The US President’s description of the agreement as a ‘great day for peace in the Middle East’ shows its intended audience was not in the Balkans but in key US ‘swing states’.
The United States hailed the September 4 economic agreement between Kosovo and Serbia as a historic deal that will lead to broader cooperation and peace. But it had the look, feel and purpose of a campaign event.
The Oval Office that day looked like a scene from Trump’s former TV show The Apprentice. The final contestants, Serbian President Aleksander Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Abdullah Hoti, sitting dutifully, were applauded as forward-looking leaders, awarded with photo opportunities, and sent packing with promises of loans for rail and road construction.
While the agreement might nudge Kosovo and Serbia along the long road to normalized ties, the main purpose became clear as Trump and his spin-doctors promptly packaged the deal to serve his re-election campaign.
While the ink was still drying, the US President sold it as a win not for Serbia and Kosovo but for Israel and its Arab neighbors.
“Another great day for peace with the Middle East – Muslim-majority Kosovo and Israel have agreed to normalize ties and establish diplomatic relations,” he crowed on Twitter. “Well done! More Islamic and Arab nations will follow.”
The Tweet builds on the recognition of Israel by the United Arab Emirates in late August, and gives the perception that Kosovo is somewhere in the Middle East and identifies itself as a Muslim state.
Most Americans do not know where Kosovo and Serbia are located, let alone the issues that divide them. But the intended audience is a sub-section of voters in swing states; namely, Jewish communities in Florida and Pennsylvania and ethnic Albanians who live in Michigan.
According to a recent CNBC/Change Research poll, President Trump is currently trailing his Democrat rival Joe Biden by 46 to 49 per cent in Florida, 46 to 50 per cent in Pennsylvania and 43 to 49 per cent in Michigan.
The Jewish community in the US has traditionally voted Democrat but foreign policy towards Israel remains a key concern. Trump is hoping recognition of Israel by another so-called Muslim country – Kosovo – will convince enough Jewish voters to give him a critical boost. In 2016, Trump won Pennsylvania by a margin of 0.72 per cent and Florida by 1.2 per cent.
In Michigan, which Trump won in 2016 by 10,704 votes, ethnic Albanian community leaders with ties to Kosovo claim they have approximately 32,000 registered voters, including small business owners with Republican Party leanings who place great weight on Kosovo’s status and fate.
Vice President Pence and other senior government leaders met in May with a group called Michigan Albanian Americans for Trump and assured them that the US will take their concerns, in particular about partition of Kosovo, into account in any final Serbia-Kosovo deal.
With the issue of partition left out, and the promise of much needed economic aid to Kosovo included, Trump is hoping that enough ethnic Albanians voters will be persuaded to swing Michigan red, again.
One of the biggest challenges that Trump faces is his questionable foreign policy credentials, and his claim to be a great negotiator. Relations between the US and Europe have gone from bad to worse and Trump has expressed disdain for the Europeans. He pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change and called the G7 outdated and NATO “obsolete”.
The Serbia-Kosovo agreement helps Trump to argue that he made progress where Europe failed, and cleaned up a mess that the Democrat Bill Clinton left behind after NATO intervened in Kosovo 21 years ago.
The Balkan region is fragile, and a number of its countries are one election away from becoming captured states. While part of the solution to bolster democracy is for the European Union to speed up the accession process, it is doubtful this will happen given the current internal EU divisions and unrest. US engagement is essential to promote stability and provide support.
Trump took a step and re-engaged – but purely on his terms. He wrote the script, selected the actors, and directed the show to promote his political goals – rather than to secure a more democratic and stable Balkan region.