With the world distracted by the accelerating coronavirus pandemic, the United States last week precipitated the fall of a popular and promising reformist government in perhaps the most pro-American country on earth, Kosovo. The damage to American credibility and moral authority in Kosovo, throughout the Balkans, and with Germany and France has been massive. All this has been driven by President Donald Trump’s special envoy for Kosovo-Serbia negotiations, Richard Grenell, who now wears three hats (serving also as ambassador to Germany and acting director of national intelligence), and it has simultaneously managed to deepen the chasm between the United States and the European Union, particularly with Germany.
The government of Prime Minister Albin Kurti collapsed in a bid to facilitate a highly unpopular deal between President Hashim Thaçi and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vučić, that would force Kosovo to cede territory to Serbia in the hope of Serbian recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Kosovo’s coalition government, formed by Vetëvendosje (VV – “self-determination”) and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), broke down on March 25 after only 51 days in office, in a no-confidence vote called under pressure from Grenell.
The turmoil will have lasting political impact. But to make matters worse, the toppling of a government during the COVID-19 crisis will have unforeseeable consequences for the public health of Kosovo citizens.
The breakup of the coalition began a week earlier, after Thaçi (former leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK) called for a state of emergency over the effects of the coronavirus, which would shift control from the government to the president. Interior Minister Agim Veliu, who hails from the junior coalition partner the LDK, openly sided with Thaçi. Kurti (VV) responded by firing him, prompting the LDK’s walkout from the government and the initiation of a no-confidence motion. But LDK President Isa Mustafa said the real reason for his party’s withdrawal was Kurti’s refusal to accede to Grenell’s demand that Kosovo lift tariffs against Serbia even while receiving nothing in return.
On the day before the no-confidence vote, the “Quint” (a diplomatic formation of the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy) compromised on a joint statement, urging preservation of “the integrity and functionality of Kosovo’s government and institutions at this critical moment and to prioritize the fight against COVID-19 in Kosovo over politics.” A joint note by the German and French foreign ministries similarly urged the LDK to withdraw the motion.
Yet the same evening, unilateral action by the Trump administration shattered Western unity: apparently directed by Grenell, U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Phil Kosnett tweeted his support for the motion.
This was a de facto coup: the LDK had been voted into government on a joint VV-LDK ticket after de facto campaigning as a coalition. Bringing down the government under the current circumstances is fundamentally undemocratic, since the only legitimate way forward – early elections – has been rendered impossible by the need to reduce person-to-person contacts.
An Abrupt Break from Two Decades of U.S. Policy in the Balkans
U.S. government policy professionals had previously attempted – to the extent possible – to maintain continuity with long-standing U.S. policies, protecting strategic and long-term relationships from Trump’s erratic, confrontational, and nationalist style. This could function unless and until there were contrary orders from on high.
But U.S. support in 2018 for a Vučić-Thaçi deal on a “border correction,” “demarcation,” or “land swap” – all meaning partition of Kosovo – signified an abrupt break from two decades of American policy in the Balkans, opening a transatlantic rift unseen in terms of European security since the 1992-95 war in Bosnia.
Vučić proposed – and Thaçi eagerly accepted – the proposed “land swap” in summer 2018 as part of ongoing Kosovo-Serbia negotiations to achieve a final, comprehensive agreement to normalize relations between the two Western Balkan countries. The talks had been led by then-European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini without transparency to member states. But German-led resistance to further – and likely destructive — border changes in the Balkans, including from Chancellor Angela Merkel personally, put the partition effort into suspended animation.
Frictions within Kosovo, and between Kosovo’s government and Serbia, then escalated. Kosovo’s government, led by then-Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, fervently opposed the partition concept and insisted the government, not the presidency, had the authority on such matters. He accused Thaçi of freelancing in his own – and not the national – interest.
Belgrade blocked Kosovo’s membership in Interpol and continued a campaign to get those countries that had recognized Kosovo’s independence to de-recognize it. Haradinaj, supported by all parliamentary parties, in November 2018 imposed 100 percent tariffs on Serbian goods in retaliation.
That move halted the EU-led Kosovo-Serbia negotiations, as Vučić made his return to the negotiating table conditional on the lifting of tariffs. Washington applied strong pressure to Prishtina to lift tariffs and “strike a deal” to finally resolve the Serbia-Kosovo status dispute, to be signed in the White House Rose Garden. In the meantime, in 2019, Kosovo’s Constitutional Court ruled in the government’s favor: negotiations with Serbia fall under the government and prime minister’s purview, not the president’s.
A “Domestic Political Errand” 2.0
Grenell, who while serving as U.S. ambassador to Germany in autumn 2019 convinced Trump to appoint him as presidential envoy for Kosovo-Serbia negotiations, then exploited the departure of Mogherini and the EU’s transition to a newly elected European Commission to seize the initiative from Brussels.
In doing so, Grenell appeared to be running his own “domestic political errand,” to borrow the term used by National Security Council official Fiona Hill in her November 2019 congressional testimony during the impeachment hearings. For months, Grenell pursued unilateral action on Kosovo and Serbia. The first was a letter of intent signed at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin between Serbian government officials, the Ministry of Transport of Kosovo, and Lufthansa to create a commercial air link between Belgrade and Prishtina. Additional letters of intent were signed by Vučić and Thaçi on the margins of the Munich Security Conference on the establishment of rail transport and the construction of an inter-state highway.
In neither of those instances was the German government informed in advance, nor was the rest of the EU. Within Kosovo, Thaçi also had circumvented Kurti’s incoming government.
These snubs were clearly by design, to signal scorn and disrespect for regional partners and to demonstrate American unilateralism. In late February 2020, Special Envoy Grenell hosted the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo at the White House, with National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in attendance.
Lack of clarity following the White House meeting fed increasing tension across the Atlantic, as well as within Kosovo. Grenell insisted all talks were only about the economy, not politics, and denied any renewed talk of a land swap. But Thaçi announced upon his return from Washington that a grand deal was in the offing. He declared the EU-led dialogue – supported from its outset by the United States – dead; talks would now move to Washington, he declared.
Furthermore, even though the Kosovo prime minister had announced a partial suspension of the tariffs against Serbia (a move applauded by the EU), Grenell and Thaçi exerted pressure on the Kosovo government to lift the tariffs entirely. The prime minister had set the reasonable condition for full removal that Serbia remove its non-tariff trade barriers and end its international campaign to de-recognize Kosovo independence. Even as Vučić signaled to German Chancellor Merkel in a video call that he might give in on non-tariff barriers, Grenell dropped his previous demand for Belgrade to stop its de-recognition campaign and even threatened to withhold economic support for Kosovo. Indeed, the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) announced it would freeze its economic development programs in Kosovo worth dozens of millions of dollars until the tariffs were lifted.
Trump’s congressional allies have been enlisted in applying pressure, too. Senator David Perdue (R-GA) threatened in a tweet (retweeted by Grenell) that “if Kosovo is not fully committed to peace [meaning removing the tariffs], then the US should reconsider its presence there.” This was a direct threat to withdraw U.S. troops from NATO’s deterrent force. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Donald Trump Jr. added their support on Twitter.
Devastating for Kosovo and the Region
The impact of the agreement sought would be devastating for Kosovo, where two-thirds of the roughly 10 percent Serb minority live not in the north, which presumably would be ceded to Serbia, but rather south of the River Ibar. Partition likely would lead to a mass exodus of southern Serbs and ethnic violence within Kosovo and between Kosovo and Serbia. It also would amplify calls for other such negotiated ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, such as in Bosnia, where Milorad Dodik, the longtime leader of the ethnic Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska that was carved out in the Dayton Accords has been agitating for independence.
But long-term thinking and consequences for people on the ground, let alone allies, is far from a hallmark of Trump administration policy, as evident from nuclear talks with North Korea, the precipitous troop withdrawal fiasco in Syria, and so many other instances. On the Kosovo-Serbia maneuver, massive damage has already been done, both to America’s reputation in Kosovo and its relationship with European allies.
Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has strongly criticized the administration’s “heavy-handed” policy as “the act of a bully,” condemning the undermining of the Kurti government at a time it should be focused on measures to combat the spread of Covid-19. His Republican colleagues in Congress should do the same. So should the Democratic frontrunner for the presidential nomination, Joe Biden, who has a strong record on Kosovo and the Balkans more broadly. Ditto Democratic presidential candidate and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), who also supported NATO’s 1999 intervention that helped Kosovo gain independence from Serbia and who has since defended it vigorously against critics, including on the far left.
They all should underscore that the current administration is misusing American foreign policy, undermining the transatlantic partnership, and endangering European security in the EU’s courtyard. This would go some way to assuage the legitimate feeling of betrayal on the part of Kosovars toward the United States, but also fears throughout the Balkans that the United States will upend hard-won peace for political trinkets that will have no resonance with the American electorate, while wreaking havoc abroad.