Inbox: Getting Serbia-Kosovo Normalization Right

President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, participates in a signing ceremony with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)
President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, participates in a signing ceremony with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

The ongoing dialogue is in disarray, with the latest US-brokered agreement between the two sides a mishmash of commitments. The Biden administration needs to coordinate efforts with European allies to present a common agenda if it’s to get Belgrade and Pristina to “yes.”

Inbox is a CEPA series on priorities for the next administration – and its allies.

There are currently two tracks of diplomacy for the Serbia-Kosovo dispute: the EU’s Belgrade-Pristina dialogue led by Special Representative (EUSR) Miroslav Lajčák, and the US Serbia-Kosovo dialogue led by White House Special Envoy, Richard Grenell. Given the outcome of the US election, Grenell will soon be out of the picture. This presents an opportunity for the incoming Biden administration to harmonize efforts with European allies and move the process along.

Shortly before outgoing President Donald Trump brokered the so-called September Agreement, I discussed the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue with one of president-elect Joe Biden’s chief advisors, Ambassador Nicholas Burns.

To Burns, the Balkans should remain a top priority for the United States in the coming years. “The Balkans are part of Europe,” he said, “But they are the weak link in Europe right now, and they require a lot of economic aid, political assistance, and from time to time, intervention when violence breaks out.” He stressed the importance of the transatlantic relationship and argued that “most Americans of both parties who have been involved with the Balkans in the past 20 to 30 years understand that diplomacy works best when the United States and EU member states work together.” Europeans should lead, he said, but America should have their back.

According to Burns, US alignment with the EU is natural because “we want the same outcome” and ultimately “we have the same values and interests.” Asked about how he would deal with the Serbia-Kosovo dispute differently from the Trump Administration, Burns pointedly answered, “We are going to be much stronger and a much more positive force in the Balkans if the United States and EU integrate our efforts.”

American and European officials admit that there was no formal coordination between the EU and U.S. dialogues. Grenell maintained he was in charge of “economic normalization” while the EU should be responsible for mediating on political matters. In reality, no one was in charge of anything. Vetëvendosje’s secretary of external and international relations, Kreshnik Ahmeti, characterized Trump’s September Agreement as çorbë — an eleventh-hour soup cooked with limited ingredients: you throw into the broth whatever you can find in the fridge, leaving you with what is sometimes a strange dinner. And indeed, Grennell’s deal was a mishmash, from committing the parties to join a Balkan mini-Schengen zone to stating that Belgrade would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Indeed, the reference in the September Agreement to moving Serbia’s Embassy to Jerusalem is emblematic of the fact that Western powers were working at cross-purposes. Following the Agreement, the EU expressed “serious concern and regret” as the Embassy’s move could create problems for Belgrade’s eventual EU accession — an epic own-goal, given that Serbian EU membership is the endpoint all sides are driving towards.

So how best, then, to start harmonizing the transatlantic approach to the dialogue? The EU’s greatest weakness is that its member states are divided over Kosovo’s recognition. While the majority of EU members recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty, five continue to oppose it. The EU High Representative Josep Borrell, as well as EUSR Lajčák, come from two states – Spain and Slovakia respectively – that do not recognize Kosovo’s independence. Divisions negatively impact the EU’s ability to mediate the dialogue because the end goal of the dialogue is vaguely defined as “normalization” rather than explicitly stating that it is the recognition of Kosovo’s sovereignty.

If a Biden Administration is going to promote a joint EU-U.S. dialogue in line with Burns’ vision, a common goal needs to be clearly articulated. “We haven’t defined what normalization means”, David L. Phillips, director of the program on peace-building and human rights at Columbia University, told me. And in his view, “normalization should mean sovereignty for Kosovo and recognition of its independence by Serbia within Kosovo's current borders.”

To that end, the United States could play a constructive role by pushing the EU’s non-recognizing members to recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty. Unanimous recognition in the West will in turn make it easier for Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić to sell recognition back home if his public understands that there is no daylight between Washington D.C. and Brussels on this matter. A little effort early on to get everyone aligned will prevent cooking up another çorbë as negotiations get tense.

Dr. Leon Hartwell is a Title VIII Transatlantic Leadership Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C. Twitter: @LeonHartwell

November 24, 2020