U.S. President Joe Biden, while burdened with pressing domestic issues, has weighed in on the long-running dispute between Serbia and Kosovo with letters urging the two countries’ leaders to normalize relations based on “mutual recognition.”
The letters represent a shift from the policy of former President Donald Trump, whose administration had tried to set aside the nettlesome issue of recognition while urging economic cooperation as a way of building confidence between Serbia and its breakaway province.
The issue, while obscure for many Americans, has special resonance for Biden, whose late son Beau once served as a legal adviser in Kosovo. In his former capacity as vice president, Biden visited Kosovo in 2016 and attended the naming ceremony of the Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III Highway.
But analysts say that by taking on one of the last unresolved disputes in Europe’s backyard, Biden is also signaling that his administration intends to be more involved in matters of concern to America’s European allies.
“You have in the new American president somebody who will be engaged in European security, and in particular in the Balkans in a way that President Trump was not,” says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“I think that's generally good news and I think you'll also see him work more closely with the European Union.”
Frank Wisner, a retired U.S. ambassador who served as the U.S. special envoy to U.N.-backed talks that led to Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence, says Biden’s position is rooted in the idea that Europe will be whole and free and that “the issues that divide Europe internally will be settled.”
“You can be certain that the United States will argue … that the differences of the past be overcome on the basis of mutual respect, mutual understanding, of respect for one another's sovereignty, territorial integrity,” he told VOA Albanian.
He said America’s goal is “that Kosovo and Serbia will come to terms and that Serbia will recognize Kosovo's independence.”
‘An Opportunity for Kosovo and Serbia'
That goal, however, still seems far off.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic responded to Biden’s letter by saying there has been no change in Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo, a former Serbian province that broke away in a bitter 1998-99 war.
And Albin Kurti, leader of Kosovo’s left-wing Vetëvendosje (Self-Determination) party which handily won a parliamentary election on Feb. 14, has said negotiations with Serbia will not be a priority for his government.
“Kosovo’s citizens have elected us to bring justice and jobs and of course the urgency of handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on all polls, Kosovo citizens rank negotiations with Serbia as sixth or seventh in order of importance,” he said in an interview.
Nevertheless, Kupchan expects the United States and European Union to bring pressure on both sides to resume negotiations.
“Both Kurti and Vucic should be prepared for the U.S. and its European partners to say, ‘Hey guys, it's time to get back and get some progress on the political relationship,’” he said.
Wisner also said Kosovo should seize the opportunity to re-engage.
“I know the relationship between Kosovo and the United States, between Pristina and Washington will be stronger if Kosovo is engaged and energetic and binding up the internal questions dealing with corruption and economic development.”
At the same time, he said, Kosovo should be “moving where opportunities exist to create a safer international and regional environment.”
In September, the United States brokered an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo to normalize economic relations. The Trump administration had hailed the approach as “flipping the script” by using economic ties to improve the chances for an eventual political deal.
Kupchan said future dialogue should build on that important progress, but that economic agreements by themselves usually “don’t do the trick.”
“They are not enough to create a strong political relationship. So there's still a lot of hard work to do. And I think that's why the Biden administration reached out early. To say to the leaders of both countries ‘Hey, let's make sure that we that we keep moving forward.’”
At the heart of the dispute is Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo's independence, which it declared unilaterally in 2008. Most Western nations – including the United States - have recognized Kosovo; Russia and China have not.
Wisner says it is in Serbia’s best interest to recognize Kosovo so that it opens the path for European integration.
“I believe Belgrade and the political leadership in Serbia understands full well what the United States and Europe expect Belgrade to do if it is going to have a fully developed and strong partnership with Europe and with the United States.”
Kupchan says the U.S. and European approach will be “a combination of carrots and sticks.”
“I think that the allure of being pulled into the European Union is about as powerful a carrot there is; it's a big deal. And I think when Serbia thinks about its future, its future is brightest if it is a member of the European Union. The same goes for Kosovo,” he said.
“We know where this story will end, and that is that the Balkan Peninsula over time will become part of the Euro-Atlantic space.”
Balancing US global role with challenges at home
For Washington, the Balkans dispute represents a chance to show its commitment to mending ties and rebuilding trust that languished during the Trump administration. The analysts also see it as an example of Biden’s desire to stand up for human rights and political freedom around the world.
But, Kupchan said, “Mr. Biden understands that the top priorities of his presidency, at least for now, are at home. In many respects, strength at home is the foundation for strength abroad. We need to get right the domestic agenda to make sure that we have a steady purposeful foreign policy in the Balkans and beyond.”