On September 4, after years of unsuccessful negotiations, Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic signed an “economic normalisation” deal at a ceremony hosted by President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, DC.
Using the signing ceremony as an opportunity to consolidate his image as a “deal maker” in the run-up to the presidential election, Trump called the agreement a “major breakthrough” in the tumultuous relationship between the two ex-Yugoslav states.
A few weeks later, at a campaign rally in North Carolina, Trump once again praised the deal as “historic”, adding that he is “sure” that the development will lead to him being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. “We are stopping mass killings between Kosovo and Serbia,” he said. “They have been killing each other for so many years. They are going to stop killing.”
In reality, the war in Kosovo ended 20 years ago. There are no “mass killings” taking place in either country today. And while tensions are still high between Belgrade and Pristina, Trump’s deal is not offering a pathway to political normalisation. So, given that he did not “stop the killing”, what did the American president really achieve as a result of his “peacemaking” efforts in the Balkans?
Trump’s deal does not aim to resolve the region’s problems
Ever since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, the young state has been struggling to gain widespread international recognition. Only slightly more than half of all UN member states recognise Kosovo as an independent state, while numerous governments still view Serbia’s claim over Kosovo as legitimate. The conflict between Kosovo and Serbia is not a new one. Under Yugoslav and then Serbian rule, Kosovo’s Albanians suffered various forms of oppression, from colonisation practices in the early 20th century to ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. During the 1999 war, NATO forces, led by the US, forced Serbian troops to withdraw. The majority of Kosovo’s population was displaced and thousands killed as a result of the war.
Due to the prominent role Washington has played in putting a stop to Serbia’s endeavours in Kosovo, the US is viewed as an indispensable political ally by many in the country. Under the current political climate, Kosovo’s future is linked to its standing with the US government. Particularly due to Pristina’s fragile position on the international stage, the country’s diplomacy is almost always aligned with that of the US. As Kosovo’s ambassador to the US, Vlora Citaku, said last year, “Kosovo always follows the American position.” This is why critics of these dynamics, as well as opponents of Kosovo’s independence, often describe Pristina as a client state of the US.
Trump’s normalisation agreement provides for increased economic collaboration between Kosovo and Serbia, particularly in the areas of transport and infrastructure. It also requires the two countries to increase the work they have been doing on issues of missing persons, refugees and internally displaced persons from the 1990s Kosovo war.
Yet, the agreement does not initiate any significant political change. Belgrade still refuses to recognise the independence of Albanian-majority Kosovo and claims it is part of Serbia. This status quo is not contested in Trump’s deal. Through the agreement, Serbia agrees to suspend its campaign to dissuade other states from recognising Kosovo – but only for a year. In return, Kosovo agrees to refrain from applying for membership of international organisations. This makes it difficult for Kosovo to continue its integration into the international community. Pristina’s international isolation has been one of the central problems facing the country since its independence.
In short, the deal does not provide a pathway to political normalisation. As Trump likely knows, the deep-rooted tensions in the region cannot be resolved with a superficial economic deal signed in the Oval Office. But the Trump administration has other reasons to celebrate the deal as a “major breakthrough”.
It’s all about Israel
Trump’s Kosovo-Serbia normalisation deal may not have done much to change the status quo in the Balkans, but it includes several clauses that serve the wider geopolitical interests of the Trump administration and its allies.
With the deal, for example, both Kosovo and Serbia made a commitment to prohibit the use of 5G equipment from “untrusted vendors”, or to remove such equipment if it is already in place. While the clause does not make a direct reference to China, it is clear that its aim is to further Washington’s ongoing efforts to push Chinese telecommunications company Huawei out of Europe.
More crucially, the agreement comes with several pledges aimed at maintaining Israel’s supremacy in Western Asia and legitimising its ongoing occupation of Palestine. After signing the normalisation agreement, both Kosovo and Serbia agreed to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Serbia also pledged to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the contested city. Kosovo, meanwhile, said it will set up its Israel mission in Jerusalem and Israel, almost immediately, recognised Kosovo on the day the deal was announced.
As he did with Israel’s recent “normalisation” deals with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, Trump enthusiastically promoted Kosovo and Serbia’s move to normalise relations with Israel as an important step towards peace in the Middle East.
He tweeted: “Another great day for peace with Middle East – Muslim-majority Kosovo and Israel have agreed to normalise ties and establish diplomatic relations. Well-done! More Islamic and Arab nations will follow soon!”
Of course, neither Serbia nor Kosovo is in the Middle East, and – just like Bahrain and the UAE – neither state has ever been in direct conflict with Israel.
In fact, having its diplomacy aligned with the US, Kosovo has long strived for Israel’s attention. The fact that Palestinians and Kosovars have similar experiences of oppression and ethnic cleansing remains ignored in these diplomatic constellations. Rather, it has been Israel’s colonial regime that served as a source of identification for Kosovo’s staunchly pro-US political elite. Before Trump’s deal, both Israel and Palestine had refused to recognise Kosovo, primarily due to their ties with Serbia.
Following the new agreement, the two former Yugoslav states will be the first European countries to have embassies in Jerusalem. The decision was criticised by the European Union.
This move will represent the finalisation of an extreme shift in ideology. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was once a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement and an active supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Yugoslavia had cut ties with the Zionist state in 1967. Since the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, all of its newly independent countries have substituted a Third World perspective with strong support for Israel’s colonial regime.
With the new agreement, Serbia and Kosovo also agreed to designate the Lebanese resistance movement and political party Hezbollah a terrorist organisation in its entirety. Hezbollah, which was democratically elected to the Lebanese parliament, has no presence in nor any relation with Serbia or Kosovo whatsoever.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s deal was hailed by the Israeli government, which gained additional recognition for its colonialist policies in the Middle East. The agreement was denounced by the Palestinian Authority.
Despite Trump’s claims, the economic normalisation deal between Serbia and Kosovo is hardly a “historic breakthrough” in the tumultuous relationship between the two Balkan nations. It is, however, a major achievement for Israel, and, as was the case with Trump’s normalisation deals between Israel and the Gulf states, another stab in the back of the Palestinian people.