Perspectives | USA

Neither Gazivoda, nor Ujmani but Lake Trump

By - 29.09.2020

The region’s role in the American presidential campaign.

Even during the Washington negotiations between the Kosovo and Serbia delegations, under auspices of the current US administration, it was clear that the prospective agreement is neither about Belgrade nor Prishtina, but exclusively about Donald Trump’s election campaign.

The United States of America are expecting their presidential elections on November 3 in a state of utter polarization, without a clear favorite. Public opinion polls show that Democrat candidate Joe Biden is leading in some of the key states. Trump’s staff have been trying to compensate for the loss in percentage points by fixing the president’s image, by promoting Donald as a capable diplomat. 

Admittedly, there is not much to work with here.

Peacemaker and bridge builder

In the course of his mandate, Trump had on several occasions announced that it was his intention to solve the Israel-Palestine dispute. However, after the plan for this was published on January 28, it quickly turned out that this was yet another play-by-ear situation with poor results. This is why, over the last few months, they resorted to the hasty signing of a few less significant agreements: Israel – Bahrain, Israel – United Arab Emirates, and the economic normalization agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. This was sufficient for the American president to earn a Nobel Peace Prize nomination, and it was useful for his ratings.

Since its signing, the Washington agreement has — with little foundation — been proclaimed as “historic,” while Trump’s media allies are actively making up “a centuries-long” history of Kosovo-Serbia conflicts.

This is how things have further slipped off into the realm of the surreal.

Some U.S. analysts inclined to support the president, commenting on social media and chronically unfamiliar with local topics, are placing the root causes of the conflict back to 1389 and the Battle of Kosovo. Trump is leading in this sense, with indications during his election rallies that he was the one to put a stop to an active conflict.

In North Carolina, he spoke about being nominated for the Nobel Prize, saying how “mass killings between Kosovo and Serbia were stopped.”

“They have been killing each other for so many years. They are going to stop killing. They’ve been doing it for hundreds of years frankly, under different names.”

This is how, during election rallies, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have heard the story of how a peacemaker with negotiation skills is preventing a war between unreasonable warring tribes. However, this isn’t enough: It’s also necessary for the two tribes to admire him for it.

This is how things have further slipped off into the realm of the surreal.

On September 24, Richard Grenell wrote the following on Twitter: “What to call the lake that is in Kosovo and Serbia has been a serious sticking point despite the U.S. forged compromise to launch a feasibility study to create more jobs and energy for the region … so both sides have agreed to a new name: Lake Trump.”

Scratching vanity

On the same day, next to the Gazivoda lake dam, a huge banner with the words “Trump Lake” was revealed; the nearby Brnjak bridge was decorated with the signs “Trump Bridge” and “President Trump, Kosovo Serbs thank you for bringing peace.”

Allegedly, all the messaging was “spontaneously” placed there by Serbs from the Zubin Potok municipality. Well-selling mainstream tabloids under the control of Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, such as “Informer,” “Kurir,” and “Alo,” despite their long tradition of anti-US propaganda and Russophilia, have received the news with courtly enthusiasm.

Simultaneously, the prime minister of Kosovo, Avdullah Hoti, published posts on his Twitter and Facebook accounts, glorifying Special Presidential Envoy Grenell’s suggestion to rename Gazivoda and call it Lake Trump “in honor of his extraordinary role in reaching a historic agreement on normalizing economic relations between Kosovo and Serbia, as a big step toward a final political agreement, that should result in mutual recognition.”

This perfectly synchronized cuddling with Trump’s vanity can be explained only in one way. To be as servile as they can get when faced with world leaders, Kosovar and Serbian politicians hurried to satisfy Grenell’s flattery to his boss.

The bitter stench of neocolonialism

Renaming the lake out of “great gratitude” toward president Trump, thanks to whom we don’t have to continue on massively killing each other “as we have done for centuries,” seems like prime material for clickbait headlines in the campaign machinery. 

Due to a bizarre combination of circumstances, both the history and geography of the Balkan peoples have turned into a secondary tool in the presidential election campaign of a president who wouldn’t be capable of pointing his finger on the globe at the countries he allegedly reconciled.

The scale of the insanity is even greater if we bear in mind how it came about.

In one podcast, created between September 4 and 10, we see Richard Grenell telling the two hosts the story of the lake as if it were a joke.

Acting like a father talking about a silly argument between his fatuous kids, Grenell primarily explains how American representatives in the negotiation tried to think of using the economic potential of the lake, ending with a punchline that the representatives of Kosovo and Serbia were instead arguing about how to call the lake.

The women are laughing, while Grenell is looking at them with a face that says: “That’s the kind of nonsense I have to deal with.” He adds: “One of the solutions I’ve proposed was: You know what, if you can’t agree on the name, we’ll simply call it Lake Trump.” This is where all three of them start laughing.

The whole current state of affairs exudes a bitter stench of neocolonialism, because it’s perfectly unbelievable. To suppose that Vučić and Hoti actually quarreled about whether to call the lake Gazivode or Ujmani is only imaginable if one doesn’t know that virtually all Kosovar toponyms have both a Serbian and Albanian name to them.

Both Prishtina and Belgrade are very familiar with the economic importance of Gazivoda.

Even if it’s possible to believe that, in the postwar meetings between Belgrade and Prishtina representatives, there were stupid acts of defiance about what a place should be called, still, only naive people could think that the two delegations are quarreling about such things two decades later.

On the other hand, both Prishtina and Belgrade are very familiar with the economic importance of Gazivoda.

Created between 1973 and 1978, with funds from the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) and loans from the World Bank, the lake was established by installing a dam on the Ibar river and conceived as a source of electricity for the entire formerly autonomous province, but also as the main point for water supply.

The core of the dispute isn’t about a confrontation over a name but ownership of a strategic resource. To reduce it to symbols sums up Grenell’s conscious infantilization of both sides.

Luckily for the local geography of poor nations, The New York Times just published the long sought after tax returns of Trump. Alongside the other current problems American society is facing, the tax issue will undoubtedly remain a central topic until the end of the election campaign.

Kosovo, Serbia, and their strange agreement will move back to the margins, squatting maybe in the middle of a sentence of some rallies, and won’t be juicy enough in comparison to the current largest circus in the world — the American presidential elections. The lake will keep both names that it inherited throughout history, although we were ready to sacrifice it to the altar of the presidential campaign on a different continent.

It would be nice if we could look ourselves in the mirror and draw some lessons.

However, if Biden were to win, perhaps just in case and as a small token of attention, we should rename Bujanovac into Bidenovac.

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.