By Anne Gearan September 4, 2020.
Serbia and Kosovo agreed Friday to normalize economic ties, a breakthrough in a political standoff over Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 that President Trump said resulted from his involvement.
The agreement signed at the White House is short of the full diplomatic recognition that Kosovo seeks and that the Trump administration and the European Union have both worked to achieve.
“It’s a first step,” said Richard Grenell, Trump’s former ambassador to Germany who has been the main go-between for a two-year effort to break a diplomatic impasse.
The deal will encompass freer transit, including by rail and road, Grenell said, and clear away other barriers to commerce.
Serbia does not officially acknowledge Kosovo’s independence, which was midwifed by the George W. Bush administration nine years after NATO conducted a nearly three-month airstrike campaign against Serbia. The country had waged a bloody crackdown against the ethnic Albanian minority population in Kosovo.
“We’ve been working on this for almost from the beginning of the administration. And you had some deep-seated feelings and there was a lot of fighting, and now there’s a lot of love,” Trump said during a ceremony in the Oval Office, where he was flanked by the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo.
He predicted a “tremendous relationship” between those two countries, and he announced that majority-Muslim Kosovo and Israel have agreed to diplomatic ties. The announcement follows a U.S.-brokered agreement in August to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti met with U.S. officials over two days to produce the economic document. The two were friendly during the joint appearance with Trump, but only Hoti expressed a wish to work toward full normalization.
Most Western nations have recognized Kosovo’s independence. Serbia is backed by its allies Russia and China in refusing to do so. The agreement Friday puts a one-year freeze on consideration of the recognition issue as part of the U.S.-led dialogue, but a European one will continue.
“What we wanted to do with this agreement is to create some breathing space,” national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien told reporters.
Hoti’s participation followed a war crimes indictment against President Hashim Thaci, in June. Thaci had sought out Grenell in secret in 2018 and had been the main figure negotiating with the U.S. team. Trump wrote to Thaci and Vucic in December 2018, dangling a potential Rose Garden peace ceremony if they could resolve their differences.
Thaci cannot freely travel internationally because of the indictment, which alleges he participated in atrocities as a Kosovo Liberation Army commander during the 1998-1999 armed conflict between Serbia and ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo. He denies he broke any international law.
The fighting in Kosovo left more than 10,000 dead, most of them ethnic Albanians.
“I salute the signing of agreement b/w #Kosovo & #Serbia, today in Washington,” Thaci wrote on Twitter. “Kosovo now will continue working on economic dev., jobs, and further domestic & int’l consolidation.”