vucic could sell a dignified, stabilizing settlement on Kosovo that includes full mutual recognition. Unfortunately, he has only made reaching such an agreement more difficult. Rather than grasp this fact and bring leverage on the Serbian president, diplomats—now including Grenell—have made the classic negotiating mistake: desperation. Instead of biding their time, vaporizing Serbia’s nonrecognition campaign, and helping expose the systemic rot that Serbian citizens are concerned about, diplomats have done the opposite. Imploring the Serbian leader to cut a deal on Kosovo, U.S. and EU officials (with a few exceptions) have averted their eyes from the steady, worrying backslide in democracy in Serbia, including graphic examples of state capture by ruling-party cronies. Grenell has fallen into the same trap, undermining rather than supporting Kurti—whose reputation as a genuine corruption fighter has even sent tremors to Belgrade, and who already has taken steps to rein in corruption in Pristina.
In turn, Vucic has manipulated this zeal for a deal, turning the basis of negotiations into a question of how to compensate the Serbian president politically, rather than how to protect core Serbian interests in independent Kosovo. For motives only known to himself, perhaps his own corrupt dealings or other criminal conduct, Thaci has been oddly accommodating to his Serbian counterpart. Abetted by the EU’s then foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini and U.S. State Department diplomacy, Vucic and Thaci last year agreed to partition Kosovo. Diplomats rationalized the radical concept by claiming that without partition, Kosovo would become a “frozen conflict.” (If it does, Serbia’s EU aspirations are frozen as well.) When news of the partition plan leaked, an uproar ensued in Kosovo, in neighboring countries, and in Germany over “Kosovo contagion”—the invitation to reopen border questions around the Balkans, including in shaky Bosnia and Herzegovina.