While Washington obsesses about tensions with Iran and the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, a pair of high-ranking administration officials has been crisscrossing Europe and the Western Balkans in pursuit of a solution to a dispute that most Americans have barely noticed.
The high-level focus on the quarrel between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo has left some analysts struggling to explain how the issue fits into a Trump administration foreign policy driven by crises in North Korea and Iran and defined by the slogan “America First.”
Trump himself has demonstrated a personal interest in the issue, tweeting approvingly on the eve of the impeachment trial’s opening about the establishment of direct flights between the two countries:
Everyone said it couldn’t be done. But for the first time in a generation, there will be direct flights between Serbia and Kosovo. Another win. Thanks to @WHNSC Ambassador Robert O’Brien and Ambassador @RichardGrenell! pic.twitter.com/0qSLryG96B— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 21, 2020
Earlier this week, as U.S. senators argued over the ground rules for the impeachment trial, White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, meeting with the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo.
Following @realdonaldtrump’s successful effort to broker a deal to open up air travel between Serbia and Kosovo, NSA Robert O’Brien had cordial meetings with Presidents Aleksandar Vučić and Hashim Thaçi on the sidelines of #Davos. pic.twitter.com/JHYSUQHNCq— NSC (@WHNSC) January 21, 2020
U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who also serves as White House special envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia talks, has meanwhile been visiting the two countries’ capitals – Belgrade and Pristina – urging officials to resume a dialogue on the normalization of relations and to focus on economic development.
A third official, the State Department’s special envoy to the Western Balkans, Matthew Palmer, has also been deeply involved in the diplomatic effort.
Belgrade has never formally recognized Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, and has campaigned to keep it out of international organizations, including Interpol. Kosovo has retaliated by imposing a 100 percent tariff on all Serbian goods, which it says will not be lifted until Serbia recognizes it as a country.
In his meetings this week, Grenell urged both countries to compromise.
“The tariffs must be dropped. That is unacceptable, and I also bring the same request here, which is the de-recognition campaign must stop," he said in Belgrade, after a meeting Friday with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. “What we'll do is continue moving in this direction of concentrating on the economy, concentrating on growing jobs.”
Neither the White House nor State Department responded to requests for comment on the thinking behind the high-level engagement.
Ripe for resolution
Analysts contacted by VOA see little strategic value for the United States in throwing so much diplomatic muscle at the issue. But they suggest the problem is ripe for a resolution and could provide the administration with an easy foreign policy success.
"So far as I can tell, the administration is beating the bushes for a success somewhere in the world. There is no real strategic interest,” said Daniel Serwer of Johns Hopkins University in an email exchange with VOA’s Albanian service.
Damon Wilson, a vice president at the Atlantic Council, a global affairs research group in Washington, offered VOA’s Serbian service a similar analysis, noting the frustrating lack of progress on some of the administration’s biggest foreign policy concerns, including Iran and North Korea.
“You don’t get easy wins in the Western Balkans, either, and yet in the Western Balkans we are dealing with democratic states that want to be part of the strategic West, that have a shared vision of the future of the region as a prosperous part of Europe,” he said. "This gives us something to work with, and while it might look hard, it actually looks relatively easy when you compare it to Iran, North Korea, Venezuela.”
Wilson added that the issue gives the United States a chance to show that “we are going to be engaged, we are not leaving a vacuum in the Western Balkans, we’ve got a role to play, we want to play that role and we are going to do it.”
James Hooper, a former U.S. diplomat and executive director of the Washington-based Balkan Action Council, said a breakthrough on the issue would allow Trump to show he is not distracted by the impeachment drama and give him an achievement to highlight as he seeks re-election in November.
But Wilson warned against attaching too much significance to the initiative as an election boon, saying, “It’s not exactly a vote-getter out there in Iowa,” where Republicans and Democrats will cast the first votes to select their presidential candidates early next month.
Chance for progress
Regardless of the motive, Hooper sees an opportunity to make real progress on a dispute that has held back progress in both countries.
"This is a real opportunity because Washington is paying attention and Grenell is a serious person and he has a lot of influence in the White House,” he said.
Alon Ben-Meir, a professor at New York University, said both Kosovo and Serbia would be wise to take advantage of that opportunity.
"They are neighbors. They have to deal with one another. There is interdispersement of population. Many Serbs live in Kosovo. It is time for them to recognize certain facts on the ground that they cannot change,” he said.
So far, however, there is little indication they will do so. Serbia immediately rejected Grenell’s proposals while Pristina has yet to deliver a clear response.
"I don't accept to draw an equality mark between the tariffs and the revoking of the campaign against recognition,” said Vucic, the Serbian president. “America and Pristina … want Kosovo's independence recognized. We do not. So it is logical that we have differing positions.”
Ivana Konstantinovic from VOA’s Serbian service contributed to this report.