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Kosovo and Serbia’s underwhelming agreement

Kosovo and Serbia last Friday agreed to improve economic ties following two days of talks at the White House, and yet while the agreement was hailed by US President Donald Trump as “historic” and a “major breakthrough” in the normalisation of relations between the two countries, careful analysis of its contents appear to contradict him.

As part of the agreement, Kosovo and Serbia will endeavour to continue the work on implementing previous agreements concerning rail and air links, and to start building new roads and highways. Kosovo is also set to become part of the so-called mini-Schengen regional cooperation initiative that also includes Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The two countries also agreed to work with the United States on a feasibility study looking at the possibility of sharing the disputed Gazivode/Ujman Lake as a source of water and energy, while reciprocal recognition of higher education degrees is also welcome, as is a commitment to address of missing persons, refugees, and internally displaced persons from the 1990s Kosovo War.

Serbia also agreed to halt its “de-recognition” campaign for a period of one year while Kosovo pledged to cease applying for membership of international organisations for the same period.

Serbia’s “de-recognition” campaign, where the country attempted and at times succeeded in persuading third countries to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo’s independence has been extremely controversial, and was partly the reason behind Kosovo’s introduction of 100 per cent import tariffs on Serbian goods in 2018. The tariffs were removed in April of this year.

Conversely, Kosovo’s attempts to join international organisations has always been frustrated by officials in Belgrade. Serbian leaders have long viewed any potential inclusion of Kosovo in organisations such as Interpol as strengthening the position of a country that it still considers to be one of its provinces.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, nine years after NATO conducted a 78-day airstrike campaign to stop a Serb crackdown against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Most Western nations – including the US – have recognised Kosovo’s independence, but Serbia and its allies Russia and China have not.

“We did not solve our problems, but this agreement is an exceptional step forward,” said Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić after signing the deal. His Kosovan counterpart, Avdullah Hoti thanked Mr Trump for his role and said that the deal was “a great moment for Kosovo and the region.”

“We are fully committed to work together to improve people’s lives, to create new jobs in the region. And we fully believe in your [Trump’s] administration. We share the same values of freedom, democracy and open market economy. So, we are looking forward to start implementing this agreement as soon as possible,” said Mr Hoti.

The agreement also contains a number of provisions that have little to do with ending the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo but instead fit the foreign policy interests of the United States. Both countries have agreed to designate Hezbollah as a “terrorist organisation”, Kosovo and Israel are now set to recognise each other, and Serbia will move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Crucially, both countries also pledged to bar “untrusted vendors” from the roll-out of their 5G networks, a move clearly targeting Huawei and other Chinese manufacturers. The Trump administration has been trying for years to bar Chinese companies from Europe’s communication networks, and has signed several memoranda of understanding with countries in the CEE region. It remains to be seen how this will affect Serbia in particular, as Huawei is a strong presence in the country’s communication infrastructure. Prior to the White House agreement, it was considered a “done deal” that Huawei would build Serbia’s 5G network.

Somewhat bizarrely, Mr Trump hailed the agreement as step towards “peace with the Middle East,” although neither Serbia nor Kosovo are in the Middle East, nor have they ever been at war with Israel.

Mr Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, who co-hosted the talks along with Richard Grenell, the US special envoy for Kosovo and Serbia, struck an optimistic tone for the future.

“I think today is about normalisation of economic ties. And it’s really a fantastic step for the two peoples have taken, both Kosovo and Serbia. It’s taken a lot of effort. I think that’s a first step,” Mr O’Brien said.

Mr Grenell said that it remains to be seen if the concentration on economics and job creation can “unstick” the political ambitions of both sides.

While Trump, Grenell, O’Brien and the ruling parties in both Serbia and Kosovo praised the White House deal, there were some loud detractors – in both Serbia and in Kosovo.

Vuk Jeremić, a former Serbian foreign minister and president of the UN General Assembly and currenty the leader of the opposition People’s party, said in a Facebook post that Serbia had been humiliated on the international stage.

He was especially critical of Serbia agreeing to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which he said “rewards” Israel for recognising Kosovo.

Dragan Đilas, a former mayor of Belgrade and now the leader of the opposition Freedom and Justice party, also criticised Vučić on the embassy move, saying it violates UN Security Councils resolution 478 which condemns Israel’s attempt to annex East Jerusalem. He further expressed a concern that Serbia could now become a target for terrorists.

In Kosovo, former PM Ramush Haradinaj took exception with the feasibility study concerning Gazivode/Ujman Lake.

“We do not appreciate Serbia being a party to the future of Ujman. The implications this can bring in the future may be expensive for Kosovo,” he said.

Albin Kurti, leader of the Vetëvendosje opposition party and briefly Kosovo’s prime minister earlier this year, similarly criticised the Gazivode/Ujman deal and called the mini-Schengen zone “a tool of Serbian hegemony in the region”.

Meanwhile, an image of Mr Vučić sitting on a small chair across from Donald Trump’s enormous desk has become the subject of ridicule and internet memes, with some users sharing pictures of how other dignitaries were received at the White House.

In a development which can only happen on social media, a small diplomatic row emerged between Russia and Serbia when the spokesperson for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova shared a meme of her own comparing the White House set up with the notorious Basic Instinct scene where Sharon Stone is being interrogated and uncrosses her legs.

The post drew sharp responses from Serbia and Mr Vučić himself, who called it “primitive” and “vulgar.” Ms Zakharova later apologised saying her post was “misconstrued” and that she was actually criticising Mr Trump and his use of “protocol tricks” to “create an appearance of his own importance”.

Regardless of its underwhelming content and the sharp criticisms from the opposition both in Serbia and Kosovo, the White House is, however, the first substantial coming together of the two countries since Belgrade withdrew from talks in 2018 following Kosovo’s introduction of import tariffs.

Mr Vučić and Mr Hoti will now meet with EU representatives in Brussels, where EU-led talks are expected to resume for the first time in two years.

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