The victory of Vetevendosje, the Movement for Self-Determination, in Kosova’s October elections has generated concern about the future of the planned talks with Serbia. However, the new government in Prishtina may actually provide much needed realism in the revived American approach to the most persistent frozen dispute.
The White House is seeking results in the Prishtina-Belgrade dialogue before the 2020 presidential elections. President Donald Trump wants to claim a historic foreign policy success in the Balkans and lay the groundwork for the withdrawal of remaining American soldiers. Together with troop evacuations from Syria and Afghanistan, he can then declare during the election campaign that he is finally ending America’s “endless wars.”
In addition to the responsibilities of Matt Palmer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the West Balkans, the White House appointed Ambassador Richard Grenell as special envoy for the Serbia-Kosova talks. Despite presidential expectations, the new envoy will face significant political challenges in achieving a rapid breakthrough. Paradoxically, however, this may enable him to discover what is preventing a final resolution – Belgrade’s refusal to recognize Kosova as an independent state.
There are at least three obstacles to a successful dialogue. First, in Kosova another month could elapse before a government is formed and becomes operative. It will probably take even longer for a negotiating team to be established that formulates a program for the talks with Belgrade. Second, Serbia faces elections in the spring of 2020 and the current government is unlikely to concede any ground before the balloting, as this could rebound negatively during the election campaign.
And third, the EU is unlikely to be a significant partner for the American negotiators, as it finds itself in the midst of internal turmoil. Under pressure from France, it will be debating reforms in the enlargement process that will in practice obstruct the entry of all candidate states in the Western Balkans. The Union is also dealing with the impact of Brexit as well as continuing attrition from nationalists and populists on the foundations of the European project.
Grenell has not publicly raised the question of border adjustments between Serbia and Kosova and he is likely to meet with stiff resistance to such proposals from the incoming government in Prishtina. Albin Kurti, the Prime Minister elect, will lose much of his public mandate if he surrenders any territory and does not gain Serbia’s recognition.
Aleksander Vucic’s government is concerned that the incoming leadership in Prishtina, unlike its predecessor, cannot be smeared with allegations of corruption or war crimes, and is therefore less susceptible to pressure. To try and discredit the Vetevendosje government in Washington’s eyes, Serbian officials will depict Kurti as a radical socialist, ethno-nationalist, and pan-Albanianist. Of course, Vucic’s own record as an ethno-nationalist campaigning for a Greater Serbia during the murderous Milosevic years will continue to be concealed.
The “border adjustment” question, which has been raised in a previous round of talks, looks like a trap for Prishtina, whereby territory is surrendered without meaningful reciprocity. Belgrade seeks to annex four northern Kosova municipalities without surrendering any territory in the Presevo valley, where Albanians form majorities in three municipalities. Belgrade has used the temptation of land swaps to drive wedges between Albanians and Serbs, to divide Albanian politicians, and to depict Kosova as a failed state without a unified national program.
The Albanian government has also played a role in the Serbian disruption campaign by contributing to the confusion over border changes. Vucic has baited Prime Minister Edi Rama with the allure of unification with a rump Kosova. Kosova’s President Hashim Thaci may have participated in such a scheme to deflect attention from his own problems with potential charges in the Specialist Chambers in The Hague, escalating corruption allegations, and a looming loss of American support.
The revived talks have to be based on two clear principles. First, Kosova’s final status was settled over a decade ago when it declared independence and cannot be revisited without sparking chaos and conflict. Second, Serbia and Kosova need cooperative bilateral relations to promote their own self-interest in stimulating economic growth and moving into key multi-national organizations. Prishtina supports both principles, Belgrade does not and relies on Moscow’s support to maintain a frozen conflict in the Balkans.
If Grenell concludes that the main stumbling block to resolution is the government in Serbia then he will face one of two decisions. He can either walk away from the dispute and leave it once again to the EU to drag on indefinitely and threaten regional stability. Conversely, Grenell can apply more sustained U.S. pressure on Belgrade to commit to a resolution that will culminate in recognizing Kosova’s statehood.