Signatures for the status quo: no big breakthrough in DC

While the agreements signed in Washington DC on Friday were hailed as “historic”, it is clear that the main winner is the Trump administration, with the pledges made providing little hope for change in relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

A two year process of US-led talks between Kosovo and Serbia under the auspices of Special Envoy Richard Grenell finally reached a conclusion on Friday with a signing ceremony at the White House.

The pair of agreements that were eventually signed are far from what was advertised, at least by Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti who has been repeatedly trumpeting the prospect of recognition by Serbia, despite the fact that this was never a likely outcome. 

On a positive note, the focus on “economic normalization” means that Kosovo’s territorial integrity has remained mostly intact. However, most of the points that Kosovo have signed up to may turn out to be equally harmful, or become stuck in the implementation process – following the same path as the 33 agreements signed as part of the Brussels Dialogue.

Close analysis of the agreements reveals that the biggest benefactor in the process is clearly the Trump administration, with many points relating to particular US foreign policy goals pursued by both Trump and Grenell. What the agreements do not reflect is any kind of genuine attempt to resolve the long lasting and intensely sensitive issues between Kosovo and Serbia.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the agreements contain direct links to Trump’s agenda in the Middle East, best demonstrated by the unexpected promise of mutual recognition between Kosovo and Israel. 

In announcing the deal, Trump declared it a “great day for peace in the Middle East,” adding that “Muslim-majority Kosovo and Israel have agreed to normalize ties and establish diplomatic relations. Well-done! More Islamic and Arab nations will follow soon.”

Both Kosovo and Serbia also pledged to establish embassies in Jerusalem, thereby following the US’s controversial example, which most Arab and European governments have described as an unnecessarily incendiary move.

Through the deal, Trump has somehow managed to strategically link the US’s actions in the Middle East with the Kosovo-Serbia issue, and will use the signing to further sell himself as a shrewd foreign policy operator, as well as a defender of Israel to the US electorate in the upcoming election campaign.

Meanwhile, the prohibition of 5G supply from untrusted vendors, an aspect of the deal often seen as irrelevant by many, directly targets and blocks the Chinese investments in Serbia. It is likely to prevent Huawei from further penetrating the Serbian market – a long lasting economic battle between the US and China which has been replicated in other states. 

Two other aspects of the agreements are personal crusades of Richard Grenell but have little relevance to Kosovo: working on the decriminalisation of homosexuality across the world and the designation of the Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. In this regard, Kosovo’s diplomatic sway is unlikely to provide results in encouraging the decriminalisation of homsexuality globally, while Hezbollah was already listed as a terrorist group in Kosovo.

Hoti’s big win from the deal is the potential of recognition by Israel, which could be used to leverage recognitions from other non-recognising states with concerns over ‘breakaway provinces,’ including EU members Spain and Romania.

However, recognition by Israel may also detract from Kosovo’s case with other states and has been achieved in exchange for giving up ambitions for membership in international cooperation mechanisms for one year. 

This essentially pauses much of Kosovo’s diplomatic efforts to establish itself on the international stage and further consolidates the existing status-quo, which will have a further detrimental impact.

Regarding technical aspects, the agreement includes a number of points that already exist in the framework of the Brussels Dialogue – such as the recognition of diplomas which were part of the technical dialogue back in 2012.

While there have reportedly been promises of funds from US development corporations to finance the large infrastructure projects, little was backed up by anything signed in Washington DC. The only thing carrying Trump’s signature was a letter to Avdullah Hoti stating that the negotiations were a “historic breakthrough” and applauding Kosovo’s decision to normalise relations with Israel.

Kosovo must be wary of promises made by what is clearly an atypical US administration. Grenell has already taken to Twitter to dismiss assertions that the US will provide a grant to build a gas pipeline in the Balkans and announce visa-free travel to the US for Kosovo citizens with a now trademark “not true.”

Then there are issues which will divide Kosovo internally, particularly the possibility of co-management of the water resources at Lake Ujman, disputes over which are reported to have divided the Kosovo delegation in Washington. 

While a feasibility study has been agreed to, the political side of this agreement will need to be dealt with later on down the line, potentially handing another hot potato to Brussels.

The White House agreements may provide a new direction and dynamic to the process of normalising relations between Kosovo and Serbia, but this does not necessarily mean success. The Brussels Agreement was considered a historic milestone, but the lack of implementation has been a diplomatic debacle for the EU and both signatory parties. 

The same fate is likely to follow these agreements, which were signed separately and may even avoid the ratification process required for international agreements by the Kosovo constitution. This may be a blessing, with Vetevendosje already railing against the deal.

The EU will now readopt its role of facilitating discussions with a meeting between Hoti and Vucic scheduled for Monday. It will be seen how genuine the two parties are in its implementation of what has been agreed to in Washington. Hoti’s attempts to sell entry into the “mini-Schengen” project, which his party openly opposed in the past, may be particularly difficult.

A quote often misattributed to Einstein is that ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’, a definition often apt for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. 

It is hard to imagine that attempts at implementing the agreements made in Washington will differ greatly from the agreements made in Brussels, especially with some being the same agreements. 

The process will continue on a path of accusation and counter-accusation, and the dialogue will continue to be a failure for as long as it is led by illegitimate and autocratic administrations, with no genuine intentions to normalise relations.

The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.


05 September 2020 - 16:57

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