Can Europe Make It?

Next year in Jerusalem: the Serbian Embassy and Kosovo go on a pilgrimage with Trump

The Trump administration’s Christmas wishlist for one corner of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Arturo Desimone Aleksandar Novakovic
22 September 2020
Trump hosts economic cooperation agreement between Serbia and Kosovo.
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Anna Moneymaker/PA. All rights reserved.

On September 4, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić met with the PM of Kosovo Avdullah Hoti in the White House, in the presence of Donald Trump, to sign the “Economic Normalization Agreements  between Belgrade (Serbia) and Pristina (Kosovo)”. Trump celebrated Hoti and Vučić as “brave men” for signing the “historic” trilateral agreement. Closer analysis reveals this “historic” encounter as yet another PR gimmick of Trump’s in the runup to the US presidential elections. In a sense, perhaps this serves a purpose similar to the grandiloquence surrounding the recent Israel-UAE peace deal, which Thomas Friedman of the NY Times called “an earthquake” for Peace.

According to the text of the treaty, the most radical section calls for a moratorium, during which Pristina and Belgrade will both stop their tireless lobbying either for or against an internationally recognized status of Kosovo–for one year.

Procrastination does not solve anything, but it will help the Washington policy hivemind to not think about the Balkans, and will simplify the first troubled year of a possible second term of the Trump administration (also  “an earthquake” but in a more calamitous sense than cheerleader Thomas Friedman intends).

Upon closer scrutiny, the logic of the agreement falls apart. Amounting to a random hodgepodge of promises and obligations, it looks more like the Trump administration’s Christmas wishlist for that corner of the Eastern Mediterranean rather than a coherent document. Recognisable “Art of the Deal” style points include a ban on 5G equipment sold by “untrusted vendors” (Trumpcode for China); as well as a suprisingly more Obama-like campaign to further the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

A crucial part of this ornamental treaty also covers relations between the Middle East, Serbia and Kosovo.

For example, the agreement states that Kosovo (home to an 88% Muslim population) and Israel agree to “recognise” one another’s legitimacy, while Serbia is encouraged to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by July 2021, shadowing the Trump administration’s historic Jerusalem syndrome. This latest bold and insulting provocation has understandably earned vocal reactions from EU officials. And yet, these same condemning EU officials appear weaker by the moment in their collective failure to enforce disciplinary action on profligate EU members such as those composing the Visegrad group, or to muster an EU foreign policy in toto.

In addition, both Kosovo and Serbia pledge to label the Hezbollah movement and Lebanese parliamentary party as a terrorist organization, to be confronted on any territory under Serb or Kosovar jurisdiction. In short, a hope for more division and international involvement by the East European periphery in the volatile Syrian conflicts, in which Hezbollah became embroiled well before Trump’s presidential tenure. The POTUS here takes up the Republican foreign policy tradition summed up by Craig Unger’s 2004 book House of Bush, House of Saud, demonstrating Western willingness to get further embroiled in Sunni-Shia feuds, consequences be damned. Trump also makes the more predictable gestural politics of indulging Israeli fantasies of “recognition” by Muslims of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

A simple question arises: Middle Eastern politics bear little relevance to the Belgrade – Pristina scenario, so, why did Washington incorporate the Middle East in this document?

Middle Eastern politics bear little relevance to the Belgrade – Pristina scenario, so, why did Washington incorporate the Middle East in this document?

By forcing Kosovo to “recognise” Israel, and to unrecognise Hezbollah as anything other than a nemesis, Trump seeks to kill two birds with one rock. Firstly, the deal lays out the blueprint for a “diplomatic wall” isolating Kosovo from other Muslim majority countries and Islamic republics. Second, it intends to further the interests of Trump’s and the US Republican establishment’s friends and clients — foremost among these the emirs of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who campaign avidly to promote their Wahhabi version of Islam, by way of Wahhabist sectarian propaganda, and its derivative product-lines in former Yugoslavia among the Muslim communities in the Balkans. Trump may not understand the complexities of the latter cultural warfare in the region. However, he fully understands the need to keep the UAE as well as Netanyahu satisfied as regional clients, with whichever bargaining chips easily present themselves.

Kosovo announced its independence in February 2008 — under the beginning of Obama’s tenure, a Democrat like Clinton (the co-director of the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade) and therefore a relatively predictable backer of the burgeoning new Balkan state. By negotiation of largely ornamental peace-deals between lilliputians in the Balkans or the UAE and Israel, Trump hopes to secure the status of  “peacemaker” to brag about in the debates, while also claiming to resolve foreign policy fiascos attributed to the Clintons’ legacy.

Nevertheless, there are a few complications.

For one, Serbian president Vučić had no constitutional right to sign such a treaty. Under Serbian law and procedure only the Prime Minister can do that. For Serbia, a ludicrous “Anti-Hezbollah alliance” represents one of many more self-humiliating steps made towards securing membership in NATO even though the vast majority of its population opposes any Serbian involvement in NATO, which remains widely despised in Serbia. This makes Vučić’s stunt doubly anti-democratic.

Understanding the logic of transplanting the Serbian embassy to Jerusalem requires going back to 2017, when Trump “recognised Jerusalem” as the Israeli capital. By doing so, he had made the world fear yet another war. Such boldness also made the US ambassador to Israel one of the world’s loneliest ambassadors, since (despite the copycat promises of countries in the Visegrad Group to do the same) only the Guatemalan embassy dared to follow suit in leaving Tel Aviv. But now Vučić has come ’round to ensure that the US embassy shall not stand alone. Lacking any sense of irony — seeing as the US embassy needs Serbia to defend it– he signed a paper which he may not have read in its entirety , and to which he desperately added passages at the last minute before, during and after  signing. In all likelihood Kosovo will do the same.

Though both the Israeli and Palestinian political establishments have long wanted their capitals in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv for the sake of peace remains the internationally recognized Israeli capital city, even after the June 1967 “Six Days War” (which ended up lasting 63 years and counting) and the Israeli seizure of East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank — acts still recognized by the UN and international legal entities as violations of international law and obstacles to peace, ensuring the Palestinians a stateless and isolated existence.

Though both the Israeli and Palestinian political establishments have long wanted their capitals in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv for the sake of peace remains the internationally recognized Israeli capital city.

And yet it seemed Kosovars and Serbs did not have enough problems.

For the general populations, the Kosovo-Serbia moratorium agreement offers a lose-lose with lasting negative international consequences.

Peace remains far from the horizon for Belgrade and Pristina: both are economically ruined, politically voided and ruled by corrupted oligarchies eager to help the USA. Apparently, ex-Yugoslavian elites find in Trump an oligarchical face they can relate to.

But Vučić’s faux pas only helps his country enter into a diplomatic crisis with the EU, China and Russia.  Kosovo’s move has also struck very off-key notes among allies in the Arab-Muslim world.

The two ‘brave men’ (as Trump anointed them) epitomise all that rots in international politics: cronies signing onto a deal that, predictably, benefits only the Empire that forced them, this time led by a celebrity whose famous handbook The Art of the Deal advises the reader on how to “screw” every other party. There are no easy solutions for regional disputes that can conveniently work as gimmicks in November’s forthcoming imperial elections. Clearly, the long legacy of the US and NATO have only contributed to the political spectacle and increasingly damaged the Eastern Mediterranean since the events preceding the Clinton-led NATO bombing of Belgrade. The Serbian-Kosovar peace process now needs a transparent democratic process, forgoing the usual self-appointed mediators. Such a process should strictly apply international law, ideally under UN supervision.

This piece was originally published on The Balkanist on September 21, 2020.

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