Trump, the EU and the Kosovo conundrum

The US and EU’s contradictory policies on Kosovo could undermine the stability of the Western Balkans.

US special envoy Richard Grenell is welcomed by Kosovo President Hashim Thaci in Pristina, Kosovo on October 9, 2019 [Reuters/Laura Hasani]

Ever since Kosovo declared independence in 2008 from Serbia, it has focused its foreign policy on achieving international recognition. Today, its foreign ministry claims that 116 countries have recognised its sovereignty.

Serbia, which rejected its secession after the 1999 war and NATO bombing campaign, has fought back. It has led a parallel campaign, claiming that it convinced some 17 countries over the past two years to renounce their recognition of Kosovo.

By refusing to accept Kosovo’s independence and pressuring others to do so as well, Belgrade is not only blocking its membership in the United Nations but also its accession path to NATO and the European Union.

Last year, a deal was put forward promising a resolution to the deadlock. The proposal includes a land swap which would see Serbia gaining control over Serb-majority territories in the northern part of the country, and Kosovo gaining control of Albanian-majority territories in southern Serbia and Serbian recognition for Kosovo’s independence.

The proposal is controversial, but the United States and key voices in the EU have supported it, while Germany notably remains opposed. The current disarray in Brussels and domestic political considerations in the US could see this deal – or iterations of it – rushed through to the detriment of the region.

Trump’s calculations

The question of recognition is the single most intractable problem to emerge from the bloody wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s. It has inspired fiery nationalist rhetoric and protests and has seen leaders of top world powers like the US and Russia butt heads.

But why is that? Geopolitically, Kosovo carries no weight. It is located in the southeast European Balkan region among other, bigger neighbours who themselves do not pose significant military or political threat to the rest of Europe.

Yet Kosovo has become the Gordian knot of European and transatlantic crisis management specifically because of its symbolic value.

The EU became involved so it could prove it was capable of dealing with crises on its periphery and flex its underused foreign policy muscles. The US has stayed involved ever since it spearheaded the 1999 bombing. Both wanted to prove that humanitarian intervention could work and that functioning societies could one day be established afterwards.

Yet every newly-proposed solution has seemingly tightened the knot instead of undoing it.

Years of talks in Brussels and Washington, DC, billions spent on UN and EU missions and countless unfulfilled agreements later, the Kosovo and Serbia issue seemed no closer to being solved until recently when the Trump administration appointed not one, but two envoys to deal with it.

In August, the State Department named veteran diplomat Matthew Palmer, who has years of experience in the Balkans, as its special envoy to the Western Balkans. Just two months later, in October, the White House announced that its controversial Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell was also taking up the role of special envoy to Serbia and Kosovo. Grenell, who is known for his brazen disregard for diplomatic protocol and support for the European far right, is considered to be close to US President Donald Trump.

It seems the Trump administration is applying its “two-channel” diplomatic strategy to Kosovo, just as it did with Ukraine, where it appointed Kurt Volker, also a close ally of the president, as a special envoy. Volker has been suspected of aiding Trump’s alleged efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government into investigating his potential election rival Joe Biden.

According to acting US Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, who testified on November 13 in Congress as part of the continuing impeachment inquiry against the US president, this second channel – going through an envoy assigned by Trump personally – is not accountable to Congress and only partially coordinates with the State Department. That is, its role is to secure the president’s personal interests.

In recent weeks, there have been rumours that Grenell is promising financial benefits to Kosovo and Serbia – as countries, not their leaders individually – if a solution to the status issue is achieved in the near future. This differs from the benefits stressed by previous US and EU mediators, who usually emphasised the advantages of regional and European stability above financial benefits

So the question that naturally arises is – what are Trump’s interests in Kosovo and Serbia?

Unlike Ukraine, Kosovo and Serbia possess limited natural resources and barely any lucrative business options that Trump supporters could become involved in; there is also no information of the two countries having any direct or indirect involvement in the US electoral battle.

Grenell’s involvement in the Kosovo-Serbia issue signals a US interest in pushing out Germany as the main European overseer of Balkan-related issues. An agreement between Kosovo and Serbia would also be a much-needed diplomatic win for Trump ahead of the 2020 presidential election, as a number of other diplomatic initiatives of his administration, including the “deal of the century”, a new Iran deal, and an agreement with North Korea, have not produced any results.

As in the case of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Trump has used the prospect of a White House visit for the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia as a carrot – to motivate them to sign a deal.

Uncertain future

Just as in the case of Ukraine, the Trump administration’s uncoordinated and unpredictable foreign policy only amplifies existing problems inherited from previous administrations. When John Bolton was still White House security adviser, he announced that he would not be against a land-swap deal, breaking with decades-old US policy in the Balkans which rejected any border changes.

Similarly, disagreements in Brussels are also causing much confusion in the region. In the past, the EU has used the prospect of accession for both countries as a carrot, to push for a deal. But after French President Emmanuel Macron, who is eager to take on Angela Merkel’s role as the new kingmaker in Europe, blocked accession talks for Western Balkan countries North Macedonia and Albania, the EU’s sway over the region could be greatly diminished.

So what does a muddled US approach combined with a reluctant EU lead to?

Russia has also backed the proposal for a land swap with Kosovo. If the deal goes through, this may further destabilise the region. Bosnian officials fear that the leadership of the Serb-majority entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina could use the redrawing of Kosovo’s borders as a basis for their own secessionist goals.

More disarray in the Western Balkans could strengthen Russia’s hand in the region. It already wields significant influence in Serbia. In late October, the Serbian government signed a free-trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.

Just recently, a scandal involving a GRU agent trying to recruit former members of the Serbian military prompted fears of Russian intelligence officers using the Balkan country’s favourable approach towards Moscow as an excuse to use it as a back yard for its regional operations. Russia has already been accused of orchestrating a failed coup in Montenegro and could also contribute to regional instability.

China too has been growing its clout in the Balkans. For a few years now, it has been buying up major assets in key industries in the region as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, a global development strategy spearheaded by the Chinese government to invest in strategic infrastructure projects to enable capital inflows from China.

The Chinese have invested in everything from ports in Croatia to steel factories in Serbia. Hungary and Serbia have also recently joined the club of European countries allowing its tech giant Huawei to set up their national 5G networks; most EU states have shunned Huawei’s involvement, for fear of making it easier to conduct state-sponsored cyberattacks from China. In Belgrade, Huawei has also been involved in installing facial-recognition cameras similar to those already found in China.

Thus as the US president tries to settle scores and secure his re-election abroad and the EU continues to struggle with putting a coherent vision for its future, the Balkans becomes increasingly open to Russian and Chinese influence. The weakening and contradictory engagement of the West has made it more difficult than ever for reform-minded politicians in the Balkans to convince their voters to stay on the path of democratisation. If the US and the EU do not change their approach, Kosovo-Serbia dispute threatens to unravel and send the whole region into a whirlwind of instability.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.