By David L. Phillips New York, 22. June, 2020
“The US fights; the UN negotiates; and the EU pays,” according to a UN official. International burden-sharing worked in Kosovo until the Trump administration announced it would bring the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia to the White House for talks on June 27.
The announcement left Miroslav Lajcak, the EU special envoy for the Western Balkans, in the dark. Not only does the US initiative have little chance for success. It risks further damaging transatlantic relations.
Since Nato’s action in March 1999, Kosovo has been a laboratory for international cooperation.
“History is watching us,” US secretary of state Madeleine Albright told European foreign ministers at a meeting in London. “In this very room our predecessors delayed as Bosnia burned, and history will not be kind to us if we do the same.”
Led by Washington, the North Atlantic Council voted unanimously to authorise military action to prevent Serbia’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians.
In June 1999, after the war, the UN Security Council voted 14 to 0 to endorse resolution 1244, which established an international civilian and security presence to facilitate Kosovo’s political transition.
The UN General Assembly called for a dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia after Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. With US support, EU-facilitated talks led to 33 agreements.
However, implementation languished.
Though Kosovo has been recognised by 111 countries, Serbia launched a systematic and insidious campaign to block Kosovo from gaining greater global recognition.
Kosovo president Hashim Thaci floated a proposal to resolve the impasse with Serbia by adjusting borders, further muddying the waters.
The US was typically a strong defender of Kosovo’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.
However, the Trump administration declared its support for whatever deal was reached by Kosovo and Serbia – even if the deal involved partition.
On June 16, Miroslav Lajcak, the EU special envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue, was at the airport in Zurich en route to Kosovo when he received a tweet from Trump’s adviser, Richard Grenell, announcing that Thaci and Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic would meet at the White House on June 27.
Though Grenell said talks would focus on economic issues, many suspect that the real agenda is partition.
While initially keeping Lajcak in the dark, Grenell belatedly revealed that Thaci and Vucic would meet in Paris in mid-July.
French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel are planning to attend.
Grenell has a singular focus.
He wants a deal to burnish Trump’s foreign policy credentials before US elections in November 2020.
His approach is wrong and short-sighted. Partition risks renewed violence. It would result in a population exchange that would destabilise Kosovo, as well as other fragile multi-ethnic states in the Western Balkans.
I have always advocated robust and constructive US engagement in the Western Balkans. Principled US mediation can facilitate an historic agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, based on Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence within its current frontiers.
Mutual recognition would be a win-win, resulting in eventual EU membership for both countries.
US participation in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue is essential for reaching an agreement.
President Marrti Ahtisaari established the Vienna format during UN-sponsored negotiations on Kosovo’s independence.
The US, Europe, and other international stakeholders still share responsibility for making a deal between Kosovo and Serbia, and should work together towards this end.
An agreement requires close US-EU cooperation – diplomatically, economically and on security issues. The US has clout and can pressure the parties. The EU can offer a peace dividend to incentivise them, and Kosovo would become a member of the UN.
Chances for an agreement are diminished since Grenell threw Lajcak under the bus.
Thaci and Grenell are clearly on the same page. Thaci supports an expanded role for the Trump administration. “Kosovo has always trusted the U.S. and has come out victorious,” Thaci maintains. “This time the US has taken the leadership role, which we welcome.”
No deal is better than a bad deal.
Partition would unleash a plethora of problems, including population transfers and the possibility of renewed ethnic violence.
Moreover, partition represents the fulfilment of Milosevic’s project to create ethnically pure states in the Balkans. It would enable Serbia to achieve at the negotiating table what it could not achieve on the battlefield.
In the 1990s, Milosevic unleashed the virus of ethnic nationalism, which led to Yugoslavia’s collapse, the death of more than 100,000 people, and the displacement of millions. Today, Europe faces a second wave.
Trump may have affinity with strong-man autocrats. However, neither US nor European interests are served through intolerance that could exacerbate a further breakdown in transatlantic cooperation.