Fears of hasty deal to bolster US president’s re-election prospects as EU sidelined.
The presidents of Kosovo and Serbia will meet at the White House later this month, as Donald Trump aims to make a breakthrough in the long-running dispute between the two nations.
The meeting, announced this week by Trump’s controversial Balkan envoy, Richard Grenell, came as a surprise to European capitals and raised concerns in some quarters that a hasty deal between Belgrade and Pristina could involve a land-swap that could have unpredictable knock-on effects.
“If, and it’s a big if, this initiative succeeds, it will be something of a slap in the face for the EU and its many years of efforts trying to normalise relations between Belgrade and Pristina,” said Corina Stratulat, of the European Policy Centre in Brussels.
Serbia still considers Kosovo part of its territory. The republic broke away after a 1999 Nato bombing campaign against Serbia, and declared independence in 2008. A potential deal could pave the way for trade, mutual recognition and eventual EU accession for both countries.
The Kosovo president, Hashim Thaçi, on Tuesday confirmed he would attend the talks and said: “Kosovo has no time to waste, no time to stagnate or to hesitate, we need to move as fast as possible towards the perspective to become part of the organisation of the United Nations, Nato and the EU.”
Grenell, in announcing the White House meeting, played down the idea of an overarching deal. “As we have consistently said, we must first make progress on growing the economies. This is the focus,” he wrote on Twitter.
Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, also said on Tuesday that the talks would be primarily economic in nature, and added that Serbia wanted to engage with both the US and with EU efforts to find a solution. “We’re not going to fight with Germany or America,” Vučić said. “It’s important that in the battle of the elephants we remain unhurt.”
The role of Grenell, a Trump loyalist, has been controversial. In April, Kosovo’s ousted prime minister Albin Kurti accused the US envoy of mounting a coup to depose him because of his scepticism about a potential deal. Kurti said Grenell was not interested in the substance of a deal but only “the signature on the bottom of the paper”, which could be presented as a success for Trump in an election year.
“My government was not overthrown for anything else but simply because ambassador Grenell was in a hurry to sign an agreement with Serbia,” Kurti said in April.
Molly Montgomery, a White House adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, said it was difficult “to take 100% at face value” Grenell’s insistence that the White House talks would be purely about economics. “In the context of Kosovo and Serbia, economic issues are often tied with political issues as we’ve seen in the past,” she said. She also noted that the EU had been “boxed out completely” from the talks.
After announcing the talks, Grenell lashed out at critics on Twitter, including Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister and chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, who had criticised the decision to sideline the EU. Bildt was suffering from “Trump Derangement Syndrome”, Grennel wrote.
On Tuesday, the EU’s newly appointed envoy for peace talks, the former Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajčák, flew to Belgrade and Pristina, in what looked like the EU playing catchup.
Ian Bancroft, who worked for the EU in North Kosovo and wrote a recent book about the area, said the EU-led dialogue had achieved a lot of incremental successes, but had made little progress on consolidating Kosovo’s statehood, making Pristina amenable to a US-brokered deal. “Kosovo has been denied even visa liberalisation, hence all talk of a European perspective rings hollow,” he said.
He noted, however, that both sides would be aware that the rushed timeframe, combined with Trump’s uncertain election prospects, made the prospects for a comprehensive, workable deal minimal. “A possible Biden administration would have a very different stance on the matter,” Bancroft said.
In another sign of the delicate geopolitical considerations linked to any deal, within hours of Grenell’s announcement on Monday, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, called Vučić to remind him that any deal should be approved by the UN Security Council. Vučić has played a delicate balancing act in recent years, courting the EU while maintaining good relations with Russia.
Moscow is wary of a deal that could mean Serbia, one of its few allies in Europe, opens the door to increased US or NATO influence. Vučić will travel to Moscow to meet Putin just days before going to the White House.