US envoy tries to spark talks between Kosovo and Serbia

Diplomatic push in area where EU and Russia are also fighting for influence.

The US’s new Balkan envoy sought to inject energy into stalled negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo on a trip to Pristina that signals Washington's increased assertiveness in a region where the EU and Russia are also fighting for influence.

Richard Grenell visited Kosovo on Wednesday in his first trip to the Balkans as an envoy tasked with clinching a deal between Pristina and Belgrade, which still does not recognise the independence of its former province.

His visit, which also includes meetings in Serbia on Thursday, signals more involvement by the White House, which named Mr Grenell, a close ally of US President Donald Trump, to the envoy position last week. He is already US ambassador to Germany.

“Active US participation will play a defining role in finding a final solution [to the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia,” Kosovo president Hashim Thaci said following the meeting. He said last week that Mr Grenell’s involvement was “confirmation of the personal commitment of President Trump to achieve a peace agreement between Kosovo and Serbia”.

Washington has ramped up diplomatic efforts for a deal that would culminate in Serbia’s recognition of its former province Kosovo. In August, the state department named career diplomat Matthew Palmer a special envoy for the negotiations. 

The visit was to “test the ground” regarding a possible deal, according to one person present during the meeting between Mr Grenell and Mr Thaci. 

The timing of the diplomatic push is awkward. Mr Grenell visited Pristina days after anti-establishment politician Albin Kurti emerged victorious in elections. His win was due in part to his opposition to how his country was engaging in the EU-brokered negotiations with Belgrade.

Analysts say he would prefer to prioritise his anti-corruption agenda before turning his hand to the so-called dialogue with Serbia. 

Since 2011, Brussels has been facilitating negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina on normalising relations, but the process stalled after Kosovo’s former premier imposed a 100 per cent tariff on goods from Serbia and after opposition over a proposed territory swap deal, which Washington and Brussels cautiously endorsed.

Mr Kurti and his Self-Determination party strongly disapprove of a deal in which Kosovo would lose territory.

The increase in attention from Washington comes as the EU’s foreign policy team is in transition. During his confirmation hearings this week for the post of the bloc’s top diplomat, Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell said he would take his first trip as EU high representative for foreign policy to Pristina.

“The Balkans and the eastern front of Europe, that’s the main priority of our external policy,” he told the European Parliament.

Mr Grenell is coming to “test if the parties are ready and if a deal is possible,” said Naim Rashiti, director of the Pristina-based Balkans Policy Research Group think-tank.

“But there are few signs that Kosovo and Serbia are ready for this intense process and the big compromise the US expects both sides to make.”

Kosovo declared independence in 2008 following a 1999 Nato intervention that forced Serb forces to withdraw from their former province. Kosovo, whose independence remains unrecognised by Russia, China, and five EU member states in addition to Serbia, sees the US as its most important ally and security guarantee.