The Art of the Balkan Deal

29 janar 2020 19:39

Richard Grenell’s attempt to revive the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue is probably the last attempt we will see in the next few years to unlock the key node in the entangled web of Balkan problems. But the odds are stacked against it.

Donald Trump’s special envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, Ambassador Richard Grenell, surprised many last week by igniting a spark in a dialogue process that has effectively been dead for more than a year. He announced two vague deals aiming to start air and rail traffic between the countries. He also visited the two capitals, emphasizing economic ties as the key to unlock other issues.

These developments signaled a renewed diplomatic effort and the last attempt by the Trump White House to get something done on the Kosovo-Serbia front. The talk so far is merely about economic agreements which, considering the obstacles, have no clear pathway for implementation (Kosovo has a caretaker government!). This may yet turn out to be a mere PR move aiming to at least create the impression of a foreign policy success. “More big wins!”

But there are reasons to believe that low hanging fruits such as the transport deals are only meant to serve as stepping stones towards building a momentum for a larger deal, which seems to be Grenell’s ambition and mandate. In this sense, the announced agreements are currently more important because of what they signal rather than what they contain (which in itself is meaningless).

First of all, they signal that, at least for the duration of this year, there is an offer on the table to move the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue at the U.S Embassy in Berlin, and away from the auspices of the EEAS in Brussels. In many ways this makes sense: the EU has lost almost all credibility and leverage and has sidelined itself into a secondary role.

Kosovo has no EU perspective (the lack of visa liberalization adds insult to injury) and would not be in such a desperate or isolated position if it weren’t for the non-recognizers undermining the EU’s weight. It naturally trusts the U.S more as its key security partner and sponsor of independence. Serbia’s EU accession is also nowhere near for the EU to be able to pressure it over Kosovo. But at least half of Vučić’s personality seeks to develop closer ties to NATO and reduce the heavy reliance on Russia, and a U.S mediated deal would help Serbia in that direction.

The public involvement of National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and Donald Trump himself (via tweet) seemed to also have the intent of signaling Grenell’s political weight and punch to all parties involved. To the sides in the Balkans, including the incoming Kosovo government, it also serves as a threat to stop stalling. Considering Grenell’s tough act and the unpredictability of Trump, countries and individuals are wary of going into his bad list and being whipped.

The agreements and the involvement of Lufthansa in the Prishtina-Belgrade flight deal also seemed to signal to Germany the potentials of bilateral cooperation between Washington D.C and Berlin on the issue. They are after all the key players with the greatest leverage and power in the region. The fact that Grenell is in Berlin and has a personal stake makes him well positioned to prioritize the issue in the portfolio of issues between the U.S and Germany. It’s unsure whether he can succeed considering how much he has ruffled feathers there.

Last but not least, by putting the emphasis on the economy, Grenell’s moves also signaled that with EU accession now effectively gone as a carrot (especially for Serbia), the U.S might come into play with an economic package to sweeten the deal, or at least to get the parties to sit down to talk. I have not read the book, but Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” must have “money talks” somewhere in its list of commandments.

Grenell’s initiative has some chance of succeeding but frankly these chances only seem theoretical. It faces several massive obstacles and is vague or unclear on how it can address at least three major ones.

First, for the sides to sit down at the table for a discussion beyond symbolic deals, Grenell will need to find a way to convince Kosovo to at least temporarily suspend its tariffs on Serbian goods. In Belgrade, he correctly pointed to the need for Serbia to stop its derecognition campaign. But Vučić’s public refusal shows that this will prove easier said than done. After all, who is going to stop Russia from doing the work for him?

Secondly, if the big dialogue were to be restarted, there is no clarity as to what is expected as an outcome. Matthew Palmer’s line has shifted from “mutual recognition” being central to an agreement to one saying “mutual recognition would be ideal but…”. If recognition is out, why would Kosovo enter the process or even consider making any concessions?

The only possible incentive for Kosovo to enter a no recognition type of normalization agreement (or implicit recognition) would be a deal involving no substantial compromises but at least a commitment of recognition by the remaining NATO & EU member states, enabling Kosovo (at minimum) a fast track to NATO membership and unlocked contractual relations with the EU (not to mention membership in the Council of Europe). But that would still leave many lingering issues and tensions.

If recognition is in play, do the U.S or any other parties in the West have the tools to accommodate Serbia’s insistence that it “needs to get something in return”, without forcing Kosovo to choose between border changes and a Serbia-controlled entity within Kosovo? The size of the “economic sweetener” would need to be of epic proportions having in mind that Kosovo has been stretched to its limits in terms of what it can concede.

The third issue is whether the Balkan Schengen initiative, promoted by a few regional leaders and supported in certain corners of the West, could serve as part of the “economic stimulus” package? Serbia is clearly the party that is the most interested in the initiative, but there can be no sustainable agreement without Kosovo as an equal at the table.

It seems that it would be a fatal mistake by all parties involved, including Albanian PM Edi Rama and other regional leaders, to unconditionally support this initiative (positive in principle) without seeking to use it as leverage to force Serbia’s hand on Kosovo. This would require, of course, that the new Kosovo government would engage more constructively with the idea and seeing the political opportunities from it.

Last but not least, the success of Grenell’s initiative will depend on whether Vučić can resist Russia’s active behind-the-scenes engagement to prevent any kind of agreement from happening. For now, Vučić is in the comfortable position of being able to blame Kosovo for the delays, even if he has done everything possible to corner Kosovo in this position.

By indirectly sabotaging the chances for any agreement (to avoid any uncomfortable pressure from the U.S) while nurturing the image of someone constructive, Vučić has shown that he is the shrewdest politician in the region and illustrated that one can indeed both have the cake and eat it too. As far as Serbian nationalists are concerned, Kosovo’s prolonged isolation works in Serbia’s favor and strengthens its leverage, while at the same time allowing Vučić to dodge the need to sign anything that might look like “historic betrayal”.

Everything now depends on how the new Kosovo government approaches the problem and whether it is willing to be smart and put Vuccic to test in front of Richard Grenell. The delays in the creation of the new government have many causes like power sharing, but the inability of the parties to answer this question is arguably the biggest elephant in the room.

In real estate, the Art of the Deal has to consider a finite number of variables. Trump’s envoy will soon find out that The Art of the Balkan Deal is in reality closer to quantum physics.


In cooperation of two web portals, Remarker and Sbunker, a series of analysis will be published in the upcoming period in order to promote a critical debate on the current situation in the region of the Western Balkans. 

After last messages received from one of the most influential members of the EU, France, the region has faced one of the greatest challenges in the last 30 years, when countries in the Western Balkans began their difficult path, first into conflicts and then in the process of democratization and european integration. 

The goal of Remarker and Sbunker is to support better understanding of the current trends in the countries of the Western Balkans and raise the awareness on necessity of european integration process, straightening the process of democratization and the rule of law as necessary preconditions for permanent peace and stability in the region. 


You may find the Albanian version here and the Serbian version here.

29 janar 2020

Agon Maliqi