Longform | Foreign Relations

Who is Richard Grenell?

By - 21.09.2020

The ‘creative disruptor’ at the heart of Trump’s Kosovo-Serbia deal.

Almost everyone in Kosovo has heard of Richard Grenell. 

Former U.S. ambassador to Germany, former acting director of national intelligence, special presidential envoy to the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, and the man who was accused of bringing down Albin Kurti’s popular government 52 days into its mandate in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown — Grenell vehemently denies any role in it.

Over the past year, Grenell has become the focal point of U.S. policy in Kosovo. He staunchly opposed the 100% trade tariff on Serbian goods and threatened Kosovo with a withdrawal of U.S. support — including military. His antipathy to the EU-led dialogue process between Kosovo and Serbia has driven a wedge between the U.S. and its traditional ally and created chaos in the transatlantic alliance.

In what may yet prove to be one of his final acts in the region, Grenell was the architect of the recent White House meeting between Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić. The meeting itself has served as a culmination of an eventful year, ahead of the fast approaching U.S. presidential elections in November.

For someone who has had such an impact on Kosovo politics, few people in Kosovo know much about him and where he came from before suddenly becoming a prominent voice in the region early last year. We decided to find out. 

For this profile, we have interviewed journalists and politicians. Grenell himself refused to be interviewed by K2.0.

Many others we spoke to did not want to speak on the record about him. So we have constructed this profile through Grenell’s own words, congressional testimony and interviews with some of those who have worked with him in the past. 

Swimming through the GOP

Ric Grenell, as he is known among colleagues and friends. There is nothing extraordinary about his background. His parents were missionaries for an evangelical Christian sect called the Church of God. He grew up in Jenison, Michigan, a 95% white, midwestern town in a mostly Republican county. Most Americans would have never heard of it.

He graduated from Jenison High School in 1984 and then attended Evangel College, an evangelical Christian religious institution in Springfield, Missouri. After completing his bachelor’s degree in government and public administration, he went on to receive a graduate degree in public administration from Harvard

The now 54-year-old began his career as a communications consultant for a variety of Republican politicians and as a press secretary for Senator Mark Sanford of South Carolina. His clients included a former mayor of San Diego, California, a congressman from Michigan and a former governor of New York State. None would speak to us about him.

He would later found and run a media consultancy firm, Capitol Media Partners, that worked for a variety of politicians and celebrities.

Along the way he turned up in John McCain’s failed presidential primary campaign in 2000, and he later became the foreign policy spokesperson for Mitt Romney’s failed presidential campaign in 2012. 

But less than two weeks after he was hired by Romney he was forced out of the role. His rapid departure stirred some debate within the Republican Party at the time, particularly as he was likely the first openly gay man to take a spokesperson position, or any kind of prominent position, in a Republican campaign.

It was widely felt that the social conservatives at the time would not support a gay man in a prominent role in the campaign, and his brief stint in Romney’s campaign attracted a storm of personal abuse. One major right-wing Republican writer insinuated that Grenell couldn’t be trusted due to his sexuality by writing

“Suppose Barack Obama comes out — as Grenell wishes he would — in favor of same-sex marriage in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. How fast and how publicly will Richard Grenell decamp from Romney to Obama?”

It is an unusual combination — even in the U.S. — that a conservative Republican like Grenell be openly gay and profess to being a religious evangelical.

He is open about his religion on his favorite forum Twitter, announcing in his bio that he is an “imperfect follower of Christ,” and he has been known to tweet about it, including this recent post on COVID-19: 

But Grenell’s online comments have caused issues for him in the past. He has previously made many disparaging and abusive comments, particularly about women, and he was also abusive about prominent media columnists and reporters, often using derogatory language. This was problematic enough that when appointed to the Romney campaign he deleted over 800 posts from his Twitter account. He also deleted his personal website

At the time, he issued an apology for any hurt caused by his tweets, saying that they were intended to be “tongue in cheek and humorous” but how he could “now see how they can also be hurtful.”

Grenell had been a loyal party member for many years, serving as a spokesperson for prominent Republicans in the Bush administration like the former U.S. ambassadors to the UN John Bolton, John Negroponte, John C. Danforth and Zalmay Khalilzad. None of his former ambassadors would speak to us. 

Among the journalists he worked with at the time, his reputation was generally extremely poor. Many reporters hated him and some even refused to work with him. Several correspondents felt that he couldn’t be trusted, and it was claimed that he would often yell at them, particularly if they were not American.

Irwin Arieff, a veteran Reuters reporter who covered the UN for 20 years, told the Huffington Post in 2012 that Grenell was “the most dishonest and deceptive press person I ever worked with.”

“He often lied, even more frequently offered half answers or withheld information that would weaken his case or reflect poorly on his ideological point of view,” he said.

Arieff said Grenell “frequently called my superiors — or got Amb. [John] Bolton — to call my editorial superiors to complain about stories, even if they had no errors and were right on target but simply did not fit in with his and/or Bolton’s political views.”

The reporter went on to say that Grenell “was above all a conservative ideologue, who did all he could to twist the press coverage of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations to conform with his and Amb. Bolton’s political line.” 

Grenell’s reputation for being hostile, aggressive and abrasive with the media continues and includes accusations that he “badgered and harassed” journalists, particularly those who report news that does not align to his point of view. As a result, he predominantly tends to speak with journalists from right-wing, partisan outlets.

The loyalist

Richard Grenell soon popped up in the 2016 presidential race by aligning himself with Donald Trump. 

Trump’s success upended the Republican party, taking it further to the right and sidelining many traditional Republican stalwarts like Mitt Romney at the same time.

Grenell was soon nominated to become the ambassador to Germany, the most important U.S. ally in Europe. He had little previous experience in diplomacy or work in international affairs, save for being spokesperson for UN ambassadors and the failed attempt to be Romney’s spokesperson.

Grenell has made no attempt to defend his inexperience, instead attempting to style himself — in line with the administration he now serves — as an “outsider” who is not part of the Washington DC political elite. But critics, including former Ambassador to Kosovo Greg Delawie, have said that partisan political appointees such as Grenell “damage U.S. interests rather than promote them.”

With little relevant experience to draw upon, Grenell instead made a name for himself on Twitter.

It’s not the last time Grenell would get a job within the Trump administration for which he appeared distinctly underqualified.

When it was announced in February 2020 that he would take on the role of acting director of national intelligence, Susan Rice — who served as national security advisor between 2013 and 2017 after four years as U.S. ambassador to the UN — labelled him a “hack and a shill” and “one of the most nasty, dishonest people I’ve ever encountered.” She went on to say that he had no preparation, no knowledge for the role and the reason he had been chosen was to turn the intelligence community “into a tool for the president’s re-election.”

With little relevant experience to draw upon, Grenell instead made a name for himself on Twitter and as a go-to-pundit on right-wing television station Fox News, where his fierce defense of Trump and the Republican party helped to earn him a place in the administration.

Grenell’s nomination as ambassador would make him the most senior openly gay appointee in the Trump administration. However, confirmation of his appointment was held up by the Democrats because of misogynistic remarks he had made on Twitter about Hilary Clinton and U.S. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, among other prominent women in politics and the media. 

At the time, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said he was concerned that Grenell had a “significant history of making misogynistic and other incendiary statements online” and that he felt an ambassador with a history of misogyny would not represent the United States well in a country led by the most powerful woman in the world.

Because the Republicans control the Senate, Grenell’s appointment was eventually pushed through by a vote of 56 to 42.

Berlin Station

In his opening statement to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, at his confirmation hearing to become Ambassador to Germany, Grenell had said: 

“If confirmed, I will seek to deepen and strengthen the historic relationship between Washington and Berlin. Our two great nations share an unbreakable bond, and I look forward to strengthening these ties while championing the values of diversity, transparency, and fairness.” 

Things didn’t quite turn out like that.

Martin Knobbe is Berlin bureau chief at Der Spiegel — the influential German newsmagazine that has millions of readers worldwide each month — and had previously met Grenell in DC while covering the Romney campaign for Stern magazine. 

Knobbe recalls that when Grenell arrived in Germany in the spring of 2018, he immediately made it clear that his top priority as ambassador would be to take his new hosts to task on the amount they contributed to the NATO budget. “That was quite interesting because I never remembered that any [new] diplomat would have that clear [of an] agenda on his mind,” Knobbe said.

Shortly after reaching Berlin he held a welcoming party, inviting several local journalists and influencers, as well as his partner, Matt Lashey. K2.0 was told by two people who were there that it was not your typical diplomatic lunch. Grenell reportedly made provocative comments to the invited journalists in order to make an impression, attempting to establish himself as a new kind of diplomat determined to shake up the Europeans.

“I think it was the day or the day after he landed that [he] made the tweet about Iran and Germany,” Knobbe said.

“That tweet really characterized how he dealt with German politics here in Germany. Not in a diplomatic way but in a very tough and rough way.”

Martin Knobbe, Der Spiegel

The Trump administration had unilaterally decided to back out of an agreement that the Obama administration had helped negotiate with Iran and that was also signed by the EU. Under the deal, Iran had agreed to reduce its nuclear weapons in return for economic sanctions being pulled. When the Trump administration tore up the agreement, U.S. sanctions were restored, to the chagrin of the EU. 

Grenell tweeted that German companies should no longer trade with Iran because the U.S. had unitarially re-imposed sanctions. 

“I mean, that tweet was the right beginning because it really characterized how he dealt with German politics here in Germany,” Knobbe said. “Not in a diplomatic way but in a very tough and rough way.”

Ambassadors, in general, do not openly comment on internal matters of state for the state they are envoy to, but Grenell lectured the Germans on everything from raising their military’s budget to demanding they not use a Chinese company to install their 5G network, and empowering German and European conservatives.

Former British Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch, who was forced out of his position after Trump publicly insulted him on Twitter, was asked recently if he thought it would have been better to be a “bomb-throwing” diplomat like Grenell.

“I don’t know, honestly, about everyone behaving like Richard Grenell,” he replied. “It would create something of a cacophony in most countries to have ambassadors do that sort of thing.”

Even during Grenell’s own nomination hearing, the former Senator Peter Hoekstra from Michigan — who was being nominated to become Ambassador to the Netherlands at the same time and has had his own issues with mixing politics and diplomacybrought up the need to recognize that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Meaning that when abroad Americans present a united front despite their political differences and do not promote particular political ideologies.

“I mean, the German politicians [were] really irritated and angry about his approach of setting topics and getting into discussions and his … mode [was] always warning, and threatening,” Knobbe said.

This behavior continued to the point that even Americanophiles, centre-right wingers and the German government lost confidence in him. As one senior German journalist told K2.0 in May, “It must be lonely here as he only has friends on the far-right.” 

It’s a point that was echoed increasingly during his tenure, including by Knobbe, who said the American had “just a few friends and was on the very conservative side.”

“Of course he had many meetings, but we know from some politicians that they never met him,” Knobbe said. “[Twitter] was an obvious way to communicate, and so that was disappointing for some of them. And, of course, then he wasn’t here, physically, because he was simply in Washington, all the time. He [wasn’t] interested in us [Germany] anymore.”

He has also been a steadfast promoter of gay rights, including vocally supporting the push to decriminalize homosexuality globally.

Grenell did however make a good friend by all accounts with Jens Spahn, the young, conservative and ambitious German minister of health (whose office did not answer a request by K2.0 to speak with him), and was a keen supporter of Sebastian Kurz, the right-wing Austrian chancellor, calling him a “rock star” and declaring that his purpose was to “empower European conservatives.”

Wading in on Russia, one of the big themes that has repeatedly dogged the Trump administration, Grenell has often claimed that Putin is not to be trusted, and he spoke out against the proposed Nordstrom Russian gas pipeline that would go through the Baltics to Germany assuring Europe’s energy needs.

Grenell claimed Trump was also anti-Putin but then was contradicted by Trump’s own behavior when the president met Putin alone, publicly praised Putin and refused to acknowledge the U.S. intelligence apparatus’ accusation of Russian interference in U.S. elections.

He has also been a steadfast promoter of gay rights, including vocally supporting the push to decriminalize homosexuality globally. Grenell has claimed that Trump was the most pro-gay American president in history, despite the administration’s efforts to roll back LGBTQ+ rights. When asked about the decriminalization campaign, Trump appeared to know nothing about it.

Grenell’s ambassadorship would come to an end after just 23 months in June 2020, when he resigned to move back to the U.S. ahead of the presidential elections. German media outlet Deutsche Welle reported the news by saying he had quickly become “infamous” for his “combative, critical and, at times, non-cooperative diplomatic style.”

The envoy

On October 4, 2019, while still U.S. ambassador to Germany, Grenell was named the special presidential envoy to the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, a newly created position for which he had reportedly lobbied. Two days after Grenell’s appointment, Albin Kurti’s Vetëvendosje won the parliamentary elections in Kosovo but would still need months of negotiations with the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) to create a coalition.

In August, Matthew A. Palmer, a well-known senior Foreign Service diplomat with expertise in the Balkans, had been named the State Department’s special envoy to the Western Balkans.

Palmer said in Senate testimony that the difference between him and Grenell was that his own brief “covered the whole of the Western Balkans.” He also said he welcomed Grenell’s appointment because this assured the Kosovars and the Serbs “that the Americans were serious and throwing resources at the issue.”

However, the appointment was met with raised eyebrows from some U.S. lawmakers at how an ambassador to Germany, with a key role to play in maintaining relations with such a key European and NATO partner, could have time to be taking on an additional brief — let alone one as complex as the Kosovo-Serbia issue.

Most Kosovars first took notice of Grenell’s appointment in January when he announced to much fanfare that an agreement to commence Prishtina-Belgrade air travel had been reached with the outgoing Ramush Haradinaj-led government. Weeks later, he presided over another signing ceremony, this time attended by presidents Thaçi and Vučić, announcing that Kosovo and Serbia had further agreed to enhance their transportation links, with new agreements on developing rail and road links.

Precise details behind the self-proclaimed success story were lacking, and it took a further two months of repeated requests from journalists for the documents to be released publicly by BIRN. 

“One thing is announcing. And the other thing is then delivering.”

Viola von Cramon, European Parliament rapporteur for Kosovo

The so-called agreements were revealed to be provisional “statements of intent” signed by lower-level Kosovar officials, and in the case of the flight agreement the initials “LH” were used for Germany’s largest airline, Lufthansa.

K2.0 contacted Eurowings, the Lufthansa subsidiary that would be implementing the scheme, seeking additional information and was told that the details are yet to be agreed.

We have agreed in principle to operate this connection between Belgrade and Pristina. However, a whole series of commercial, organizational and legal questions are still open, which must be coordinated and clarified in the next steps,” Eurowings replied via email on June 22. 

“This is also the reason why we cannot answer all questions conclusively at this point in time — including concrete plans like schedule, launch date, frequencies etc. Moreover, the Corona pandemic has of course slowed down all activities at present.”

Grenell’s love of the big statement that is not necessarily backed up with substance has often caused frustration for EU officials. 

“This is what I mean, one thing is announcing. And the other thing is then delivering,” Viola von Cramon, the European Parliament’s rapporteur for Kosovo, told K2.0 when asked about Grenell’s and the Trump administration’s approach to the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.

Meanwhile, Grenell continued to practice what can only be described as social media diplomacy and making most announcements and statements via Twitter. 

As the Kurti-led administration took office in early February, he doubled down on pressuring Kosovo to immediately remove the 100% import tariff on products coming from Serbia that had been introduced in November 2018 by Haradinaj’s administration in response to Serbia’s de-recognition campaign against Kosovo. The tariff policy had led to Serbia pulling out of the EU-facilitated dialogue the same month, and there seemed little chance of Serbia returning to any negotiating table with it still in place. 

When Kurti remained steadfast in his election pledge to introduce “reciprocal trade measures” with Serbia, Grenell, along with Donald Trump Jr., threatened to remove U.S. troops from Kosovo in tweets that were widely shared.

The United States also blocked funding from the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. State Department project designed to stimulate economic development projects for developing states. It had already pledged tens of millions of dollars worth of funding to Kosovo and is anticipated to increase this by more than 120 million dollars (more than 101 million euros) in the coming years.

On March 13, the MCC released this statement: “The United States’ position regarding Kosovo’s tariffs against goods from Serbia is clear. Lifting these tariffs will improve Kosovo’s economy and help reduce poverty through economic growth. Until Kosovo’s tariff issue is resolved, MCC will pause implementation of the threshold program and development of the proposed compact program in Kosovo.”

Democratic Senators on the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations questioned in April why the State Department would pause MCC in Kosovo, but as of the time of publication no public response is available.

Grenell strongly denied the accusations, saying that Kurti had simply refused to go along with U.S. policy and therefore should not expect U.S. support.

As the pressure on Kosovo’s new government mounted, it highlighted growing divisions between U.S. and EU foreign policy, with the Europeans praising the “first step” taken by Kurti to gradually begin removing the tariff that “could have a positive effect” and Grenell continuing his war of words by berating the move as a “half measure” and a “serious mistake.”

Amid the growing divisions, much of the political rhetoric within Kosovo became caught up in who was “pro-American” or “anti-American,” with Vetëvendosje particularly targeted for refusing to bow to U.S. pressure.

The issue was ultimately cited by junior coalition party LDK — which has always emphasized its close adherence to following the U.S.’s lead — as a reason for instigating a vote of no confidence in March that would bring the government down after just 52 days. 

Kurti subsequently held a press conference with a few selected journalists where he claimed Grenell had been conspiring with both Thaçi and Vučić on a much discussed land swap deal and that he had been intimately involved in the veritable “coup” that ended the Vetëvendosje-led government. The special envoy strongly denied the accusations, saying that Kurti had simply refused to go along with U.S. policy and therefore should not expect U.S. support.

Outgoing chair of the Congressional Foreign Relations Committee, Elliot Engel, meanwhile made a damning statement on the Trump administration’s role in the political crisis, stating that “Strong-arming a small democracy is the act of a bully,” and questioning why pressure had unilaterally been applied on the Kosovo side.

Power and influence

The heavy-handed and one-sided pressure applied by Grenell was particularly striking given that Kosovo prides itself on its loyalty to the United States. Grenell sought to use this positivity as a wedge between the U.S. and Europe. 

He wrapped himself in the U.S. flag and played on uncertainty in Kosovo about its lack of membership in international organizations and the stalled dialogue with Serbia as a way to leverage even more power for the current U.S. administration. 

At the same time, he assured Kosovars that he was a far wiser bet than the Europeans who wouldn’t even give them visas, and took advantage of what Michael Polt, former U.S. Ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro and later to Serbia, says was a European tendency not to “lean into the saddle when making decisions.”

As the common saying in diplomatic circles goes: “The U.S. acts and the Europeans pay for it.”

Kosovo’s political leadership was urged to look toward the U.S., as Grenell — with help from Thaçi — tried to sideline the Europeans, a traditionally close ally in the region. 

Since the 1998-99 war, U.S. political force combined with European financial power has helped to push Kosovo along, but the Americans contribute far less in aid to Kosovo than the EU. As the common saying in diplomatic circles goes: “The U.S. acts and the Europeans pay for it.” 

The EU Office in Kosovo told K2.0 that together with bilateral financial support from EU Member States the EU’s financial assistance reached approximately 194 million euros in 2019. This year, additional support has been allocated to support efforts to combat the pandemic, including about 60 million euros to date. 

Meanwhile, according to official data, the U.S. spent 47 million dollars (39 million euros) on foreign assistance for Kosovo in 2019, and to date in 2020 it has spent around 42 million dollars (35 million euros).

The Trump administration had proposed to halve the budget for Kosovo for 2020, with Palmer telling the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that the continual cuts to U.S. budgets to Kosovo and the region were not seen as a problem by local leaders.  

In his testimony, Palmer said that Balkan leaders want “time and attention,” like having a special presidential envoy. His questioner, Senator Chris Murphy, noted that when he had visited the region he had heard complaints about the lack of funding from embassy staff who felt it cut U.S. influence in the region.

Parallel processes

Once the more compliant LDK-led government headed by Hoti was installed in Kosovo at the start of June — after a highly contentious Constitutional Court decision ruled that new elections were not required — and reciprocal trade measures with Serbia had been immediately abandoned, American money began to flow again as the MCC announced its funding programs would resume.

Within two weeks, on June 15, Grenell announced that he would invite both Thaçi and Vučić to the White House at the end of the month to sign a deal focused on economic issues. If the deal was not signed, he said, “both countries will go back to the status quo.” 

The EU, meanwhile, would be left to focus on political issues.

The date picked for the announced White House meeting — June 27 — was the eve of Vidovdan, notorious for being the date when Slobodan Milošević gave his infamous Gazimestan speech.

Ambassador Polt says that attempting to separate economic issues from political issues in negotiations is like fixing the left back wheel of a car and not fixing the steering and transmission. The first thing the dialogue needs to do is achieve “mutual recognition, no territorial changes and finally democratic institutions,” Polt told K2.0.

Curiously, the date picked for the announced White House meeting — June 27 — was the eve of Vidovdan, notorious for being the date when Slobodan Milošević gave his infamous Gazimestan speech in 1989 that forewarned of the bloodshed that was to follow in the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Such errors, indicating a lack of historical knowledge, awareness or even methods of diplomacy, have continually been brought up throughout Grenell’s career. His answer is usually that the system or politics wasn’t working before and it needed a fresh approach like his own.

The announcement of the White House meeting came on the eve of EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajcak’s first official visit to Prishtina as he attempted to re-start the EU-led dialogue that had been on hold for more than 18 months. Lajcak’s spokesperson told K2.0 at the time (June 16) that they would not comment on the activities of others, but that Lajcak intended to present concrete dates for the dialogue’s “swift resumption.” 

“The EU facilitated Dialogue has been a process which has delivered very real concrete results for the people in Kosovo since its beginnings,” they said.

Grenell continued to use his Twitter account as a diplomatic weapon, tweeting to critics, who questioned his lack of coordination with the EU: “We welcome all action, no talk. Why don’t you tweet at the EU and ask them why there has been no visa liberalization for Kosovars.” 

As the date of the scheduled June 27 meeting approached, and few details of what would be on the table were released, speculation continued within the region that a long rumored and controversial potential land swap between Kosovo and Serbia could be part of the deal. Grenell was repeatedly adamant that he had never been involved in any such discussions. 

But broader concerns that the White House deal was all about getting Trump a foreign policy “win” to promote, regardless of its contents, also refused to go away.

“One thing is the photo opportunity and the White House and trying to find opportunities for the election campaign for Mr. Trump,” von Cramon told K2.0 in June, ahead of the scheduled Washington meeting. “I think that’s really sad because the region deserves some more than just a photo opportunity in the White House, and I see that people will be instrumentalized.” 

Then, an event that couldn’t be planned for. On June 24, as Hashim Thaçi was in the air on his way to the U.S. capital, the Kosovo Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague announced that it had filed a number of war crimes charges against him and others, including for the murders of nearly 100 people. The scheduled meeting was quickly postponed. 

‘This deal is not about you’

In early September, Grenell’s Kosovo-Serbia meeting at the White House was finally held.

Trump’s administration hailed it as a “truly historic” economic normalization breakthrough and the culmination of Grenell’s work. It resulted in two separate documents, one signed by Vučić and the other by Thaçi’s replacement in the talks, Hoti. Trump himself signed another piece of paper that accompanied each document.

Speaking to the media in the White House press briefing room after the signing ceremony, Grenell struggled to delineate exactly what had been signed and at one point rounded on reporters, accusing them of not being able to understand the issue. Amongst the self-grandeur, he ranged from characterizing the Kosovo-Serbia war as “a terrible war” to a “perceived conflict.” 

In an interview a few days after the meeting Grenell appeared to mock both countries, suggesting that disagreement over control of the key water resource at Lake Ujmani/Gazivoda in the north of Kosovo was simply a “word war” about what to call it. “Jokingly, one solution I said is: You know what, if you can’t get along on the names, we’re just going to call it ‘Lake Trump,’” he said.

“We’re going to further those three agreements and then add a whole bunch of issues to the discussions that would create commerce, economic development and jobs.”

Senior advisor to the president (September 1, 2020)

The signed documents themselves showed a whole hotchpotch of issues covered, many of which seemingly have little to do with economic normalization, despite insistence from the White House in the build up that discussions had been “solely focused on economic normalization, trying to find a way to move the parties into putting the political issues aside in order to create momentum around economic issues.”

“When we have our discussions, we’re going to further those three [transport infrastructure] agreements and then add a whole bunch of issues to the discussions that would create commerce, that would create economic development and jobs,” a senior advisor to the president had told reporters on September 1.

Instead, the signed documents seemed to have more to do with external interests — from designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization to the restitution of Jewish property. Grenell’s personally championed cause of support for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality was also included.

Analysts quickly pointed out that despite the self-acclaim from Grenell and the rest of the Trump administration, there was little that was particularly new or significant for either country, particularly given the lack of any meaningful detail. 

Their willingness to “try to do something different and creative” resulted in Israel agreeing to recognize Kosovo. But only days after the signing, precisely that point seemed to have scuppered the whole deal after the Serbian government reportedly indicated that it would not move its embassy to Jerusalem — as promised — if Israel went ahead with the commitment. 

In the face of widespread criticism and derision, Grenell has remained in attack.

The EU has also reminded Serbia that moving its embassy to Jerusalem is in violation of EU foreign policy and would block Serbia’s path to EU membership.

In the face of widespread criticism and derision, Grenell has remained in attack. When Albin Kurti tweeted that the texts were “incoherent and opaque” and that any future government of his would not be bound by them, Grenell replied: “One thing is for sure, you can always count on Albin Kurti to be against the United States.”

Grenell’s work is emblematic of what the Trump administration’s foreign policy in the Balkans (and Europe) is right now.

Laura Autton-Wise, a research associate at Edinburgh Law School in the UK who specializes in peacebuilding and peace agreements, says that the optics of peace agreement signing ceremonies are usually about presenting conflict parties as central, equal partners to the commitments they are mutually agreeing to uphold; even the most high profile of mediators are positioned at the back or to the side of such a significant moment. 

But in Washington, everything about the stage for the Kosovo-Serbia agreement was centred on one man only: Donald Trump. 

“The lower desks for Vučić and Hoti either side of Trump; also having them sat in front of his desk like school children being chastised; him signing some unknown, undisclosed paper whilst they sign their copies of the agreement; the almost exclusively male line-up,” she said.

“The overall performance sends a message to the people of Kosovo and Serbia that is mirrored by the content of the agreement: ‘This deal is not about you.’”

Grenell continues to promote his “historic” Balkan success story. But long after he moves onto his next adventure, his impact on the region will continue to be felt — and not necessarily for the right reasons.K

Feature image: Astrit Ibrahimi.

Correction (23/09/20): This article was amended after publishing to show that Sebastian Kurz is the chancellor of Austria. In the version originally published, Kurz was incorrectly described as Austria’s president.

  • 24 Sep 2020 - 06:10 | Lorenc Stefa:

    Thank you Mrs Jones for this beautifully written article. I knew the story, but I was missing so many details that I found here. I wonder how can the foreign policy of the Great Usa go so low and back the former criminals as they were the victims, forgetting that if it wasn't for the Usa bombing in Yugoslavia, the serb ethnic cleansing against the Albanians would have creat the new holocaust in Europe. God, the Albanians and history will thank You for that, but ruining all that good job, treating the most proamerican people in the world as a second hand partner it's a big loss not only for the Albanians, but mostly for the Usa, which will continue despite this to be the biggest ally ever of the Albanian people. God bless!

  • 23 Sep 2020 - 18:15 | Flamur:

    What a refreshing article to read! Kudos to the author for the amazing journalism and being able to deliver factual information at this crucial time! Unfortunately, Kosovo is in a very awkward position when it comes this US administration and it needs their support, even if this support is just “symbolic” and this is regrettably due to the EU’s hesitation with regard to the Kosovo/Serbia dialogue, as well as not treating Kosovo as an equal partner. Hopefully time will be kinder to the region and legitimate elections will be held in Kosovo. Finally, once the discriminatory practices of some EU member states, particularly France and the Netherlands end, then progress and unity can start.

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