WASHINGTON -- Kosovo will lose its biggest supporter in the U.S. Congress when Representative Eliot Engel leaves Capitol Hill in January after more than three decades in office.
Engel, a Democrat, has represented parts of the Bronx -- a New York City borough with a large and politically active ethnic Albanian population -- since 1989 and was a leader in Congress gathering support for recognition of Kosovo's independence from Serbia in 2008.
His unwavering support for Kosovo through the decades has made him a celebrity in the predominantly ethnic Albanian republic, which has been recognized by some 115 countries.
Kosovo has named a street and a highway in honor of Engel and even issued a stamp with his image. Conversely, all of this has made him a controversial figure in Serbia, which still refuses to accept the loss of its former province and lobbies against its recognition by the international community.
But Engel’s departure from the House of Representatives -- where he most recently chaired the lower chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee, using his formidable position to chastise Belgrade and defend Kosovo -- might not be an occasion for Serbia to rejoice.
Engel, 73, has said he has no plans to retire following his surprise defeat to a school principal in the Democratic primaries earlier this year. He said he has been asked if he wants to be an ambassador or undersecretary in the administration of President-elect Joe Biden and is considering his options, raising the question of whether he might continue to influence U.S. Balkan policy.
“[There are] lots of different things I could do…. I’m not going to make any decisions right now, but, you know, I’m thinking about it,” he told the Washington Examiner in early December. “Maybe do something with the administration…. Some people have suggested perhaps I could be an ambassador.”
Though Engel is keeping his cards close to his chest regarding his future plans, he recently demonstrated where his policy interests lie during one of his last House Foreign Affairs Committee hearings.
“Little did I know the passion I would develop for a small corner of Europe called the Balkans,” Engel said on December 8 as he kicked off a hearing he called to give policy recommendations to the incoming Biden administration on the region.
"I’ve traveled to every country in the Western Balkans several times, met with so many leaders from so many parties, and come to love the rich variety of cultures, ethnicities, and religions," he said.
"But no place has touched my heart more than Kosovo," he said in an introduction that often touched upon his leading role in U.S. Balkan policy over the decades.
Engel’s decision to hold a hearing in his waning days in Congress on a part of Europe that rarely makes headlines in the United States -- amid more immediate national security concerns such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea -- was noteworthy, observers said.
“The hearing was meant to cement Engel’s legacy in the Balkans, especially with respect to Kosovo,” said Dan Vajdich, who covered Europe and Eurasia for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and now advises the Serbian Chamber of Commerce on attracting American investment to Serbia and the Western Balkans.
Engel entered Congress just as Yugoslavia was breaking up violently along ethnic lines, and he immersed himself in the many regional disputes through his seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, eventually earning a reputation as a Balkan expert.
He was among the first U.S. lawmakers to call on the administration of President Bill Clinton to intervene in 1998 to stop Yugoslav and Serbian forces in Kosovo and was arguably the most outspoken advocate in Congress for U.S. recognition of the country’s independence a decade later.
Engel continues to fight for justice for the Bytyqi brothers, three Albanian-Americans who fought on the side of the Kosovar rebels and were summarily executed by Serb police in 1999. Their killers have not been prosecuted.
“As all of you know, Eliot has been Kosovo’s greatest champion in the United States Congress,” Representative Kevin McCarthy (Republican-California), the ranking minority member on the Foreign Affairs Committee, told the December 8 House of Representatives hearing.
With Engel possibly looking at ambassadorships, some have speculated whether a Balkan role could be in the cards for the outgoing lawmaker.
Balkan postings will likely open up by early 2022 as U.S. ambassadors in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina reach the typical three-year term limit for service in a country.
The Biden administration may also appoint special envoys to the region, including for Serbia-Kosovo talks.
Engel would not be good news for negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade. He has become too biased, too one-sided, and he is totally out of touch with what is happening on the ground in Serbia."-- Jelena Milic, Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, Belgrade
Washington is still focused on solving the unresolved dispute between Serbia and Kosovo over the latter’s recognition, which would open the door for both countries to move closer to EU membership and potentially even NATO.
Washington is also pushing for constitutional reform in Bosnia with the aim of maintaining its territorial integrity amid threats by Republika Srpska, Bosnia's ethnic Serb entity, to secede.
Tim Mulvey, communications director for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, declined to comment on whether Engel is interested in ambassadorial postings or being appointed as a special envoy in the Balkans.
Ronald Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a former U.S. ambassador, told RFE/RL that someone of Engel’s stature would more likely be tapped to head a large embassy in a Western European capital like London or Berlin rather than a small posting in the Balkans.
Jelena Milic, director of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Belgrade, said Serbia would view it as a setback if Engel became involved in Serbia-Kosovo peace talks, due to his close ties to Pristina. For the same reason, she also doubted he would make a positive impact on regional issues if we were appointed as ambassador to Kosovo or Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"Engel would not be good news for negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade," she said. "He has become too biased, too one-sided, and he is totally out of touch with what is happening on the ground in Serbia. He still views Serbia through [the prism of] the 1990s,” she said.
Milic said the December 8 House hearing was a case in point.
Engel highlighted some of Serbia’s shortcomings, including its failure to prosecute war criminals, a rollback of democracy under President Aleksandr Vucic, and the country's close military ties to Russia. The lawmaker also criticized current U.S policy on Kosovo as too beholden to Serbia.
“Too often we deal with Kosovo as [an offshoot] of the dialogue with Serbia. We subsume our bilateral ties to such an extent that we, the United States, are limiting Kosovo’s choices to avoid offending Belgrade,” Engel said.
Eliot was a singular champion on Kosovo. He didn’t really have any peers. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t others that will emerge [in Congress]."-- Balkan expert Tanya Domi
Many Balkan analysts in the United States say Engel was right to highlight those issues.
But Milic said Engel distorted the perception of Serbia and failed to acknowledge some "positive changes" that have occurred over the years, listing respect for Bosnia's territorial integrity and what she termed "cooperation" with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), despite Belgrade's failure to extradite criminal suspects to The Hague. She also said Engel had downplayed the deaths of 2,000 Serbians during the 1999 Kosovo War.
Vajdich said Engel’s comments make it “politically difficult” for politicians in Belgrade to advocate for stronger ties with the United States and are used by Russia for propaganda purposes to build a divide between Serbia and the West.
“The Russian messaging is that America will never accept you and all it cares about is Kosovo. And it resonates with the average Serb,” he said.
Neumann said Serbian opposition to Engel would be “germane” in debating who to tap as an envoy to peace talks.
“If one of the parties is very negative, that would not help the work of a special envoy,” he said.
Janusz Bugajski, a Balkan expert at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, said Engel could still do work in the Biden administration on the Balkans that is not tied to Serbia-Kosovo peace talks, such as working with the Europeans on combating Russian and Chinese influence in the region. Engel, he pointed out, has extensive experience with transatlantic relations.
“There are many possibilities” for Engel in a Biden administration, some of which would be “more sensitive vis-a-vis Belgrade,” he said.
No Loss For Kosovo?
Tanya Domi, a Balkan expert at Columbia University who previously worked on Balkan policy for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said she doesn’t expect Engel’s departure to weaken U.S. support for Kosovo.
Engel, she said, may have become so outspoken on Kosovo and other Balkan issues in part because White House attention to the region had declined over the years.
That changed at the end of Donald Trump's administration with the 2019 appointment of Richard Grenell as special envoy for the Serbia and Kosovo talks and the signing of a deal in September to normalize economic relations.
That trend is likely to continue under Biden, who knows the region firsthand from his days on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Domi predicted that Biden is likely to take up the cause of the region more aggressively than previous presidents.
“Eliot was a singular champion on Kosovo. He didn’t really have any peers,” Domi said. “But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t others that will emerge [in Congress]. And this loss will be offset by a Biden State Department that is going to be very forward-leaning on the Balkans,” she said.
Engel will be replaced as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee by Gregory Meeks (Democrat-New York), who will take the reins on January 6 when the Congress that was elected on November 3 meets for the first time.