September 22, 2020

New Developments on Old Problems in the Balkans: Serbia Changing Partners?

President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump listens during in a signing ceremony and meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on September 4, 2020 in Washington, DC.
President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump listens during in a signing ceremony and meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on September 4, 2020 in Washington, DC.

On 4 September US president Donald Trump hosted a ceremony at the White House attended by the president of Serbia, Alexander Vucic, and the prime minister of Kosovo, Avdullah Hoti, at which US-brokered agreements were signed on normalising economic relations between the two Balkan countries.

This is noteworthy because the dialogue between the two neigbours had been stalled for the previous 20 months. The event received international attention thanks to a social media post by Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova. A screengrab of the iconic interrogation scene featuring Sharon Stone in the Hollywood movie Basic Instinct was put alongside a photo of the bilateral US–Serbia meeting at the White House, with Vucic sitting opposite Trump. This mockery seemed suprising against the background of close political, economic and military relations between Serbia and Russia; Belgrade has hitherto considered Moscow its strategic partner. President Vucic and Serbian officials publicly expressed their outrage. Moscow later apologised, president Putin and foreign minister Lavrov both got involved, and the issue seemed settled.

This incident demonstrates Moscow’s irritation over the US-mediated talks on the normalisation of relations between the Balkan former foes. The issue of Kosovo’s status has been central to Serbian-Russian relations and Russia has been the strongest supporter of Serbia’s position. The eventual resolution of the problem could have an impact on the dynamic of these relations and Russia’s role in the Western Balkans.

After the meeting in Washington, president Vucic expressed his gratitude for American support, which he characterised as an important step towards a strategic partnership with the US.

The EU—the internationally mandated facilitator of the Belgrade–Pristina dialogue—also seemed to be taken by surprise when president Trump announced at the ceremony that one result of the US-led talks was Serbia’s intention to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This looked like another diplomatic victory for Trump. In addition, Kosovo received guarantees of mutual recognition with Israel and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. This could mean that Kosovo becomes the first predominantly Muslim country to open an embassy in Jerusalem. A concern for Brussels is that this development would be contrary to the EU’s common position on Jerusalem, with which EU candidate countries like Serbia are supposed to align. Belgrade has cautiously indicated that the issue of Jerusalem must be discussed by the government before a final decision is made. Israel’s recognition of Kosovo could have some impact here.

The Belgrade–Pristina dialogue was halted in 2018 after Kosovo imposed tariffs on imports from Serbia, and the EU was unable to bring them back to the negotiating table. The US has been a strong supporter of Kosovo’s independence and was thus in a position to put pressure on Pristina, and last year decided to get involved. Some senior officials in Washington warned that if there was no progress the US would pull out of Kosovo, including the more than 600 American troops on the NATO KFOR mission. The tactic worked; Kosovo backed down, the import tariffs were lifted and this helped to get the two leaders negotiating again.

Thus the US president got the publicity and more than one diplomatic victory. As the only player with enough carrots and sticks in these circumstances, the US helped the EU to get the former foes back to the negotiating table; one top-level meeting took place in Brussels three days later, and more are to come soon. The EU may be concerned that the US has been trying to undermine its position in the Middle East. Russia may not like the fact that US involvement has helped the EU to continue its mediation efforts, which could lead to normalisation and the easing of tensions in the region. Kosovo can hope to achieve recognition by and diplomatic relations with Israel. Serbia got rid of the tariffs imposed by Kosovo, has the prospect of renewing its cooperation with the US, and probably improved its standing in the EU accession process without having to change its position over Kosovo’s status. It is unlikely that this will be settled any time soon.

These recent developments may also have helped the Serbian government decide not to participate in the military exercise Slavic Brotherhood 2020, to be held this month in Belarus along with forces from Russia. This would have been very poor timing, not in the best company, and a very bad place to be.