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Will White House Follow Through On Serbia-Kosovo Deal If Trump Wins Second Term?

U.S. President Donald Trump (center), Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti (right), and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left) listen to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during a signing ceremony for an economic normalization deal between the two Balkan countries in Washington on September 4.

When Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti signed an economic normalization deal in the Oval Office on September 4, the Trump administration called it "historic" and a sign of Washington's commitment to the Balkans.

The Trump administration's interest in one of the region's most intractable problems surprised some Balkan experts, who expected the State Department to continue a long-standing policy of letting European-led talks resolve local disputes and bring new countries into Western organizations.

After all, Trump in 2018 questioned why the United States should put its soldiers at risk to defend Montenegro, a Balkan country that joined NATO a year earlier. His comment raised concern about Washington's commitment to the region.

"Many of us were thinking, well, he'll just ignore the region and do no harm. But Trump definitely weighed in" to make the deal happen, Tanya Domi, a Columbia University professor and Balkan expert, told RFE/RL.

U.S. involvement in a cluster of states wedged between the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Black Seas that comprised Yugoslavia until 1991 had waned over the last two decades as wars for independence gave way to an uneasy peace in countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

And the White House's attention shifted away from Europe to fighting wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its support for separatists in the Donbas region forced Washington to step up its involvement in Eastern Europe, including the Balkans, where the decades-long, unresolved disputes make the region vulnerable to Kremlin intrigue.

Trump indicated his Balkan engagement would continue should he win a second term on November 3, telling Vucic and Hoti that he looked forward to visiting both countries "in the not-too-distant future."

He would be the first U.S. president to visit Serbia since Jimmy Carter attended went there several weeks after the death of Yugoslav ruler Josip Broz Tito in 1980.

'A Kind Of PR Event'

Nonetheless, some regional analysts question the administration's dedication to being deeply involved in the complicated politics of the Balkans. Some even see the White House signing ceremony driven by the administration's desire to trumpet a foreign policy victory ahead of the November election.

"There wasn't really any truly strategic approach or planning on solving the Serbia-Kosovo dispute, rather it was a kind of a PR event that was very important for the campaign," said Majda Ruge, a Balkans analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

Trump is currently trailing his Democratic competitor Joe Biden in polls for what is expected to be a close presidential race.

Marshall Harris, a former State Department official who served at U.S. embassies in the Balkans and later advised Senator Bob Dole (Republican-Kansas), said the agreement was a step in the right direction but didn't rise to the level of an Oval Office ceremony.

"If you look at the agreement very closely, it's not what the administration has sold it as. It is not this tremendous foreign policy success," he told RFE/RL.

Kosovo, Serbia Sign Deal Following Talks In Washington
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The agreement commits Kosovo and Serbia to build road and rail links connecting their capitals in order to enhance the flow of goods and people, developments that could attract Western investment. It also commits Kosovo to join a passport- and duty-free initiative that is to include Albania, Serbia, and North Macedonia.

But it fell short of the internationally stated aim of convincing Belgrade to recognize its former province, which has been at the heart of more than a decade of on-again, off-again talks mediated by the EU.

Kosovo, whose population is more than 90 percent ethnic Albanian, declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration's brokered deal marked the first tangible sign of cooperation between the two neighbors since EU talks broke down two years ago.

In 2018, Pristina slapped a punishing 100 percent tariff on Serbian goods for its "aggressive campaign against Kosovo," namely its policy of lobbying countries to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo and preventing it from joining international organizations, such as Interpol. The crushing tax -- which was criticized by the United States -- was abolished in April.

The September 4 agreement includes a one-year moratorium on Serbia's de-recognition campaign against Kosovo and the latter's attempts to join international organizations.

Richard Grenell, the U.S. president's special envoy for Serbia-Kosovo peace talks
Richard Grenell, the U.S. president's special envoy for Serbia-Kosovo peace talks

Richard Grenell, the presidential special envoy for Serbia-Kosovo peace talks, and other U.S. officials traveled to Kosovo and Serbia just weeks after the signing ceremony to study U.S. investment opportunities and move the economic deal forward.

The delegation brought top officials from the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, the United States' development bank, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The State Department has said the greater U.S. private sector involvement and investment in Serbia and Kosovo made possible by the agreement will help to counter Chinese and Russian influence in those countries.

Building Strong Ties

Grenell argued that building strong economic and personal ties between the two countries could become the foundation on which a political solution is eventually reached.

He said the people of Kosovo and Serbia have been suffering economically for decades as they wait for their leaders to reach a political solution and that the time has come to "flip" the peace talks script.

"Over this next year, we can see job growth and job creation really take hold in the region and then, a year from now, judge us on where the political process goes," Grenell said at the signing ceremony.

"Let's see if the concentration on economics and job creation can unstick the political stuff," he said.

Analyst Ruge, who testified before Congress on Balkan policy in October 2019, said the Trump administration -- should it win a second term -- would not be able to convert the economic agreements into political progress without a strategic plan coordinated with the Europeans leading the talks.

"That's the only way you can really approach these things. But the coordination doesn't really exist at this point in time," she said.

Trump's decision in October 2019 to tap Grenell -- a former U.S. spokesman at the United Nations and his then-ambassador to Germany -- to the role of presidential special envoy surprised many because he had no experience of diplomacy in the Balkans.

But supporters say that gave him a fresh approach to resolving a problem that has defied Western negotiators for two decades.

Grenell, a trusted Trump adviser, may have sought the position to demonstrate his "foreign policy chops" while also delivering a timely achievement for the president, said Domi.

A giant billboard depicting U.S. President Donald Trump, wishing him a speedy recovery from COVID-19, is displayed in the village of Slatina, just west of Kosovo's capital, Pristina, on October 6.
A giant billboard depicting U.S. President Donald Trump, wishing him a speedy recovery from COVID-19, is displayed in the village of Slatina, just west of Kosovo's capital, Pristina, on October 6.

Whether the economic deal will have significant follow through in a Trump second term depends in part on what role Grenell takes up, said Florian Bieber, director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at Austria's University of Graz.

"If he is out of the picture, it might be just dropped altogether by the Trump administration. Especially if they realize that there isn't much to gain," he told RFE/RL.

At the same time, Grenell's further involvement may not necessarily facilitate strong U.S.-EU cooperation on the peace deal, Bieber said, calling Trump's envoy "the least popular American diplomat" in Brussels and Berlin.

"That doesn't make a good basis for any dialogue," he said.

The Biden Impact

Trump's dislike for existing international deals -- such as the Paris Agreement on climate change and the landmark Iran nuclear deal -- could give hope to Balkan leaders who raise the sensitive question of border changes should Trump win a second term, Bieber said.

John Bolton, Trump's national-security adviser from April 2018 until September 2019, said the idea had come up but Grenell said he never discussed border changes in his talks with the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia.

A Biden victory on November 3 would likely "bury for good" the idea of a radical redesign of the postwar order in the Balkans, Bieber said.

Regional experts also said a Biden White House would try to work with the EU on a political solution to problems in the Balkans.

Biden has repeatedly said he would seek to improve the transatlantic relationship and rebuild trust in America's commitment to NATO that he said Trump has undermined.

The Democratic Party contender's campaign did not respond to RFE/RL questions about his Balkan policy.

Senator Joe Biden (right) speaks with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic in Sarajevo in April 1993.
Senator Joe Biden (right) speaks with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic in Sarajevo in April 1993.

Biden, who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years before he was Barack Obama's vice president, has a long history of involvement in the Balkans.

In April 1993, as ethnically fueled wars were raging in the former Yugoslavia, Biden spent a week traveling in the Balkans and meeting with key officials, including Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

He was one of the co-sponsors of a 1995 Senate bill that lifted a United Nations arms embargo on the Bosnians fighting against Serbs.

Biden also supported NATO's bombing of Serbia in 1999 to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovars and pushed for the expansion of NATO membership into East Europe, including Slovenia and Croatia.

As vice president in 2016, he visited Serbia and Kosovo to encourage the leaders there to normalize relations.

Biden was received coolly by some locals in Belgrade, where he offered condolences to those killed in the 1999 NATO air raids, the first high-ranking U.S. official to express such sentiments in Serbia.

But on his trip the following day in Kosovo, he was honored with a street named after his recently deceased son Beau, who worked in Kosovo at the conclusion of the war with Serbia, helping to train local prosecutors and judges.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.