Kurti in the driver’s seat – of a driverless vehicle

Kosovo’s Prime Minister will retain multiple options no matter how any renewed Western effort to pound out a deal between Pristina and Belgrade turns out.

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By David B. Kanin

With good reason, Serbia appears convinced the US and EU are about to try again to force it to recognize Kosovo’s independence.  President Joe Biden’s open letter to Belgrade jovially asked them to do so and the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs ordered the five EU members that also do not recognize Kosovo to do so – in not such nice terms.  Recent US and European diplomatic contacts with Pristina and Belgrade led media to anticipate yet another attempt to strongarm the two sides into accepting a deal made in Washington and Brussels. 

The basic condition has not changed – no solution is acceptable to the Great Powers except one they can claim credit for.  The whole purpose of the new initiative will be to knock heads together in the Balkans for the sake of demonstrating the renewal of Western solidarity and efficacy now that Donald Trump’s divisive presence has, for the moment, been pushed off the international stage.  “America is back,” says the Biden group, which presumes that US-led or supported global policies and actions before 2017 were intelligently  conceived, competently executed, and effective in their impact.

Regarding the Balkans, and not just the Balkans, that implied assertion is questionable at best.  From Dayton and Erdut through UN Security Council resolution 1244, the unsuccessful US push to replace 1244, Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, and abortive efforts to force constitutional reform on Bosnia, the diplomats and academics in charge of this approach have largely seen their projects falter.  They have relied on slogans and catch-phrases to mask their pattern of scrambling to create ad-hoc reactions to local resistance and counter-punches from Russia and China.  The Western vehicle of diplomacy truly is driverless.

The immediate goal of these people is two-fold —  finally settle a Kosovo imbroglio that feeds their sense of collective and individual frustration and fulfill the new American Administration’s desire to manufacture a triumph in the Balkans to match the impact of Jared Kushner’s Abraham Accords in the Middle East.  The problems they face also are two-fold.  First, newly-minted Prime Minister Albin Kurti is more willing than his predecessors to keep the “dialogue” with Belgrade and his American overseers at arms-length while he calculates his and his country’s interests.  He is in no hurry to resume wrestling with Belgrade and the internationals – and why should he be? During his first period as Prime Minister he backed off earlier mention of a “greater Albania,” but Washington still engineered his government’s fall.  Kurti’s willingness to establish closer connections to other Albanians in the region gives him an alternative way forward if the new Western initiative is no more successful than its predecessors (even given Kurti’s less than cordial relationship with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama).

The policymakers’ second problem stems from the key difference between Trump-era Middle East diplomacy and the apparently emerging Biden-EU push in southeastern Europe. The Abraham Accords overturned decades of US diplomacy even as they discarded the Palestinians as relevant actors.  Forging formal relations between Israel and Gulf Arab states was nothing less than what in Bismarck’s era was called a diplomatic “stroke.”

The West’s demands on Serbia and Kosovo, on the other hand, remain firmly stuck in the rut of thought and action pursued in Washington and European capitals ever since the former Yugoslavia fell apart.  Demanding that Belgrade recognize Kosovo’s independence, coupled perhaps with another effort to bring Milorad Dodik and the Repubika Srpska to heel, would be equivalent to any renewed attempt to force the chimerical two-state solution on Israelis and Palestinians  (of course, before long we may see that too).

Will Belgrade cave in?

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic continues to skillfully balance Western, Russian, and Chinese influence in the Balkans and has plenty of diplomatic and public relations means of absorbing, deflecting, or distracting a repetition of Western demands.  He also will be able to utilize distinctions between US and EU regional priorities that will not go away along with Trump.  Since at least the end of 2006, the Americans have been committed to forcing through universal recognition of Kosovo’s unilateral claim to sovereignty claiming, among other things,  there does not and could not possibly exist any historic or contemporary analogues to this allegedly unique event.  Serbian recognition of Kosovo’s sovereignty would provide a triumph to Washington and give the game to the Kosovars (no matter any goodies Belgrade gets in return – including a promise of expedited consideration for EU membership).

The EU, on the other hand, includes five members that laughed off the assertion of Kosovo’s uniqueness in 2008 and continue to reject American insistence that they stop pointing out that Catalonia, the Turkish Cypriot state, and even Transylvania provide reasonable analogues to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute.  Brussels responded to the failure to establish a unified European and Western stance by seeking to enable the parties to negotiate technical deals and provide an impression  toward the bigger prize.  However, the dialogue established in April 2013 stalled over a proposed Association of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo. This idea’s EU progenitors failed to understand that such a concoction would work in Serbia’s favor by granting something to a Serbian polity inside Kosovo that Kosovo itself would not have – a universally recognized legal and political status.  Fortunately for Kosovar interests, Kurti was quick to recognize this and has constructed his attitude toward EU diplomacy accordingly.

Vucic, Dodik, and their advisors remain able to exploit conceptual and tactical daylight in transatlantic diplomacy as they assess the content and durability of any new round of Western pressure.  Vucic also would be able to attract domestic support for  resistance to Western demands – assuming he chooses again to resist outside pressure – because of the absence of any meaningful political opposition in his country.  There is no domestic pressure in Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s independence, especially given the large degree of public cynicism every time the EU repeats its palaver about Serbia’s “European path” and its demands for reform of Serbian political and legal institutions.   Vucic should be able to use the run-up to elections in 2022 as an excuse to put off responding to any Western diplomatic push. 

Vucic, of course, is not without his own problems.  High-handed political and business deals enriching government or Vucic-connected figures occasionally have sparked serious, leaderless  protests.  Nevertheless, even if some new misconduct by the government or Vucic-connected cronies provokes another round of mass demonstrations between now and the election, it would be difficult for domestic or foreign voices to find a way to graft an effective call for a solution to the Kosovo problem onto whatever local outrage might get people into the streets.

A more serious issue facing Vucic is the fading of his German connection.  Starting about 2015 (using the European migration problem as the lodestar), Vucic was able to build a good personal relationship with Angela Merkel.  While many inside and outside Germany slammed her response to the migration crisis, Vucic expressed sympathy and appeared to help Merkel grapple with a political vulnerability she had not experienced since coming to power.  He may have believed his discussions with the Chancellor created a new understanding of Serbia’s position in Berlin, which perhaps might lead the Germans to help Serbia join the EU without having to recognize Kosovo.

If that was the situation then it certainly is not now.  EU noises regarding membership have continued to be as disingenuous regarding Serbia as other Balkan supplicants.  More importantly, of course, Merkel is about to leave office, and Vucic will lose what probably was his strongest personal connection in the West.

Common ground between Kurti and Dodik?

Meanwhile, Albin Kurti can benefit from whatever comes of any Biden-led diplomatic push.  If a new initiative actually leads Serbia and the EU-5 to recognize Kosovo, then Pristina will have accomplished its major strategic objective and Kurti will be able to take credit for his role in this triumph.   

If not, then he can gently remind the Americans of their serial failure to fulfill promises made loudly between 2006-2008 and less stridently thereafter regarding recognition by the EU-5.  In that case, a new Western diplomatic failure would restore credibility to Kurti’s once-prominent call for unity with Albania.  More recent progress toward an open border between Albania and Kosovo might then reasonably lead to an accelerated move toward a more coherent and influentiual Albanian universe in the southern Balkans.

The one danger for Kurti would be if Vucic and the West agreed that Serbia will concede Kosovar membership in the UN and other international organizations in exchange for not having to recognize Kosovo and a public EU promise of eventual membership even if it does not do so.  This would be a victory for Belgrade and lead to enormous Western pressure on Pristina to throw itself into a trap.  Taiwan was a permanent member of the UN Security Council for decades, a status that did it no good when the power dynamics changed. A seat in the General Assembly would not protect a Kosovo unrecognized by Serbia from an eventual effort by Belgrade to retake its former province once the security context affecting the Balkans changes, as it has so often since 1878.

In any case, if a new/old Western effort to force a status solution on Kosovo and Serbia gets underway, the pressure for success will be much more felt in Washington and Brussels than in Belgrade, Pristina, or other European capitals.  After all, the principals in this dispute are used to the serial failure of previous diplomacy and would not face serious domestic political problems if a new foreign-led initiative loses steam.  

In case things again fall apart for the Westerners both Serbia and Kosovo would be able to dust off the proposals for border adjustments, land swaps, and population exchanges that have been so abhorrent to the US and most in European capitals.  They could even consider something that would pop even more Western blood vessels, grand negotiations including all parties in Bosnia – another congenitally dysfunctional Western political concoction – designed to find a new,  non-EU  path to regional stability.  This would not necessarily lead to new states or formal border changes but could build on Vucic’s mini-Schengen idea.  The latter attracted wider support in Balkan capitals than any Western  initiative after 1999.  Unless a new Western diplomatic push succeeds where its predecessors have failed, the West would have little ground to criticize whatever Kurti, Vucic, and other regional leaders come up with.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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