In a move aimed at kick-starting the stalled Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, the US’ Special Presidential Envoy, Ambassador Richard Grenell, wound up his impromptu visit to Pristina and Belgrade with a simple message from President Donald J. Trump: “The people of Serbia and Kosovo want peace, economic development, jobs, and a better life for their children.”
“After meeting with business leaders, political leaders, and passionate citizens, I am hopeful we can make progress. Both sides will need to work closely and quickly with an eye towards the future,“ said Grenell.
The whirlwind visit comes just days after being appointed by Trump as the White House’ Special Envoy to Kosovo and Serbia. Following the 6 October elections in Kosovo, which saw former KLA commander Ramush Hardinaj’s term in office unexpectedly come to an end after he snubbed the West’s call to unblock the stalled dialogue with Belgrade.
Grenell is the US’ current ambassador to Germany and a close confident of Trump’s. He travelled on to Pristina to meet Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci, the party leaders of the Self-Determination Party following their victories during the 6 October elections, as well as Isa Mustafa, Vjosa Osmani, and Kadri Veseli of the Democratic League of Kosovo, the junior coalition partner of Thaci’s Democratic Party.
In Belgrade, Grenell met Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, and a group of Serbian business representatives led by Chamber of Commerce President Marko Cadez.
“He (Grenell) is focused on working to resolve South Eastern Europe’s last frozen conflict with an eye to unlocking the region’s untapped economic potential. We are looking forward to cooperating with the governments of Serbia and Kosovo to bring high end business investment as we move toward s political settlement,” US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Gabriel Escobar told New Europe.
The very fact that Grenell started both visits by meeting first with the leaders of the business communities is a clear message that this is a new approach to the stalled dialogue, a source close to the talks told New Europe. “We have to understand that we shall flounder in terms of economy and development, that we will have no future if we don’t solve our problems.”
Grenell went on to tweet following his meetings that, “It is the strong belief of the Trump Administration that economic development, job creation for young people and increased commerce opportunities mare a key part of ensuring a durable peace. The goal is to bring our partners in Serbia and Kosovo together for a comprehensive solution to resolve points of conflict in the region.”
Pundits believe that the choice of Grenell, just weeks after veteran State Department diplomat Matthew Palmer was appointed special envoy to the Western Balkans, shows a strong commitment by the Trump to unblock the ongoing political and economic stalemate.
Talks between Belgrade and Pristina stalled in 2018 after the government in Kosovo imposed a 100% tax on Serbian and Bosnian imports – a violation of the Central European Free Trade Agreement. Haradinaj, whose party suffered a resounding defeat in the most recent elections, had repeatedly ignored demands from both Washington and Brussels to cancel the import duties and said he would only consider suspending the tax if Serbia opted to recognise Kosovo as an independent state. Hardinaj had hoped that his hardline stance would help his party win the elections, but the outcome was a tectonic shift in Kosovo’s political culture.
Hardinaj and Thaci’s parties were soundly defeated at the ballot box. Both men were former paramilitary commanders and have rotated in power since 2000. The voters, however, decided to punish both for “systematic corruption, organised crime, a lack of economic development, and the stalled Euro-integration process” observers said.
Both Washington and Brussels now hope that the new government will return to the negotiating table with Belgrade and Western diplomats have said the White House is on a fast track to get a deal done “within months”. This, however, will not be easy as the elections results in Kosovo will not be verified for another three weeks, at the earliest. It will then take some time for the new government to formed, which is most likely to be comprised of Kurti’s Self-Determination and Mustafa’s Democratic League of Kosovo. The two have already agreed on the broad terms needed to set up a coalition government, according to local media reports.
Kurti threw a spanner in the works when he initially dismissed the prospect of any cooperation with the Serbian List, who won all 10 seats in the 120-seat parliament that are allotted to Kosovo’s Serbian population after being backed by Belgrade.
The victory was personally satisfying for Vucic who said that the result of the vote came under “awful conditions of severe pressure including by some members of the international community bent on severing Kosovo Serbs from what they see as malign influence of Belgrade”.
A coalition of Kurti’s leftist party and Mustafa’ conservative Democrats would be able to form a majority government as both received more than 25% of the vote. Kosovo’s constitution stipulates, however, that one minister must come from the Serbian party that won the most Serb votes in Kosovo. Under this scenario, the Serbian List will be given a ministerial position based on the results of 6 October.
Kurti has not been well-liked by most western diplomats in Pristina due to his radical leftist positions and calls for the creation of “Greater Albania” – an irredentist concept that is popular in Kosovo. The concept envisions the establishment of an Albanian state that takes up a large swathe of the Western Balkans, with no regard for the ethno-religious composition of the countries that would be within its borders.
Despite his nationalist leaning, Kurti has he endeared himself to the voters by toning down his rhetoric and promising to “dismantle a state that is enchained by corruption and crime”, but Kurti has worried many observers after already having backpedaled on some promises made in the election campaign including the lifting of the much-hated import regime that was put in place last year. Kurti says he respects the requests made by Kosovo’s Western allies and would be ready, within a week of taking office, to sit down with Belgrade to discuss the matter.
What exactly caused the about turn remains a mystery, but Kurti is now quoted as saying the taxes will stay “until reciprocity with Serbia is reached”. This flies against what many of his voting supporters had demanded when entering the polling stations earlier this month. Observers believe that Kosovo’s voters have explicitly that said they want faster Euro integration and development which will not be possible without a resolution with Belgrade.
Vucic said his government will respect the will of Kosovo’a voters and will “talk and negotiate. We have no problem with that. We want to achieve an agreement in the future.” Vucic noted that it will not be easy task to come to a resolution, but that his government will do everything possible to find a compromise.
Grenell’s truncated timeline is likely to take significantly longer than initially planned due to politicking and election technicalities. A major hurdle towards a fast-track agreement is the fact that Serbian elections are scheduled for early next year. Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party is the overwhelming frontrunner to win and few believe that he will make any deals with Kosovo before the vote.