U.S.’s Approach to the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue: High Expectations Met With Constant Disappointment

02 qershor 2023 11:07

Artikulli i përkthyer.

When Joe Biden assumed the presidency in 2021, there was a sense of high anticipation among pro-democratic voices in the Western Balkans. Biden holds vast foreign policy experience under his belt, having served three terms in the Senate. Furthermore, Biden served as Vice President under the Obama administration, during which he made multiple visits to the Western Balkans.

This was seen as a stark contrast to his predecessor, President Donald Trump, who engaged in clumsy diplomacy by attempting to swiftly finalize a deal between Kosovo and Serbia. Trump also appointed the controversial Richard Grenell as his presidential envoy to the region, who pursued a separate dialogue, running parallel to the ongoing efforts of the EU.

In September 2020, the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia were summoned to the White House to sign an economic normalization deal, which was a mixture of various provisions, ranging from addressing the issue of missing people to the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The deal seemed to lack a coherent and comprehensive strategy.

The change in administration was met with high hopes among democracies in the region, particularly in Kosovo. After Biden was appointed in 2021, he promptly congratulated the heads of state of Kosovo and Serbia on their independence days in February. Biden’s letter to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic included a clear focus on “mutual recognition,” urging necessary steps to achieve a comprehensive normalization deal with Kosovo.

We remain steadfast in our support for Serbia’s goal of European integration and encourage you to continue taking the hard steps forward to reach that aim — including instituting necessary reforms and reaching a comprehensive normalization agreement with Kosovo centered on mutual recognition,” wrote Biden. 

This signaled a new direction for the region and initially generated optimism in Kosovo. However, the subsequent actions of the U.S. administration have demonstrated an imbalanced approach, with increased pressure on Kosovo while turning a blind eye to Vucic’s regime, resulting in disappointment in the dialogue process.

Second Brussels Agreement: Vucic Undermining the West

A decade after the first Brussels Agreement was reached, the EU, with the support of the U.S., reached a second deal on the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia in February 2023. This came as a result of immense diplomatic efforts by both the EU and the U.S. However, the new deal was not centered on mutual recognition.

The deal encompasses various provisions, including the promotion of normal and good neighborly relations and adherence to principles of independence and territorial integrity. Furthermore, the deal includes a provision stating that “Serbia will not object to Kosovo’s membership in any international organization.” 

While Vucic verbally agreed to the deal, he refused to sign it. Days later, Vucic defiantly asserted his opposition to Kosovo’s bid for UN membership and declared that Kosovo will remain part of Serbia until the end of his term. This directly violated key provisions of the deal. Moreover, Serbia voted against Kosovo’s bid for Council of Europe membership, again, breaching the agreement directly. Despite these breaches, the EU and U.S. remained silent on this issue.

Beyond direct agreement breaches, Vucic has pursued warmongering and threatening rhetoric. On the day of the election in the north of Kosovo, Vucic released a harsh statement denouncing the West as liars and frauds. He also emphasized that the Serb minority in Kosovo will no longer tolerate foreign occupation.

While it is important to acknowledge that Kosovo also failed to fully implement its obligations from the previous agreement, particularly regarding the establishment of the Association/Community of Serb-Majority Municipalities (ASM), it should be noted that Prime Minister Kurti has not violated the latest agreement in which Kosovo pledges for a level of self-management for the Serb community in Kosovo.

Chollet-Escobar Duo: Downplaying Vucic’s Criminal and Authoritarian Actions

On May 18, 2023, Counselor Derek Chollet and Deputy Assistant Secretary Gabriel Escobar, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations regarding U.S. engagement in the Balkans. During the hearing, Senator Robert Menendez raised concerns about Vucic’s links with criminal networks, as highlighted in a recent article published by the New York Times. Senator Menendez questioned the reliability of Serbia as a partner in light of these serious accusations.

Counselor Chollet expressed a willingness to evaluate their partnership with Serbia while remaining cautious. He stated: “Mr. Chairman, we have to test… and we’re doing this with eyes open.” 

Furthermore, when Senator Menendez asked about Serbia’s breach of the Brussels Agreement, Chollet responded, “we consider that agreement to be legally binding, we have told President Vucic that and he has never denied that. The EU has also said that the agreement is legally-binding…” 

Senator Menendez interjects during Chollet’s remarks, asserting, “he may not deny it, but he does not do the things necessary to implement it… that’s the equivalent.” However, rather than focusing solely on Serbia, Chollet decided to attribute the lack of progress to both sides. 

The Biden administration has had the opportunity to evaluate its relationship with President Vucic’s regime over the last three years. Various indicators and indexes suggest that Serbia’s respect for fundamental freedoms and liberties has significantly declined, making it the most authoritarian country in the region. 

Furthermore, Serbia stands out as the only country in the region that does not align with the EU’s foreign policy on Russia. Serbia’s stance was recently confirmed by its Foreign Minister, Ivica Dacic, and Security Intelligence Agency, Aleksandar Vulin, by participating in the 11th International Security Conference plenary session in Moscow.

This situation poses a contradiction, as the Biden administration generally classifies countries as either democracies or autocracies, often adopting a less accommodating approach towards authoritarian regimes. However, downplaying the authoritarian and criminal actions of President Vucic’s regime raises questions and concerns about the U.S. stance on promoting democracy and human rights in the Western Balkans.

U.S. Embassy in Kosovo: Selective Condemnation

A decision by the Kosovo government regarding vehicle license plates led to the collective resignation of Kosovo Serb mayors in the northern municipalities of North Mitrovica, Leposavic, Zubin Potok, and Zvecan.

This triggered a snap election, which was initially scheduled for December 18, 2022. However, due to international pressure to avoid escalating tensions, the election was postponed to April 23, 2023, a decision that was supported by the Quint countries (France, Germany, Italy, the UK, and the U.S.). When that day arrived, Kosovo Serbs boycotted the voting, resulting in the election of four mayors from the Albanian parties, with a voter turnout of less than 4%.

Despite the extremely low number of voters, the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo issued a statement following the election that clarified it was “consistent with Kosovo’s constitutional and legal requirements.”

On May 29, when the elected mayors attempted to assume their positions, local Serbs prevented them from entering the municipal buildings by blocking the main entrances. Kosovo authorities responded by deploying special police units to disperse the crowds. Simultaneously, President Vucic put his military on combat alert and positioned the army closer to the Kosovo border.

The U.S. Ambassador, Jeff Hovenier, condemned the actions taken by the Kosovo Government in this situation, accusing them of escalating tensions and called on Prime Minister Kurti to “immediately halt these violent measures.” Soon after, U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, also condemned Kosovo’s actions.

However, there was no immediate response to the violent protestors who attempted to storm the municipal buildings and engaged in aggressive activities such as burning cars, attacking journalists, and chanting chauvinistic slogans. Similarly, the U.S. did not comment on Serbia’s decision to move troops closer to the Kosovo border and raise their highest level of combat readiness.

The following day, violent mobs attacked KFOR soldiers with stones, explosives, Molotov cocktails, and firearms, resulting in injuries to 30 soldiers, with three in critical condition. Only then did Ambassador Hovenier react by condemning the violence coming from the protestors. The harsh response towards Kosovo feels imbalanced considering that Serbia has consistently disrespected democratic standards and evoked aggression to push its agenda.

Although the newly elected mayors may not be the ideal representatives of the communities they are serving, and it is recognized that Kosovo Serb citizens have the right to protest, Kosovo cannot force its Serb citizens to participate in civic life, run for public office or vote. The Kosovo government is responsible for maintaining public order, ensuring safety, and enabling elected officials to perform their duties without hindrance.

Kosovo is facing a new wave of pressure from the West. The U.S. has already penalized Kosovo following the unrest by excluding it from Defender Europe 23, a U.S.-led military exercise. Ambassador Hovenier even went as far as stating that the U.S. is considering other consequences, and is currently not enthusiastic about assisting Kosovo to gain new state recognition and membership in international organizations. These actions are notably more draconian when compared to any previous pressure imposed upon Vucic. 

The U.S. had a responsibility to condemn the actions of Vucic’s regime, which has grown more illiberal in recent years. However, in an attempt to foster a positive relationship with Serbia, in the hopes that it would adopt a more favorable Western stance, Kosovo has become subject to unfair pressure and criticism. This has resulted in major disappointment with U.S. policy in the region, and has proved that their appeasement tactic has only fueled Vucic’s dangerous regime.

02 qershor 2023

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