Washington fiddles in the Balkans while COVID flames engulf the world

By: James W. Pardew

What possible American interest is served by the Trump administration’s ongoing diplomacy that is destabilizing Kosovo, a small and vulnerable pro-American Balkan country, during a global health pandemic? And why would the Trump team do so when the U.S. stopped Serbia — by force — from committing genocide in Kosovo in 1999?

This is especially puzzling since the U.S. was the major player in gaining independence for Kosovo and since Kosovo has been the most pro-American country in Europe after independence. And yet, ongoing American diplomacy today favors Serbia, Russia’s closest ally in the region.

Trump’s envoy, Richard Grenell, has been bullying Kosovo into accepting Serbian demands as part of a “negotiation” to normalize relations between the two countries.

Grenell leads the current U.S. diplomatic effort in Kosovo; he also holds the posts of U.S. Ambassador to Germany and acting Director of National Intelligence. This is an absurd range of duties for someone with limited diplomatic experience and none in intelligence.

Grenell was reportedly a disaster as ambassador to Germany, if the standard is a cooperative relationship with arguably America’s most important democratic ally in Europe. German officials can’t wait for Grenell to move on.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N Susan Rice called Grenell “one of the most nasty, dishonest people I’ve ever encountered.”

Serbia today is led by President Aleksandar Vucic, a Serbian nationalist who is using ethnic hatred as a political tool to gain local political support — just as Slobodan Milosevic did in the 1990s. Today, Serbian leaders in Belgrade continue to foster division and hostility in both Bosnia and Kosovo. Vladimir Putin is happy to assist Belgrade in anything that undermines the unity of Western Europe and the United States.

What Trump and Grenell are doing now in Kosovo breaks with successful American policy in the region in fundamental ways.

One U.S. principle that brought peace to the region by 2008 was the concept that borders were fixed and that political solutions must be found within the borders of the nations affected. The Ohrid Agreement that prevented war in Macedonia states clearly that “There are no territorial solutions to ethnic issues.” Rights, not territory, are the solution to these problems.

The U.S. leadership of a strong coalition of international partners used intense diplomacy and military force to end Serbian genocide in Bosnia, stop another brutal humanitarian disaster in Kosovo and prevent a civil war in Macedonia from 1995 to 2008 as the former Yugoslavia broke apart. The American-led effort in the former Yugoslavia was a major foreign policy success for the U.S. in the early post-Soviet period.

Today, Kosovo is a sovereign democratic country, recognized by 97 nations. But Serbia has used its influence to block Kosovo’s membership in the United Nations and other international institutions. In reaction, Kosovo placed a 100 percent tariff on Serbian goods entering the country. Grenell has been pushing Kosovo to eliminate the tariffs to get stalled negotiations moving.

Since international sanctions and tariffs are the favored policy of the Trump administration, Trump’s opposition to Kosovo’s legitimate import tariffs as international leverage is beyond ironic.

To pressure Pristina to lift the embargo, the U.S. suspended desperately needed aid to Kosovo. Some officials in Washington even raised the possibility of removing the small contingent of U.S. troops in Kosovo that have been essential to Balkan security since 1999. This was a major factor causing the Kosovo government of Prime Minister Albin Kurti to fall as the COVID-19 virus spread through the region. Kosovo is now ruled by a weak caretaker government.

Grenell seems to prefer the attitude of long-time Kosovo politician and current President Hashim Thaci, who has favored a deal with Belgrade, even one that included a land swap between Kosovo and Belgrade.

I advised Thaci in a personal conversation in Washington over a year ago that the land-swap deal was a Serbian trick that would go nowhere, and that he could not trust the Trump administration in any negotiation with Belgrade. He has ignored the advice.

Many questions surround the Grenell mission to Kosovo. Why would someone with such limited experience and with such an important national portfolio engage in negotiations between two weak Balkan adversaries? Why is Grenell taking a pro-Serbian position in the talks? Why is the U.S. destabilizing a pro-American country at such a vulnerable time?

Something about this does not smell right.

As a committed, combative Trump enthusiast, Grenell may just be desperate to please the boss.

But I suspect that there is something more troubling afoot, especially since I remain deeply suspicious about Trump’s relationship to Vladimir Putin. I suspect — without proof — that Putin presented his pro-Serb views to Trump, emphasized that Albanians are Muslims and then asked Trump for help in the negotiations.

As with other ill-conceived appointments, Trump made his loyal servant, the aggressive and antagonistic Grenell, the point man on Kosovo. This would be an easy gift to Putin who delights in causing trouble — of any kind — in Europe.

Having Trump-inspired diplomacy engaged in the former Yugoslavia is like letting a two-year-old play with a lighted candle in a haystack.

The Grenell mission in Kosovo risks instability in the Balkans and serves no U.S. national interest. The current U.S. policy on Kosovo is diplomatic incompetence at a minimum, quite possibly malfeasance.

As COVID-19 rages through the United States and Europe, Grenell should not be bumbling about in the Balkans where he lacks the knowledge, experience and diplomatic capacity to improve the situation.

Instead, the U.S. should be promoting a stable Kosovo government to handle the looming health crisis. The Kosovo-Serbia relationship is a long-term problem that deserves serious, professional diplomatic attention, not a half-baked one-sided policy that plays into Serbian and Russian interests.