On 4 September 2020, President Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia and Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti of Kosovo met in the Oval Office to sign what was hailed by President Donald Trump as a “historic” deal.
The meeting, which was postponed twice –– once due to the President Hashim Thaçi of Kosovo being indicted by the Hague on war crimes charges, was hyperbolically lauded by the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue team, especially Ambassador Richard Grenell.
However, the enthusiasm expressed by the special envoy to the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, severely contrasted with the outcomes of this agreement.
A potpourri agreement
The meeting and signature, which lasted approximately 15 minutes, saw both Vučić and Hoti sitting in a setting that reminded many of a classroom and was largely mocked online. The scenery was even ridiculed by one of the Russian MFA’s top officials.
While President Trump copiously complimented both President Vučić and Prime Minister Hoti for agreeing to sign this paper on economic normalization, it seemed that he cared little for the advancement of Serbia-Kosovo relations, focusing instead on the benefits of this deal to secure peace in the Middle East.
The agreement confirmed the intent of both parties to pursue ongoing economic and infrastructural endeavors, such as the construction of highways, or furthering the development of commercial flights between Pristina and Belgrade.
However, several articles included in the agreement raised eyebrows. While the original meeting scheduled for June was rumored to include a discussion on the extremely sensitive topic of land swaps, the 4 September agreement included motions to support the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide, and the designation Hezbollah as a terrorist entity.
More notably, the potpourri agreement included a motion that imbricated two ongoing conflicts: Kosovo, which committed to recognizing Israel, reciprocally obtaining recognition, and Serbia, which agreed to move its embassy to Jerusalem by next July.
The winners and losers of the White House meeting
Both Serbia and Kosovo appear to be the main losers of this meeting. It shows that in spite of the Serbia – Kosovo issue benefiting from the attention of two U.S. special envoys (the State Department’s Matthew Palmer and the Administration’s Richard Grenell), the goal of President Trump seemed to get the two Balkan leaders to sign whatever it was, as long as it meant gathering them in the Oval Office, while lauding his own efforts to establish peace.
Vučić’s signature on this agreement means that Belgrade commits to slow down the growing presence of Chinese-made technology in Serbia, pledges to move its embassy to Jerusalem and halt the derecognition campaign of Kosovo, among other things.
It remains unsure what the Serbs gained from this deal other than souvenirs, like the pen gifted by President Trump to President Vučić, proudly showed to Serbian cameras at the meeting. In fact, with one signature on a non-binding paper, Serbia managed to 1. frustrate Chinese business plans of using Serbia to further tests for their latest Huawei-powered technology, going against the accelerating rapprochement between the two countries but also 2. anger Brussels by committing to move their embassy to Jerusalem, going against EU policy and finally 3. lose an ally in the race to block Kosovo’s quest to full independence, with Israel recognizing Pristina.
Kosovo, on the other hand, frustrated Turkey by recognizing Israel and accepting to move their embassy to Jerusalem, while being put the spotlight for being the first “Muslim-majority country” to make such a pledge. This qualifier, added to the embassy move, will hinder the Kosovar’s leadership efforts to gain visa liberalization, and is yet another hurdle on its already very difficult road to EU integration.
The EU should seize this window of opportunity
In his quest to earn the Nobel Peace prize, President Trump has managed the impossible task of imbricating two of the world’s most geopolitically sensitive topics: the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Heading back to Europe, the deal already showed its limits with President Vučić declaring, less than a week after the signature, that Serbia would not move its embassy to Jerusalem should Israel recognize Kosovo––in violation of the one year halt to the derecognition campaign included in the agreement.
Hoti and Vučić met again in Brussels three days after their Washington meeting, in presence of HR/VP Josep Borell and Miroslav Lajčák, the EU’s special envoy to the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue. While Richard Grenell argued that the outstanding political problems would be solved by addressing economic issues first, the lack of tangible results proves that the American strategy was in fact short-sighted and inefficient. On the other hand, the commitment by Lajčák to bring up and discuss the extensive political issues affecting Serbia and Kosovo shows that the EU wants to play a stronger role as a mediator.
The State of the Union address by the President of the European Commission Ursula Von Der Leyen and the recent paper by France’s Secretary for European Affairs Clément Beaune are signs showing that the Balkans will be at the forefront of the EU’s geopolitical strategy.
Milan Seghier Is a specialist of the Balkans. He has held various positions in think tanks in the United States and Serbia. He worked for the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development in Belgrade, Serbia, as well as at the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative in Washington, D.C. He served in the French Army, and held the rank of second lieutenant while completing his degree at the Military Academy of Saint-Cyr. He now serves in the French National Guard. He holds an MA in international security from SciencesPo Paris, an MSci in war studies from the Military Academy of Saint-Cyr, and a BA in political science from SciencesPo Paris’ Euro-American college. He has also spent one year in Washington at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.