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Daniel Serwer: ‘Grenell is no friend of Kosovo’

In an interview for BIRN, political analyst Daniel Serwer claimed that a final deal between Kosovo and Serbia was prepared in Washington DC and would include an exchange of territories but no guarantee of UN membership for Kosovo.

Professor at the American John Hopkins University and expert on Balkan affairs Daniel Serwer told BIRN Kosovo’s broadcast program Jeta Ne Kosove on Thursday that Kosovo should avoid signing a deal he says was prepared during President Hashim Thaci’s trip to Washington last month.

A number of pieces decrying the alleged deal have appeared on Serwer’s online platform peacefare.net this month, authored by both Serwer and Shaun Byrnes, the Chief of the U.S. Diplomatic Observer Mission in Kosovo in 1998-99.

Speaking to BIRN Kosovo’s Jeta Xharra, Serwer reiterated the points made on peacefare.net that the deal would involve an exchange of territories, or ‘land swap,’ between the two states but no guarantee of UN membership for Kosovo. 

The Balkans expert also criticised US Special Envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue Richard Grenell, including his insistence to unilaterally and completely remove the 100 per cent import tariff on Serbian goods entering Kosovo.

“Part of my message to president Thaci is that Grenell is no friend of Kosovo,” Serwer said. “He has switched to completely taking the side of Serbia on the question of the tariffs.”

Read the full transcript of the interview below. 

Jeta Xharra: Mr. Serwer, in the last two weeks Mr. Byrnes, as well as yourself, have been publishing very interesting insight on Peacefare. You wrote in a letter to President Thaci that the deal that is prepared – a draft agreement prepared in America – is a bad deal. Can you highlight for us what you know about that deal?

Daniel Serwer: Well, we know mostly from people in Prishtina and in Belgrade. It looks like a land swap deal. It looks like a deal that would not bring UN membership, but would offer more on the Association of Serb Municipalities than the [Kosovo] Constitutional Court has said should be permitted. 

How close they are to agreeing all this I think is in doubt, but Shaun and I thought that there is enough smoke that we should try to put out the fire earlier rather than wait.

Xharra: Now the first question is: Do you know about this deal only from sources in Prishtina and Belgrade or also from sources in DC?

Serwer: Sources and methods are something I’d rather not get into. But I think it’s quite clear even without talking to people that there is a desire in Washington to put extreme pressure on Kosovo to agree to something with Serbia. And Serbia has made it clear that that ‘something’ has to include territory.

Xharra: Do you think that lifting the tariff is absolutely necessary to get there? Is your recommendation that Kosovo should lift the tariff that it has put on Serbian and Bosnian products or not?

Serwer: The question on tariffs for me is a separate one from the question of the final deal with Serbia. In my view, the tariffs were an idea intended to stop the derecognition campaign. That’s what precipitated the tariffs – at least that’s what Prime Minister Haradinaj seemed to have in mind. 

I think that was a worthy purpose for the tariffs, and I think the scheme that Albin put forward – to suspend tariffs in exchange for the suspension of the derecognition campaign – was a pretty good idea. The Americans however, Grenell in particular, has now made it clear that he wants a unilateral end to the tariffs. I think that’s a very bad idea.

Xharra: As a friend of Kosovo, Daniel, do you suggest that Kosovo would do itself good or bad by lifting the tariffs on the basis that Grenell is requesting? 

Serwer: As I understand, that basis is unilateral and without any reciprocal action by Serbia. You may have to do it because of the pressure but I think it’s a very bad deal. 

Xharra: Do you think that if Kosovo lifts the tariff that will open the path to the president signing this bad deal? 

Serwer: I really don’t know if the question on the tariffs is so tightly linked to the signing of the deal. But I find it an incredible proposition that the president would sign a deal with Serbia that is anything like what we’ve been told without the approval of the parliament and the people.

It’s quite clear that the people of Kosovo don’t want a land and people swap with Serbia, and frankly the people of Serbia don’t want it either. I don’t know why anyone would agree to that at this point. 

Xharra: You said something interesting at the beginning – that this bad deal implies that there will be a land swap, that there will be an Association of Serb Municipalities, but no UN membership…

Serwer: That’s our understanding of what the deal has.. 

Xharra: What’s in it for us then? 

Serwer: Well, I said it was a bad deal! UN membership does not depend exclusively on Serbia. Serbia could remove it’s block on UN membership and the Russians would still impose it. 

The Russians don’t want to do a deal with the Americans to get UN membership for Kosovo. I don’t see how that’s solved without Moscow and Washington reaching an agreement, and I don’t think there is such an agreement at this point. 

Xharra: Do you think people who are [against] lifting the tariffs [unconditionally] – like Vetevendosje and Albin Kurti – are anti-American? What would you say as an American to that? If, as an American, you are suggesting that we should not unilaterally lift the tariffs…

Serwer: I don’t think it’s anti-American at all, it might be anti-Trump administration, it might be anti-Grenell. But, the fact of the matter is…

Xharra: Is Grenell America? Are Grenell and Trump America?

Serwer: They are the government of America at the moment, and you have to deal with that fact. But they are not America, and America includes me as well and I think I’m a lot friendlier with Kosovo than Grenell is. 

Part of my message to president Thaci is that Grenell is no friend of Kosovo. He has switched to completely taking the side of Serbia on the question of the tariffs. The original proposition from the Americans on the tariffs was identical to Ramush’s proposition. It was an exchange of an end to the tariffs for an end to the derecognition campaign. That to me was a correct deal.

Xharra: You’ve said something quite harsh: that Grenell is taking the side of Serbia. Why do you think this is happening?

Serwer: It’s always difficult to say precisely why a single person does something, but it’s well known that there are pro-Serb lobbyists very active in the United States at the moment. 

It’s also the case that this is an ethnic nationalist American administration that isn’t going to defend liberal democracy, and has not defended liberal democracy, in the way that the Obama administration or the George W. Bush administration or the Clinton administration defended liberal democracy. 

These are people who when you go to them and say: ‘We just want Serbs to govern Serbs and Albanians to govern Albanians. We don’t see any serious alternative to that.’ – that’s an ethnic nationalist position, it corresponds to their white nationalist sentiments, and they’re open to that. 

Xharra: Shaun Byrnes, who published an op-ed in peacefare the other day, is a longtime diplomat, ever since being in Kosovo in ‘98. You have been a long time friend to Kosovo. This government has followed your line more or less, or the advice that you two have been putting out. But in the end, today we have a motion against this government, which is likely to fall down and whose life clearly is not that long. 

Why do you think we have come to this? How do you get out of this? Do you have any advice? Because this government did what you asked it to do, like being careful about the current US requests…

Serwer: I don’t think that the government did what it did because I asked it to do, it did it because it wanted to do it. 

In parliamentary systems, governments fall, governments have fallen previously in Kosovo. This is part of the game. One thing you have to be very careful about is to keep your coalition together, keep your majority together. For whatever reasons, and I don’t pretend to know them, the LDK seems to be ready to abandon the majority coalition. 

It’s a bit of a puzzle to me. Some people are saying to me, well the KLA coalition will be back, but you know the KLA coalition didn’t include the LDK. The LDK has got to be getting more than a KLA coalition back in power in order to justify what it has done. 

Xharra: How do you comment on the fact that the LDK is bringing this government down largely because of the tariff?

Serwer: Well, I think it’s unfortunate, and I think it’s being done under enormous American pressure – threats to withdraw the American troops, threats to withdraw American assistance. But that should tell you something: this administration is no friend of Kosovo. 

In fact Kosovo is a product of the Clinton administration, as is Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I think you know how president Trump feels about the Clintons, and about Obama, who are strong supporters of Kosovo. 

You’re faced right now with a consequence of your heavy dependence on the United States. Frankly, I have been urging you to diversify your support for a long time now, and a lot of Kosovars told me that they don’t want to do that. Well I think this is a pretty clear illustration of why you should have tried to diversify your diplomatic support. 

Xharra: Do you believe the theory that goes round in Prishtina and international circles that, actually, the US administration would prefer not to have Kurti running the government, and this is a way towards making sure he’s not in the way of a bad deal?

Serwer: I can’t tell you exactly what  the current administration thinks about Albin. In recent times I found him a perfectly reasonable candidate to govern, but he had to keep his coalition together and that seems to have proven something he wasn’t able to do. 

I don’t think this is over. I think you may be headed for new elections, you may be headed for continued political turmoil during a very challenging period. The coronavirus is an enormous challenge and the president clearly wants to use that as a means of gaining stronger control. 

Xharra: Okay, finally… You’re also close, or were close, to our president – you say ‘Dear Hashim’ in your letter asking him not to sign a bad deal. Why do you think he would sign such a bad deal? What’s behind it?

Serwer: There are a lot of theories on this subject, and I don’t entirely know the answers. You know, your president is also an ethnic nationalist, and maybe he only wants to govern Albanians and not bother with governing a Serb population. 

I think there is a good deal of influence coming from Tirana as well. Having spoken with Edi Rama about it, I know he is a strong supporter of the land swap idea. There are others who tell me other stories, even stories about the Specialist Chambers in the Hague and how to protect themselves from them. I don’t know the truth of such rumors…

Xharra: You have received the response from your “dear Hashim” who has said that you are spreading fake news, that this is not such a bad deal apparently…

Serwer: Well he has the opportunity to show that in this entirely opaque process. He has the opportunity to put the deal before the Kosovo people.

Xharra: In your response you ask him to bring the deal to the parliament…     

Serwer: Exactly, that’s where it belongs. I think the leadership on the deal should be with the prime minister. The constitutional court and the parliament have both said that. But at the very least he should bring it into the parliament and show it to the people of Kosovo. 

Xharra: You mean before he signs it or after?

Serwer: Before. Before. Before. Before. Before. I think he has said in the past, as Vucic has said as well, that this requires a referendum. I don’t see any reason why this should be done without hearing from the people of Kosovo. 

Xharra: Mr. Serwer, thank you for the interview. 

Serwer: You’re welcome.       

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