War and peace: Trump’s Balkans initiative

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Photo: Caleb Fisher/ Unsplash

Planned White House talks later this month between the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia leave the European Union (EU) playing catch-up as chief peacemaker in its own Balkans backyard.

So what’s behind the Trump administration’s sudden interest in a divided corner of Europe, where there’s still no resolution to a long-standing dispute that led to US military intervention in the region?

There are two ways of looking at America’s new Balkans initiative.

One, Donald Trump wants to appear statesmanlike before the 3 November US presidential election having failed to secure any worthwhile foreign policy successes in his summit diplomacy with North Korea and maximum-pressure tactics on Iran.

Chinese and Russian influence in the Balkans

Two, US re-engagement with the western Balkans would go some way towards pushing back China and Russia’s competing attempts to expand their influence in the region.

The second is the more heartening perspective. It suggests that even an ‘America First’ president wants to further the interests of the western bloc of nations and advance Euro-Atlantic integration of the Balkan region.

But how likely is it that Trump, a unilateralist and mostly unreliable ally, is in the mood to offer an emollient, healing touch? Having spent all his term as president railing at Europe and hailing Russia, why would Trump be keen to annoy Moscow with a Belgrade-Pristina deal now?

Russia will be wary of any deal, even a hasty one by an American president with an eye on domestic political advantage. President Vladimir Putin has already reminded his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vučić that any agreement should be approved by the UN Security Council.

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Moscow meeting

It’s noteworthy that Vučić, who has made nice with both Russia and the EU in recent times, will travel to Moscow before he heads to Washington for the 27 June meeting.

Vučić has also cannily expressed his determination to ensure Serbia remains “unhurt…in the battle of elephants”. He said, “We’re not going to fight with Germany or America.”

The reference to Germany, of course, merely reinforces suspicions that Serbia’s president knows full well he is playing along with the US president’s search for relevance and stature in an area dominated so far by German chancellor Angela Merkel. There will be compensation in kind — up to $200 million in US loans on preferential terms.

As for Germany, it has led EU opposition to a land swap between Serbia and Kosovo.

Ethnic cleansing

After Yugoslavia’s 1991 break-up, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched a bombing campaign against Serbia to stop what Nato described as ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s mostly Muslim Albanians.

A Trump-brokered agreement on a contentious partition would normalise ethnic divisions across two countries that aspire to join the European bloc. Europe also fears any land swap could become a destabilising template for the region.

So what might reasonably be expected from the upcoming Serbia-Kosovo talks?

According to Trump’s Balkan envoy Richard Grenell, the US administration’s priority is regional economic development rather than immediate political resolution of all issues.

But many cast doubts on Grenell’s motivations in pushing the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue at all. He came into the Balkans job eight months ago following a fractious spell as US ambassador in Berlin. Sidelining the EU — and Merkel — would be a continuation of the combative stance Grenell adopted during his tenure in Berlin.

Photo opportunity

For Grenell’s boss, the talks also hold promise but nothing one might recognise in traditional diplomatic terms. A photo opportunity would come in handy for Trump’s re-election campaign. There’s a chance that with Trump looking on, the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo sign “a historic accord”, something the US president’s predecessors failed to manage.

Finally, there would be the pleasure of cutting out both the EU and Merkel. The day Grenell announced the Balkan peace talks, Trump labelled Germany “delinquent” in its defence spending.

But a rushed Balkan deal with Trump’s blessing may ultimately mean little. Ian Bancroft, a diplomat and writer based in the former Yugoslavia for more than a decade, is doubtful it will be a comprehensive, workable agreement or foster regional stability.

The catch lies in the key question — will Serbia finally recognise Kosovo’s independence as a result of the Washington talks?

No-one is betting on it.

Originally published at https://www.thefocus.news on June 18, 2020.

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