Presidential elections are taking place in the United States this November, which is why the pressure is growing to complete the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo by the fall, so that Donald Trump can score political points from this success of American diplomacy – this is an interpretation of a part of the public in the region. However, would an agreement between, presumably, Aleksandar Vučić and Hashim Thaçi, really be of any significance for the US citizens as they are deciding between Trump and Biden, or are there other reasons for the engagement of the White House in this field?
That the current President of the United States is interested in resolving the issue of relations between Serbia and Kosovo in his mandate became clear in December 2018 at the latest, when he stressed in a letter to Vučić and Thaçi that he was looking forward to hosting them at the White House to celebrate the “historic agreement”. This was followed by a similar letter two months later, and then, in October last year, Richard Grenell was appointed Special Envoy in charge of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.
It is very possible that Trump had in his mind the images of the success of some of his predecessors’ mediation efforts – Jimmy Carter shaking hands with Egyptian and Israeli leaders Sadat and Begin at the Camp David, or Bill Clinton during the signing of the Oslo Accords between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. Michael Carpenter, Director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, also assessed in last year’s interview for our portal that Trump needs foreign policy success after, in his view, failures regarding North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Syria.
However, as the example of Jimmy Carter showed, it is not at all certain that mediation success will significantly increase President’s re-election chances, especially in a part of the world in which the United States is currently not significantly involved.
Journalist of the Serbian Politika daily Bosko Jakšić believes that this is also the case with the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo.
“Of course, Trump would like to have at least the announcement of a solution, a kind of Letter of Intent that would be signed before the election in November. However, the President is realistic enough to know that Kosovo has no influence on the views of American voters”, Jakšić says for our portal.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic crisis, and the mass protests ensuing after the murder of George Floyd took over the news cycles, it was not probable that a potential agreement between Serbia and Kosovo would cause significant attention in the USA. Unlike the economy, immigrants or relations with China, Trump himself promoted this topic only once, when he tweeted praise for the signing of a letter of intent to establish an airline between Belgrade and Pristina this January.
Everyone said it couldn’t be done. But for the first time in a generation, there will be direct flights between Serbia and Kosovo. Another win. Thanks to @WHNSC Ambassador Robert O’Brien and Ambassador @RichardGrenell! pic.twitter.com/0qSLryG96B
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 21, 2020
It is, of course, correct that previous Presidents got a boost to their approval ratings after they participated in mediating some peace solutions for various conflicts in the world. According to a study published in 2013, such successes could lead to an increase in support for their work by up to 4% – but one of the key conditions was that at least part of the public was aware of the dispute before it was resolved. How many US citizens are, in fact, aware of the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo, which was last in the American public eye two decades ago?
According to the research conducted by Gallup, in which Americans rank the most important problems facing the country on a monthly basis, the Coronavirus pandemic was in the first place in May, as expected. Bad leadership and economic problems followed, with foreign policy and international problems, in which the issue of Serbia and Kosovo would potentially fit, no longer appearing on the rankings of the most important problems for US citizens. At the end of last year, that was the main problem for 1% of citizens.
Neither Pew Research provides many arguments for the thesis that Trump’s mediation in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina would lead to a significant improvement in his chances for re-election. Their research on the threats facing the nation shows that, in fact, the smallest percentage of citizens see “long-term conflicts between states and ethnic groups” as a threat to the United States, and Republicans even less than Democrats. Of course, the question is whether anyone includes the Balkans in this group, or the focus is more, as would be expected, on the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula.
Despite all this, the impression that the Trump administration remains invested in reaching an agreement cannot be avoided – after resigning from the position of US ambassador, Richard Grenell remains a Special Envoy for dialogue, and the undivided opinion about the fall of Albin Kurti’s government is that US support played a significant role in order to speed up the process of the normalisation of relations.
What, then, is the reason why Trump, that is, his officials in charge of the Balkans, continue to insist on an agreement? According to Boško Jakšić, the Kosovo conflict still entails multiple opportunities for the President of the United States.
“Increased American engagement is primarily in the function of blocking the growing influence of Russia and China in the Western Balkans, and the Coronavirus pandemic has shown how much Moscow, and Beijing in particular, successfully use Western organizational weaknesses to portray them as shortcomings of the liberal democracies. Trump is not very interested in the liberal component, but he will not hesitate to prevent further penetration of influence from the East and thus show the Europeans that the United States does not want to be pushed out of the game,” Jakšić says for EWB.
He also points to the conflicts between the USA and the EU, but also within the American state apparatus itself, as a factor that additionally motivates Trump.
“In accordance with his confrontationalist attitude towards transatlantic allies, especially Germany, Kosovo gives Trump the opportunity to humiliate the EU, to show that even seven years after the signing of the Brussels Agreement, it is not able to resolve a dispute that is primarily European. This is especially evident in the floating of the idea of the exchange of territories – which the Americans were the first to semi-officially support and Berlin most angrily rejected. At the internal American level, the Kosovo conflict should be another promotion of the President’s personal diplomacy and subordination of the State Department”, Jakšić believes.
It is worth mentioning that the appointment of Richard Grenell came as a surprise, after Matthew Palmer was declared the US Special Representative for the Western Balkans less than a month earlier, which was interpreted as the President’s “response” to the policy of professional diplomats in the State Department. Grenell has since played a far more noticeable role than Palmer when it comes to the Kosovo-Serbia dispute.
“Kosovo is also an opportunity for Trump to show the world his non-aggressive intentions, which are in line with his statements from the time of the election campaign when he promised not to involve America in any further military interventionism,” added Boško Jakšić, emphasizing that Trump cannot significantly profit from the agreement itself, the finalisation of which implies the consent of his great rivals, but can have significant benefits from the agreement process itself.
Should we, then, expect to conclude some kind of agreement this year? Boško Jakšić reminds that Richard Grenell emphasised that there are no deadlines for a solution, and that, due to the above, Trump will not be in a hurry with the ceremony on the lawn of the White House, which he mentioned in his letters to Vučić and Thaçi. However, he will not accept waiting for years (if re-elected) for the conflict that most threatens the security of the Western Balkans to turn into a replica of the Greek-Turkish dispute over Cyprus, Jakšić concludes.
Following the elections in Serbia on 21 June, it seems that the political situation will not be any less tense, while in Kosovo instability will continue to be the order of the day since the now-ousted Albin Kurti remains the most popular politician in the country. When it comes to the USA, it would be hard to claim that the story of a peace agreement between Serbia and Kosovo would receive even a proverbial 15 minutes of glory – but if 2020 has proven anything so far, it is that all predictions should be abandoned almost as soon as they are made.