The last couple of weeks brought momentous news from the Balkans. The Serb politician who began his career as chief propagandist to Yugoslavia’s authoritarian leader throughout the Balkan wars enjoyed a big election victory. The Kosovo politician who served as one of the top insurgent commanders who helped win that nation’s independence was indicted for war crimes. The Trump administration’s effort to bring them together to resolve their nations’ differences collapsed.
At the president’s behest, his jack‐of‐all‐trades aide Richard Grenell had hoped to clinch a stunning peace deal by inviting Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar President Hashim Thaci to meet at the White House last Saturday. But Grenell was embarrassed and frustrated. In contrast, the Europeans could barely suppress their glee after Grenell left them on the sidelines.
Kosovo is one of many international issues dominated by ethnically based interest groups. In 1998 and 1999 Albanian‐Americans organized to push Washington to support the burgeoning insurgency in Kosovo, an autonomous territory within Serbia. The U.S. had no reason to get involved, since the bloody consequences were limited though tragic and had no meaningful security consequences for America.
Even the moral equities were complex. Kosovo’s history recorded abuse by both ethnic groups, since Albanians predominated locally and Serbs nationally. In the late 1990s, the Yugoslav military was playing rough, but insurgencies rarely are pleasant affairs. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) killed ethnic Serbs and Albanians with equal enthusiasm, especially the latter when accused of collaboration. U.S. envoy Robert Gelbard observed that the KLA was “without any questions, a terrorist group.”
The lack of security relevance, however, made the Balkans of interest to the Clinton administration, going back to the initial violent breakup of Yugoslavia, which was far more complicated than the morality play often assumed, with brutality, murder, and mayhem all around. It seemed the less strategically important, the greater the administration’s desire to act. Led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who had expressed her belief that there was no reason for America to possess such a “superb military” unless it was used, and used promiscuously, Washington’s determined social engineers decamped for the French town of Rambouillet. There they tried to force the fast‐diminishing country of Yugoslavia, which already had lost Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia, to accept NATO administration of Kosovo and effective occupation of the rest of the country, with freedom of movement and from prosecution guaranteed for allied personnel. When Belgrade refused, off to war went the Clintonistas.
The first consequence was to trigger a Serb plan to drive hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes. It was a terrible crime, yet it was actually a response to NATO’s unprovoked attack on Yugoslavia. Belgrade badly miscalculated: other atrocity stories generated by the KLA and circulated by NATO were quickly disproved. But the mass ethnic cleansing retrospectively seemed to justify the very intervention that sparked the crime.
Even then the Clinton administration was unwilling to risk public displeasure by introducing ground troops, so it just bombed and bombed and bombed — for 78 days — until Belgrade finally agreed to the occupation of Kosovo, though not the rest of the country. American commander Wesley Clarke was barely prevented from starting World War III by his British deputy, who refused to block Russian forces racing to Kosovo to secure a place in the occupation.
Events only went downhill from there. Ethnic Albanians kicked out a quarter of a million ethnic Serbs, Roma, and other ethnic and religious minorities. The Kosovo government gained a reputation for corruption, criminality, and violence. The U.S. and Europe promoted faux negotiations, with the outcome preset as Kosovo’s independence. Pristina eventually dropped all pretense and claimed nationhood, but Serbia, Russia, several members of the European Union, and others refused to recognize the new state, which remains barred from both the United Nations and EU.
Kosovo’s politics has been dominated by former leaders of the KLA. Hashim Thaci, whose KLA nom de guerre was “the Snake,” became the first prime minister of the new nation in 2008. As coalitions changed he later held positions as foreign minister and deputy premier. In 2016, he was elected Kosovo’s president. Many KLA fighters, including Thaci, were accused of criminal behavior during the war. Nevertheless, the U.S. and Europe, though not Serbia, largely ignored the charges, working with those who dominated Pristina’s politics.
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who oversaw the campaign against the KLA, was subsequently defeated for reelection and then extradited to the Hague for trial for crimes against humanity (he died of a heart attack during the proceedings). Serbian politics remained on the nationalist side, as successive governments rejected Kosovo’s independence and remained close to Russia. Nevertheless, hope for economic gain and eventual entry into the European Union led to intermittent negotiations and occasional agreements as well as unsurprising spats with Kosovo.
The dominant political figure in Serbia today is the surprising Vucic. He served as Minister of Information under Milosevic, went into opposition as a hardline nationalist after the latter’s ouster, but in 2008 shifted parties and ideologies, becoming a moderate, populist conservative, pro‐EU and economic reform. He entered government in 2012 as minister of defense and deputy prime minister. Two years later, he was premier. In 2017, he was elected president.
He has come under sharp criticism for trending close to the authoritarian line, especially with press restrictions. He has remained close to Moscow and recently embraced China for its coronavirus aid. Yet he proclaimed his commitment to the EU and is widely viewed as an opportunist willing to make any deal that he believes to be politically advantageous.
While Thaci and Vucic came to dominate their respective countries, the EU devoted much time and effort to browbeating Serbia to accept the loss of what was viewed as the cradle of Serbian history. But EU bureaucrats who thought everything could be compromised for money underestimated the power of nationalist passion and cultural identification. Although no Serb could seriously imagine a return of Kosovo to Serbian rule, resistance to abandoning the claim, as well as the thousands of ethnic Serbs who remained in Kosovo but desired to stay with Serbia, remained strong. Vucic insisted that “In reply to a possible offer to recognize Kosovo and that Kosovo enters the UN, and we receive nothing in return, except EU membership, our answer would be ‘no.’ ”
Enter Richard Grenell, the just‐retired ambassador to Germany. Although an atypical and controversial diplomat, President Donald Trump made him special envoy to the Balkans last fall. Grenell cheerfully jumped into Pristina’s unique political snakepit, in April orchestrating the downfall of the prime minister, who refused to end Kosovar trade sanctions against Belgrade. The deposed Albin Kurti called the maneuver “a parliamentary coup d’état” and claimed that “It is the first time now that we have an American envoy, he has the same identical stance with Serbia.”
The Europeans naturally were livid at Grenell’s involvement, even though they had had no meaningful success in resolving the impasse. The typical Brussels Eurocrat is happy to negotiate everything and compromise anything, but not when Serbia was concerned. EU diplomats hosted meetings and encouraged talks, but proved powerless to get Serbs to abandon an emotional if hopeless claim to historic territory.
Yet all was not lost. Thaci and Vucic began talking about possible territorial swaps. Residents of the largely Serb enclave of Mitrovica in Kosovo’s north desired to remain in Serbia. Those living in the largely Albanian Presevo Valley in Serbia’s south would prefer to be in Kosovo. A trade, euphemistically called “border correction,” could satisfy both sides. The State Department shifted position to endorse the idea in 2018.
The idea horrified the European establishment, which decried opening up border changes. Eurocrats who run the EU are the ultimate social engineers and complained since they favor federal, multi‐ethnic states, irrespective of residents’ wishes. Paddy Ashdown, who played dictatorial colonial governor in Bosnia after the 1995 Dayton Accord forced the warring parties to stay together, asserted, “Sustainable peace can only come when we learn to live in multi‐ethnic communities, rather than re‐drawing borders to create mono‐ethnic ones.” That’s beautiful in theory but long experience demonstrates that it is foolish — and sometimes deadly — to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
Also frantic were leaders of nations facing their own separatist movements, such as Spain (think Basques and Catalans). Nevertheless, the American and European governments had opened up the boundary issue when they dismembered Serbia, which required multiple and monumental territorial shifts. Allowing everyone but Serbian ethnic minorities to change their governments reflected obvious bias.
Kurti accused Grenell of favoring the move. The latter claimed not to have talked about the issue, which seemed unlikely if he was serious about forging a compromise. To advance an agreement he had scheduled a meeting at the White House between Thaci and Vucic for Saturday June 27. Grenell said only economic issues would be on the agenda, to build trust. Of course, side discussions could easily occur even if the topic was not formally on the agenda. Moreover, he said broader peace talks were planned for later in the year. To be successful any negotiations would have to reach the fundamental issues of identity and nationhood.
Buoyed by his big election victory a couple weeks ago, Vucic could withstand any popular antagonism toward trading away the Serbian claim to Kosovo. Especially if he gained the return of Mitrovica, which would be an obvious nationalist achievement.
Thaci also looked like someone who could deliver. He was one of the people without whom Kosovo would not be independent. He enjoyed popular support and combat credibility, which could deflect complaints for compromising with Serbia. Having gotten his hands dirty in the past, he probably could help muscle any agreement through parliament.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the White House show. Last week Thaci and nine other Kosovars were indicted by a special prosecutor in the Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was charged with involvement in upwards of 100 murders. (So was a former parliamentary speaker.) Despite Thaci’s vociferous denials, his responsibility would surprise no one. After the announcement he headed back to Kosovo. The new prime minister, Avdullah Hoti, was expected to act as substitute, but he would have been at sea in the negotiations and without the political clout necessary to defend the result. He also decided against attending.
So Grenell canceled the gathering. He hasn’t given up. And he has a potentially powerful selling point: if Trump loses, the Biden administration is likely to start afresh. Moreover, the usual foreign service officers who would reemerge in a Biden administration would be more likely to defer to the EU, as in the past. In which case chances of a deal would diminish.
But the way forward is unclear. Kosovar politics could become chaotic. Thaci is likely to be preoccupied and reluctant to take a potentially controversial position when he needs solid support at home. If he is extradited, Kosovars might focus their ire on outside actors, including Serbia and the EU, and be less willing to consider compromise.
The path for Vucic would seem to be clearer, with the recent renewal of his popular mandate. But the magnitude of his victory — his party won three‐quarters of the seats in parliament — reflects an opposition boycott to protest his anti‐democratic practices. Moreover, it might not be as easy for him to sell a deal with an accused war criminal. The charges are not new but have been officially validated.
Further roiling the waters, Vucic recently added to his sometime tilt toward Moscow a kowtow to Beijing. He might prefer to keep his options open and maintain his leverage, since he has few fans in the EU other than Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Making a deal and fully committing to the EU might not be his best move at the moment.
In fact, Brussels and Washington will be very interested to see in what direction he decides to move. Vucic is no dictator, but as a strongman in a recent democracy with weak civil institutions he has undermined the liberal political order. Which left the group Freedom House to make an almost schizophrenic assessment:
The Republic of Serbia is a parliamentary democracy with competitive multiparty elections, but in recent years the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has steadily eroded political rights and civil liberties, putting pressure on independent media, the political opposition, and civil society organizations. Despite these trends, the country has continued to move toward membership in the European Union.
Concern over possible abuse of his authority for political advantage, though legitimate, isn’t likely to have great effect. Although it is theoretically easier for the EU to punish a non‐member, simply cutting aid and blocking entry, the organization has less reason to prioritize a state which cannot directly influence the organization. And with other Balkan states entering the EU, leaving out Serbia might create even more regional trouble.
Moreover, the Trump administration, at least, cares naught about human rights when friendly states are involved. The EU treats such concerns more seriously but has achieved little in the more important cases of Hungary and Poland. Vucic’s machinations appear modest in comparison: He is no poster boy for tyranny. An organization made up of sovereign governments cannot easily discipline sovereign governments, especially when the perceived abuses are moderate and indirect.
Also at issue is Russian and Chinese influence in Belgrade. Indeed, the International and Security Affairs Centre figured that Serbia’s agreement with EU foreign policy positions has dropped sharply since 2012. Yet several nations, including Greece and Italy, differ sharply with Brussels over important questions such as policy toward Moscow. Even Germany dissents from the U.S. line, which Congress attempted to enforce by sanctioning the Nordstream 2 natural gas pipeline with Russia, raising Berlin’s ire.
Attempting to redirect Belgrade’s perspective won’t be easy — and probably isn’t worth the effort. Moscow’s role is historic: It was the Russian Empire that backed Serbia when Austro‐Hungary issued its famous ultimatum in July 1914. Moscow backed Serbia in the early 1990s when the U.S. and Europe largely ignored attacks on ethnic Serbs during Yugoslavia’s breakup. The allies continued their bias after occupying Kosovo, doing little to stop the ethnic cleansing of the Serb minority.
Since then Russia has defended Serbia and blocked Kosovo from international forums. More recently the Putin government sent COVID-19 aid, including biological war specialists to help disinfect hospitals. To emphasize the continuing bilateral relationship Vucic traveled to Moscow in June to attend the pandemic‐delayed World War II victory parade. After meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Vucic said that any deal would require Russia’s consent.
Indeed, for years successive Serbian governments found a dramatic way to ensure that memories of the West’s perfidy when Serbia was attacked by NATO would not disappear. The Serbian government placed the bombed‐out Ministry of Defense building, which I jogged by years ago when visiting Belgrade, on its list of protected cultural monuments. The reconstruction process began only in 2015, 16 years after it was wrecked, and proposals to either repair or replace the damaged structure remained controversial. The Association of Serbian Architects advocated the ruined building’s preservation as a “monument of suffering and brutality of NATO force.” Even today, after the country’s shift westward, not all Serbs believe President George W. Bush’s claim, made as Kosovo prepared to declare independence, that “the Serbian people can know they have a friend in America.” (At the time demonstrators responded negatively by attacking the U.S. embassy and setting it afire.)
Nevertheless, Belgrade still has far greater economic dealings with the rest of Europe and military relations with NATO than either with Russia. Moreover, Jelena Milic of the Center for Euro‐Atlantic Studies contended that even the growing relationship with the PRC “is less about China and more about counterbalancing Russia, which is force‐feeding Serbia weapons sales and various other forms of military cooperation.”
The attraction to Beijing is more recent but more intense, given the toll taken by COVID-19. The People’s Republic of China backed Yugoslavia during the war and shared in Serbians’ suffering when the U.S. inadvertently bombed the Chinese embassy. The PRC, highly sensitive to separatism and “splittism” of any sort, also opposed Kosovo’s independence. Indeed, argued Milic earlier this year:
The cooperative relationship between Serbia and China in recent years is at least partially an outgrowth of the Kosovo dispute. Belgrade appreciates and seeks to expand relations with virtually all countries that have not recognized Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.
Unsurprisingly, China is Serbia’s most important economic partner from Asia; imports from China lag behind only those from Germany and Italy. The Pupin Bridge over the Danube, financed and built by Beijing, and that nation’s first large infrastructure project in Europe, is informally known as the “Chinese bridge.” Prime Minister Li Keqiang attended the opening ceremony. In 2016, China purchased a failing steel plant, preserving jobs otherwise destined to disappear. The same year the two countries announced a strategic partnership and in 2017 made travel visa free.
This year the PRC provided assistance — a medical team and test kits — to fight the coronavirus. With Europe originally less helpful, Vucic dismissed “European solidarity” as a “nonexistent … fairy tale on paper” while lauding the Chinese as “the only ones who can help us in this difficult situation.” On the Chinese personnel’s arrival in Belgrade, Vucic kissed a Chinese flag and exclaimed, “Thank you very much to my brother, President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people.” Assistance did ultimately come from the EU and other European nations but received far less attention. A military exercise is planned with Chinese forces later this year.
Yet Belgrade is not alone in playing with others. Italy welcomed Chinese investment and workers, which is one reason COVID-19 hit its industrial north so hard, and Chinese medical assistance. Early sentiment trended sharply against the EU, though that may ebb as the health crisis continues to ease and the EU approves relief spending. Moreover, continental hostility toward the PRC has risen, especially after the delivery of defective medical equipment and pressure to toe Beijing’s line.
Nevertheless, Serbia’s economic ties with the continent remain far stronger, and EU membership would link Belgrade more tightly to its neighbors and the rest of Europe. Vucic said he does not plan on choosing among competing powers, explaining that “As far as we are concerned, we are on the European path. We are not giving up on that.” Indeed, last week while expressing his appreciation for “the efforts of Richard Grenell to find economic solutions between us and Pristina,” Vucic emphasized that “we are completely committed to the EU‐led political dialogue.”
The best way to enhance Western influence would be to resolve the Kosovo standoff with a meaningful concession to Serbia. Vucic noted that we “unequivocally get that support for the integrity of Serbia from China and Russia and, on the other hand, we have very good economic cooperation and cooperation in all other areas.” Remove Kosovo and much of the East’s appeal would fade. Argued Milic:
The solution to Kosovo lies in Europe and the United States. Belgrade understands this well. Serbia is not seeking to replace the West as its principal partner and, despite the current rhetoric and public expressions of gratitude, no amount of Chinese aid to fight coronavirus is going to change that.
The Balkans long has spread instability throughout Europe. The Clinton administration should have stayed out of the geopolitical mess created by Yugoslavia’s implosion, insisting that European nations again act like the serious actors they once were and address the problem. The Bush administration should not have pushed to dismantle Serbia while pretending to be Belgrade’s friend. The Obama administration should not have joined with the EU to demand that Serbia surrender what it always defended, its territorial integrity. Yet Brussels and Washington treated Belgrade’s, but not Pristina’s, refusal to surrender as “intransigence.”
But the past will not be undone. The Trump administration deserves credit for making a serious attempt to stabilize at least one small part of the region, given the EU’s continuing failure. Although the latest effort just went bust, the administration shouldn’t give up. It still might succeed where the Obama administration failed dismally.