“I’m pleased to announce a truly historic commitment,” President Trump said in the Oval Office, on Friday, Sept. 4, after the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo signed a US-brokered economic cooperation agreement. The Christian and Muslim survivors of former Yugoslavia thus opened a new chapter after decades of hostility and disconnect.
The accord, which leaves political normalization on hold, followed Trump’s earlier mediation of Israel’s first normalization pact with a Gulf state, the United Arab Emirates. The event added another diplomatic win to Trump’s campaign for reelection in November, plus more international perks for Israel. Belgrade agreed to open a commercial office in Jerusalem this month and move its embassy to Jerusalem in July, while mutual recognition between Israel and Kosovo for the first time may lead to the latter following the Serbian embassy to Israel’s capital, the first predominantly Muslim nation to take this step..
Trump also undoubtedly saw his way forward towards overriding the Balkan policies carved out by his Democratic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They were acclaimed heroes of Kosovo on June 21, 2019, the anniversary of the NATO bombing of Serbia to stop the bloody crackdown against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. This episode ended in the rise of the first Muslim state in Europe on the ruins of Yugoslavia. But the Balkan dispute continued to simmer ever since. In 2008, Kosovo’s Parliament declared independence from Serbia. Most Western governments extended recognition, but Belgrade, backed by Russia and China, refused.
At the White House on Friday, after two days of meetings with Kosovo’s prime minister Avdullah Hoti Serbian leader, Serbian President Alesandar Vucic stressed that the economic accord does not include “mutual recognition.” President Vucic made a point of hailing the White House talks as a big victory for Serbia and a step towards closer ties with the US, while bidding for EU membership.
But they did agree significantly to cooperate on a range of economic fronts to attract investment and create jobs while advancing towards establishing the first air, rail and motorway links between their capitals, Belgrade and Pristina, in 21 years.
The Trump’s administration’s mediation effort, headed by special envoy Richard Grenell, outlasted more than one obstacle. A White House face-to face meeting in June was called off when a war crimes indictment was issued for Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, and, again, by travel restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic.