Leon Hartwell, BIRN, September 3, 2020


A tete-a-tete between a former US general and Aleksandar Vucic has lifted the lid on Belgrade’s likely course of action when it comes to the all-important talks with Kosovo.

Last year, retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, former commander of the US Army in Europe, USAREUR, received an interesting request from the Serbian authorities – to meet with President Aleksandar Vucic.

Hodges was surprised. He received the request while touring the Balkans, but not in any official government or diplomatic capacity – he was attending a conference on Serbia-NATO relations as Pershing Chair of the Center for European Policy Analysis, CEPA. Still, Hodges decided to oblige and replied: “Of course”.

The mid-May meeting divulged something about the Serbian President’s thinking on the Serbian economy, EU integration and Kosovo. Many of the key issues they discussed are relevant to the upcoming Serbia-Kosovo dialogue scheduled to take place at the White House on September 3.

 Although Hodges was keen to hear what the Serbian President had to say, he was also cautious. On his way to the meeting, Hodges wondered: “Why does [Vucic] want to talk to me?”, and posed that question to a Serbian interlocuter.  The response was: “He has nobody else to talk to.”

Hodges expected a photo-op, followed by a meeting, ending in a press conference, with Vucic telling Serbians that he had been tough with the former US General, and by implication, with the US.  “Instead, I went there, they took a picture, everybody left and it was just him and me in his office for about 45 minutes,” Hodges recalled. Surprisingly, no note-takers were in the room.

Admiration for Trump

Hodges arrived in Belgrade only a few days after US President Donald Trump had a meeting with the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, at the White House. Apparently Vucic paid close attention to the meeting with his Hungarian ally and noted to the former US general: “Regardless of whatever you think of President Trump, this was a big deal for everyone in the region, that a small country like Hungry would have the chance to meet the American President.” The Serbian President continued that the White House meeting with Orban was “a good signal … that the US cared about the region … not just episodically.”

Demographic worries

One of the first things Vucic brought up with Hodges was the high number of Serbs and other people from the Balkans leaving the region.  Hodges said Vucic clearly wants to tackle the country’s demographic problem, proving new economic and investment opportunities for the young to stop them from leaving Serbia.

According to Hodges, Vucic gave the impression that Western integration featured prominently in his scheme for Serbia. However, Serbia-Kosovo normalisation is directly tied to EU integration, which makes it complicated. Still, Hodges thinks “Vucic knows that without the EU, Serbia may become the Venezuela of Europe, a satellite dependent on the Kremlin”.

Vucic under pressure not to concede on Kosovo

One of Hodges’ key takeaways from the meeting with Vucic is that he has to demonstrate to the Serbian public that he can extract major benefits from Serbia-Kosovo negotiations because normalisation of relations with Kosovo would require “a sacrifice” on Serbia’s part.

“It is not a negotiation if you don’t lose something, so you’ve got to have something to show for what you gave up. So the idea of Western integration is really important,” Hodges comments.

One thing that stood out to Hodges was that Vucic, as a Serbian official suggested before their meeting, seemed an isolated figure, because “there is so much internal and external pressure” on him, pulling him in different directions. It appeared to Hodges that Vucic “needed space in order to do the tough negotiations that are required with his counterpart from Pristina”.

Vucic stressed to Hodges that a variety of actors are vehemently against normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. As Hodges recalled: “My takeaway from the visit is that he clearly is under massive pressure from the Kremlin, the [Serbian Orthodox] Church, veterans’ organizations and others … a lot of different interests.”

The meeting between Vucic and Hodges took place the morning after the Serbian President met the leaders of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Vucic told Hodges that the Church leaders had warned him that he would be considered “a traitor if he made any agreement to recognise Kosovo”.

According to Hodges, Russia is another key obstacle to normalizing relations with Kosovo: “It was clear to me that the Kremlin had zero incentive to see the Serbia-Kosovo issue resolved.”

Key takeaways relevant to upcoming White House talks?

The White House will host talks between Serbia and Kosovo starting 3 September 2020, while Brussels is slated to hold political discussions between the parties on September 7. Trump may make an appearance himself at the White House talks.

The Hodges-Vucic meeting suggests that the Serbian President prefers small, personal meetings rather than large group settings. This resonates with what the programme director for the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, Marko Savkovic, recently told me. Savkovic said Vucic is a big believer in personal and bilateral contacts. He says the Serbian President has “side-lined” his foreign ministry and that “we have heard from many ambassadors that they don’t really have a role” in Serbian diplomacy. Trump similarly distrusts the US State Department, so they have that in common.

As Vucic suggested to Hodges, he admires Trump, with whom he has shaken hands about four times. With Trump, Vucic can put his differences with the US aside as Trump was not involved in politics in the 1990s when NATO bombed Serbian targets and when the US recognized the former Serbian province of Kosovo in 2008. Compared to other US officials, Trump is perceived by Serbs as a neutral mediator.

If Trump decides to participate in the White House talks, he should, however, be cautious.  One Belgrade-based Western diplomat stated that Serbian officials think they can manipulate the US president by stroking “Trump’s ego”, when few foreign governments are willing to do so openly.

Furthermore, as was presented to Hodges, Vucic is constrained by the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Serbian public, and the Kremlin from recognizing Kosovo – though not from making a deal.

In Serbia, one cannot underestimate the role of the Orthodox Church. During the war in Bosnia, a key moment for US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was when Serbia’s then president, Slobodan Milocevic, presented him with the so-called Patriarch’s letter, a document signed by the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which gave Milosevic the power to lead peace negotiations on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs.

The Serbian public is also largely against recognition of Kosovo. One opinion poll suggests 71.7 per cent of Serbians are against recognition. Vucic pays close attention to polls and, given his ambitions, mediators should understand that he will not commit political suicide by recognising Kosovo’s independence at this moment.

Nevertheless, Vucic has the ability to move the needle on the recognition debate.  Over the last few years, as he has become increasingly authoritarian, he is exerting stronger control over the media.  The Church leaders who tell Vucic that making a deal with Kosovo is a “sin” – in the words of Patriarch Irinej – as well as the respondents to surveys, are the same people who also consume Vucic’s propaganda.

Consequently, if the Serbian President continues to present recognition of Kosovo as a treasonous idea, and if Serbian outlets continue to demonise Kosovars, Vucic should not act surprised if the public discourages him from making a comprehensive deal with what they perceive to be the devil. President Trump’s Special Envoy for the Serbia-Kosovo Dialogue, Richard Grenell, as well as EU Special Representative for the dialogue, Miroslav Lajcak, should call him out on this.

Economic deal more likely than recognition

I share Hodges observation that boosting the Serbian economy is a key concern for Vucic, especially in terms of curbing the exodus of young people. Vucic derives legitimacy from economic growth and stability.  That is why he has taken steps towards EU integration. Nevertheless, since Vucic held his discussion with Hodges, the Serbian President has also amped up his relationship with China, criticizing the EU.

Grenell took note of Vucic’s appetite for an economic deal, not a political one, and is willing to entertain it. Lajcak seems more in favour of deal that combines economic and political issues. According to a Special Advisor to the US President, the upcoming White House talks will focus largely on “economic normalisation”. Still, for Vucic, the EU remains an important economic partner and it would be a mistake for the Trump Administration to separate the White House talks and the Brussels dialogue from one another, as that would diminish the chances of creating a comprehensive package deal.

As for Russia, the Kremlin remains an important player in the Balkans as suggested by Hodges. The NATO StratCom Center recently published a number of reports demonstrating that Russia continues to propagate anti-Western and anti-Kosovo narratives across the Western Balkans.

One of Russia’s strategic objectives is to keep Serbia and other Balkan countries outside the EU and NATO. Poisoning the debate on the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue helps prevent normalisation, which in turn, guarantees that Serbia cannot join the EU. The only reason why the Kremlin would allow Serbia into the EU would be as Russia’s Trojan horse.