The long-awaited Washington D.C agreement between Kosovo and Serbia was of course very underwhelming if you compare the weight of the substance agreed with the weight of the office where it was signed. Most would say that this rather bizarre mash-up of a document was not surprising considering the style and motivations of the occupant of that office, and the unconventional team preparing this.
Yet what was striking and surprising were the range of issues included which had nothing to do with economics, nor with Kosovo and Serbia. Watching the whole process build-up until that document appeared was a little bit like watching a Monty Python episode – you’re watching the sketch of “Trump in the Balkans” for about two years somewhat amused, and just as you expect some kind of climax, in comes John Cleese with a fifteen-point document in hand to say: “And now for something completely different!”
It’s easy to dismiss this as much ado about nothing, yet even the way it is, the agreement does shake a few things up – for good or for worse.
The substance of the document and the Oval Office stage show told us what this was all about. It was first of all about Trump the master salesman and Reality TV president looking for low hanging fruits to present as foreign policy successes in a way that fits two campaign narratives. The first is the image of Trump as solving America’s “forever wars” and building a contrast to “hawkish Biden”, with the hope of appealing to leftist isolationists who hate America’s role as global policeman. Second, it was about throwing in a win for Israel by moving embassies to Jerusalem to appeal to the Evangelical base (in a bizarre twist, Israel’s recognition of Kosovo was sold as a win for the former!).
The motivations of course are never just electoral or personal – Grenell was also looking to score a personal win – because this barely stuck in the U.S news cycle for even an hour. For the past two years “the Trump process” was also about Vucic hoping and trying to develop closer ties to the U.S. Facing an administration more receptive to Serbia’s concerns, Vucic’s pitch (still doubted by most) is that he was open to reducing ties to Russia in exchange for the U.S helping force Kosovo into a compromise.
As a result, you also had Kosovo trying to defend its position with its most important ally, with the minimum hope of at least preventing some disaster from this unconventional administration – as two governments collapsed during Trump’s mandate. In the best-case scenario Kosovo was also trying to use this kind of brash administration and supportive elements within it to put pressure on the EU to move faster in unlocking Kosovo’s international limbo.
The irony is that in this particular dimension both sides can now ironically claim some form of success – Vucic managed to improve ties to the U.S, while Kosovo averted disaster and consolidated its ties even with the Trump administration, and got an important recognition – both without having made any significant concessions.
Yet in this race of trying to sway the Trump Administration to their side in our dispute (and shunning the EU in the process) both countries ultimately had to pay for the cost of Trump’s attention. As they entered the White House they made themselves vulnerable to the transactional nature of his decision-making. The U.S president views the world as a place that has for long taken advantage of America, so whoever claims to be a friend has to fall in line with his realist and mercantilist worldview. That is why ultimately the document ended up being less of an agreement creating new binding commitment between Kosovo and Serbia – especially after November, when none of this might not matter – and more of an alignment of both countries with key elements of Trump’s foreign policy.
While most of the material in the agreement regarding Kosovo and Serbia is so vague and fluff that it may be ignored – especially if there is a change in the administration – the agreement did manage to cause some geopolitical disruption. Serbia effectively committed itself to things that put it at odds with a wide range of allies like China, Russia, the Arab World, Shiites around the Middle-East and the EU – with a few public displays of tensions with the Kremlin erupting soon thereafter. Kosovo on the other hand was reprimanded by both the EU and Turkey over the Embassy in Jerusalem.
While Kosovo effectively scored the only tangible win from Washington D.C – recognition from Israel – Vucic managed to score the biggest personal win by dodging the recognition bullet and going back to the E.U-led dialogue where he has higher leverage. Serbia is far from the moment when it can join and thus faces no pressure to recognize (while Kosovo is in limbo due to non-recognizers). My personal impression is that the window of opportunity for an agreement in the E.U process is two or three months, after which the whole process enters into unchartered and potentially endless territory.
Absent some strong pressure from Berlin and Paris, Vucic will now seek to stall and delay as much as he can while playing nice with the West, simply because he is very well aware of Kosovo’s political instability and the imminent crisis coming up with the voting of the new President. He is also aware of Kosovo’s inability to accept any kind of compromise which Serbia and the E.U expect in exchange for even an implicit recognition, as well as the increased hostility of any future post-election Kosovo government to the dialogue.
Managing to stall recognition for a couple of more years while having Kosovo as the guilty party continuing to shoot itself in the foot with internal divisions and populisms is the ideal scenario for Vucic. He wants and will probably succeed in riding on the Kosovo issue for at least another mandate in Serbia, securing leverage against the international community’s demands for democratization, while Kosovo will remain isolated and without a transatlantic perspective, ripe for the kind of serious instability the region hasn’t seen in years.
This scenario will be the main legacy of the transatlantic divide and of Western appeasement of Vucic which allows him to move Serbia towards the West under his conditions. Those in Europe who find it amusing to joke with the Trump Administration’s attempts to elevate this neglected issue to the highest level should be aware that the ball is now in their hands to prove that they are not even more ridiculous with their decade-long approach of simply admiring the problem.
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.