Perspectives | Serbia

An open letter to the American people

Breaking down the ‘historic’ Kosovo-Serbia Washington agreement.

By - 08.09.2020

Dear Americans. 

You may have recently heard news of a “historic” agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, brokered by your very own president, Donald Trump. “There was a lot of fighting, now there’s a lot of love,” was his pithy summary

What’s more, not only was this deal bringing peace and prosperity to one troublesome area of the world, the Balkans, but it was also helping to solve conflicts in that other famously tough nut to crack, the Middle East. 

“Another great day for peace with Middle East,” Trump Tweeted. “Muslim-majority Kosovo and Israel have agreed to normalize ties and establish diplomatic relations. Well-done! More Islamic and Arab nations will follow soon!” 

The Balkans and the Middle East moving forward in harmony in one foul swoop. By anybody’s standards, that’s quite the coup for a day’s work.

Unfortunately, a mere scratch beneath the surface reveals that all is not quite what was advertised — not least because Kosovo is neither an Arab nation nor, as set out clearly in its constitution, Islamic, which seems to be what Trump was implying. 

As tends to be the case with complex, deep-rooted problems, the solutions are rarely as simple as a Tweet and a photo op.

Continuing the attack-offend-delegitimize approach we have all become familiar with, Trump’s Special Envoy Richard Grenell lambasted the U.S. media for deviating from the “rosy success story” narrative that is the only journalistic discourse tolerated by the current administration. In a clearly pre-planned attack line that he subsequently shared widely, Grenell suggested journalists couldn’t even locate the Balkans on a map, and that they needed to realize what’s important outside of Washington D.C. 

The devil is inconveniently in the detail — or lack of it.

As an editor at a Kosovo-based media who has never visited the U.S. capital, I at least pass those two disingenuous tests. 

So, let’s break down a few of the key points relating to this “historic” agreement, starting with a little background context. 

The Trump administration decided to get directly involved in negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia just last year, when Grenell was appointed as the U.S. president’s special envoy. Until then, this administration, just like its predecessors, had happily backed negotiations that had been taking place under the mediation of the EU for much of the past decade. 

“Talks had already been dragging on for nearly 10 years?” you might well ask. “Just get on with it! The status quo obviously wasn’t working.” 

To some extent, you’d be right. There are plenty of people within the region who have become somewhat fatigued by the drawn out negotiation process and sceptical about where it’s all heading. Some fresh impetus, something to get things moving, is therefore not in itself a bad thing. 

But, once again, the devil is inconveniently in the detail — or lack of it. 

One thing that we’ve come to learn over the years of the negotiation process is that making agreements themselves is the easy part. Kosovo and Serbia signed their first “landmark agreement” on normalizing relations as part of the EU-led process back in 2013, two years after the dialogue process started. Since then, more than 30 agreements have been reached between the two governments.

The tricky part, however, is in the implementation, particularly when the wording is so general that it provides plenty of wiggle room — the vast majority of the agreements signed in the EU-led dialogue remain unfulfilled. 

The White House agreement (or agreements — we’ll come to that later) unfortunately shows little sign of taking these past lessons into account. At just two sides of A4, it is featherweight in detail and full of vague phrases that without substantive detail or explanation mean very little.

There is no attempt to indicate how, no hint at when, no foresight of what success might look like.

For example, the parties will “work with the U.S.” on “memorandums of understanding” regarding transport and on “a feasibility study” regarding shared water supply. In other words, at some (undefined) point they will sit down, together or separately (it’s unclear), to produce further documents (with no defined scope) that themselves are exploratory — their true nature, intent or implications largely unknown. 

One point simply reads: “Both parties will diversify their energy supplies.” There is no attempt to indicate how, no hint at when, no foresight of what success might look like. Does this mean a move toward renewables and a sustainable approach that helps preserve the region’s already threatened natural resources? Or big capital infrastructure projects, with little regard for the global climate emergency?

Such scarcity of any meaningful detail is indicative of the whole document.

If a middle manager presented this “plan” to their boss, they would be sent swiftly away to try again with a reminder that meaningful goals should be SMART — Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound. If this were a business contract, no investor worth their salt would sign on the dotted line. 

Of course, in international diplomacy, such “constructive ambiguity” can be a useful tool to give the appearance of progress, all the while kicking the real issues further down the road.

In fact, on the topic of kicking real issues down the road, the only point of the agreement signed by Kosovo’s prime minister that has any defined timescale is a commitment not to continue seeking members of international organizations for 12 months. Serbia, on the other hand, agreed to pause its own campaign of encouraging countries to “de-recognize” Kosovo for the same period. 

Any attempt to resolve the issue at the very heart of tensions between Kosovo and Serbia will therefore be deliberately and pointedly delayed for another year. In the meantime, Kosovo remains outside of key international organizations such as the UN and Interpol, while its prospects of joining the European Union seem dim.

Meanwhile, with the EU-facilitated dialogue re-starting this week in Brussels, any chance of reaching the much more elusive political agreement between the two neighbors has been markedly undermined.

This all adds to an overwhelming belief within the region that the Trump administration’s urgency to get a deal — any deal — signed, has been almost exclusively aimed at providing the U.S. president with a high profile foreign policy “win” ahead of November’s elections.

The recognition from Israel is in itself a positive outcome for Kosovo, but the question arises: At what cost?

It doesn’t take a professor of international relations to deduce that the deals signed are geared toward Trump’s own pet ventures and his desire to laud blockbuster foreign policy achievements that show scant attempt to resolve genuine political and economic tensions, whether in the Balkans, the Middle East or elsewhere.

In clauses that seem to have little to do with the advertised economic normalization between Kosovo and Serbia, both parties agreed to ban the use of 5G equipment supplied by “untrusted vendors” and to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. 

The former is presumably a bid aimed at preventing China’s emergence in the Serbian telecommunications market, while the latter appears designed to keep Israel sweet, just like the commitment to “continued restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property.” Kosovo’s government, in fact, already officially designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization earlier this year, and in practice did so much earlier by explicitly supporting the EU’s position on the matter in 2013. 

The prominence of Israel in an agreement said to be about economic normalization between two Balkan countries also caught many by surprise. 

On paper, Kosovo signed up to mutual recognition with Israel, although in practice Prishtina has long recognized the Middle Eastern state. Technicalities aside, the recognition from Israel is in itself a positive outcome for Kosovo, but in terms of the bigger picture, the question arises: At what cost?

Although not explicitly in the agreement, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti Tweeted to his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu that Kosovo would open an embassy in Jerusalem, following the U.S.’s controversial lead and echoing a signed commitment by Serbia to do the same. The move will inevitably alienate Kosovo from a whole host of states who are staunchly opposed to such an inflammatory step. 

It is also an explicit deviation from EU foreign policy that has already drawn condemnation from European leaders and looks set to further complicate the two countries’ already arduous pathways to joining the bloc.

It’s not the sole recycled commitment in a document that only contains around 500 words in the first place.

EU officials may have been further surprised to see other aspects of the agreement, such as Kosovo and Serbia agreeing to recognize each other’s university diplomas — this would indeed be a welcome step, but the two parties already signed up to doing this in 2011 as part of the Brussels-led dialogue.

It’s not the sole recycled commitment in a document that only contains around 500 words in the first place. 

Two of the bullet points relate to implementing previous Grenell-brokered “agreements” on travel infrastructure that were themselves announced in a flurry of high profile publicity in February. They were subsequently revealed to be vague “letters of intent” that took two months and repeated requests from journalists to be released. 

The lack of transparency is a further indication that the current U.S. administration’s approach to Kosovo-Serbia relations is hardly an improvement on the ongoing EU-facilitated process, which has itself been opaque and its agreements have increasingly been seen to have failed. 

In fact, when it comes to the Washington deal, there is even ambiguity about who is actually a party to it and whether there is one agreement or two. A look at the paperwork shows that Serbia’s president signed one document, and Kosovo’s prime minister another. Both are accompanied by a letter signed by President Trump. 

When asked for clarification as to whether Kosovo and Serbia had signed an agreement directly with each other or an agreement with the U.S., Grenell responded: “They signed an agreement to work with each other. They did not sign with the United States. We are not a signature.”

But when pushed by journalists what they had just witnessed President Trump signing in the Oval Office minutes earlier, he appeared to hesitate. “He signed a… how would you describe it? a… basically a letter acknowledging that they are going to work together and do this… agreement.”

In the wake of such fundamental uncertainties, questions have already been raised about how legally binding the agreement is, and what the implications are in terms of ratification by Kosovo’s parliament.

The current Kosovo coalition government already has little legitimacy after recently replacing a popular, newly-elected government in highly controversial circumstances; ousted Prime Minister Albin Kurti subsequently accused Grenell of being the driving force behind his downfall since he was seen as an obstacle to securing a quick U.S.-brokered deal at any cost. 

With such an inherently unstable government that scraped into office by a single vote in parliament and is frequently rumored to be on the brink of collapse, the significance of the signed deal in real terms is reduced even further. 

President Trump got to sign something, take some photos and brag that he had been tremendously successful, once again. But beneath the bluster, this was hardly a step toward world peace.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

*Editor’s note: This article was amended on 09/09/20 to clarify that Kosovo specifically agreed to a moratorium on seeking recognition of international organizations. The original version stated that Kosovo agreed to pause seeking international recognitions.