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Richard Grenell: Dictating the pulse of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue

During his visits to Pristina and Belgrade, US Special Envoy Richard Grenell has been clear on his demands for both Kosovo and Serbia with the dialogue between them stuck in a deadlock for over a year.

April 15, 2020 - Visar Xhambazi - Articles and Commentary

Sailors render honors to Richard Grenell, U.S. Ambassador to Germany, during a reception aboard the Blue Ridge-class command and control ship USS Mount Whitney. Photo: Justin Sturmberg (cc) flickr.com

Trump’s Special Envoy for Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, Richard Grenell, can be characterised by his unorthodox approach to diplomacy. He is a Trump loyalist who has disregarded European allies and comes with a controversial past. Along with his role as an envoy, Grenell manages to wear two other hats, serving as the United States Ambassador to Germany, and most recently, Acting Director of National Intelligence.

As Special Envoy, Grenell has a large amount of control over the pulse of negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo. His role, along with the collapse of the recently elected Kosovo government, and the COVID-19 global pandemic, has led Kosovo into uncharted waters.

The new Kosovo government with Albin Kurti as Prime Minister was overthrown on the evening of March 25. The Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), the junior party coalition, initiated a motion of no-confidence for its own government in response to Prime Minister Kurti firing an LDK minister over COVID-19 pandemic disagreements. In addition, LDK argued that Kurti was deteriorating Kosovo’s close partnership and friendship with the United States.

The Kosovo-Serbia dialogue has been in a deadlock since November 2018 and it seems not much will change soon. Kosovo will most likely have new snap elections, and Serbia was scheduled to hold its presidential elections this April. In the case of Serbia, these elections have already been postponed, further delaying the process. In the meantime, the European Union’s attempts to restart the dialogue have proved unsuccessful insofar. The failure of the European Union to restart the Brussels negotiations pushed the United States to intervene by appointing two special envoys.

The US Deputy Assistant Secretary, Matthew Palmer, was appointed by the Department of State to serve as the Special Envoy for the Western Balkans. Richard Grenell, was appointed by President Trump as his Special Presidential Envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. Both envoys were appointed in the fall of 2019.

Grenell set the wheels in motion

Grenell’s appointment seemingly shifted the gears into motion in the beginning of the year when he reached a few transport agreements between Kosovo and Serbia. However, he did so by circumventing the Kosovo Acting Prime Minister, Albin Kurti. Instead, Grenell invited the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia, Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, to sign these agreements. He did this, despite the fact that in parliamentary republics the office of the president plays a ceremonial role, whereas the prime minister is the active head of the executive branch of government.

Grenell’s exclusion of Prime Minister Kurti seemed to be a deliberate move, given that Kurti and Thaci have very different agendas. Thaci has pushed for border changes with Serbia, whereas Kurti completely opposes the idea. Moreover, Kurti is known for his consistent activism and does not have any corruption scandals tied to his name. Thaci, on the other hand, has been accused of having extensive criminal links and is likely to be incited for war crimes by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague.

Grenell stated several times that he only cares about economic development and will not engage in political matters. However, two weeks after the transport agreements were signed, Grenell invited both Thaci and Vucic to the White House to discuss the possibility of reaching a final agreement between the two countries.

Grenell’s approach to the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue is tone deaf; using this dialogue to try and get an easy foreign policy win can be dangerous. While American re-engagement must be invited and appreciated, Grenell’s undiplomatic traits and his professional background prove him to be unfit for his role in the dialogue.

Who is Richard Grenell?

Grenell started his political career in 2001 as a State Department Spokesperson to the United Nations under four different United States ambassadors. He served in this role until 2008.

In 2009 he founded a media and public affairs consultancy furn called Capitol Media Partners. According to ProPublica newsroom, Grenell received a payment of 100,000 US dollars from a group funded by the Hungarian government but never reported it prior to beginning his work in the Trump administration. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires that agents representing the interests of foreign governments must disclose their relationship and information about related activities and finances.

Moreover, ProPublica published another article stating that Grenell used to work for the Moldovan businessman and politician, Vladimir Plahotniuc, who was accused of corruption and barred from entering the United States under anti-corruption sanctions imposed by the Department of State. Again, Grenell did not disclose in his FARA that he worked for Plahotniuc.

Grenell’s tenure as the ambassador to Germany has faced a lot of backlash. He has been deemed outspoken and only partially committed to the role now that he has other major responsibilities. Most concerning is the accusation that he is extremely biased.

Grenell has started cozying up with European conservatives and hard liners. He told Breitbart News, “I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders. I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left.” Statements like these have caused outrage in Germany, with some German politicians even calling for his expulsion and accusing him of meddling with domestic affairs.

His track record provides many reasons to be doubtful of his capabilities in the roles that Trump has appointed him. Moreover, it begs the question of whether he can act as an unbiased intermediary.

Grenell’s strategic coercion

During his visits to Pristina and Belgrade, Grenell was clear on his demands for both Kosovo and Serbia. “In order to continue further with economic development, it is crucial that the tax on Serbian goods be revoked. This is the only thing that has to be eliminated, and at the same time, the campaign to withdraw recognition of Kosovo’s independence, led by Serbia, must be stopped,” Grenell said.

However, when Kosovo Pime Minister, Albin Kurti, as a sign of good will, decided to partially lift tariffs on Serbian goods (most specifically, raw imports), the Serbian Foreign Minister, Ivica Dacic, on the other hand, stated that one more country had withdrawn their recognition of Kosovo.

Grenell was quick to condemn Prime Minister Kurti for only partially lifting the tariffs, calling the move a “serious mistake.” He did not, however, address Serbia’s derecognition campaign when Sierra Leone withdrew its recognition of Kosovo on March 2.

Moreover, Donald Trump Jr. and two United States senators, David Perdue and Ron Paul, have stated that the United States should reconsider the presence of its troops in Kosovo if they do not drop the tariffs completely and unconditionally. Kosovo is home to the largest United States military base in southeast Europe, Camp Bondsteel.

Statements regarding the possibility of withdrawing United States troops from Kosovo have sparked panic and fear among Kosovo citizens. In addition, LDK branded their coalition partners as anti-American and accused Albin Kurti of creating further divisions. This has all unfolded during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Trump’s US foreign policy is unpredictable and dangerous

Trump’s presidency has witnessed a deterioration in the quality of United States foreign policy. His tenure in office marks a shift away from conventional foreign policy approaches to his own idiosyncratic style.

This is a major problem for Kosovo, which has almost always received United States bipartisan support. Kosovo’s relationship with the Trump administration has been a complicated one to navigate. Kosovo is still a young democracy with new institutions that highly depend on its Western supporters, especially the United States.

However, with actors like Grenell in play, whose motives are unclear, it is hard to trust that the administration is treating Kosovo fairly. Given Kosovo and Serbia’s history, Kosovo needs, at the very least, a neutral actor in the dialogue, if not someone that will champion for an agreement that serves justice.

While it is immensely important for Kosovo to maintain close relations with the United States, Kosovo should not have to compromise its integrity in exchange. Being against Trump does not translate into anti-Americanism. Administrations change, as do their priorities. The new government of Kosovo must resist the pressure of reaching a quick deal, especially at a time when the chances of witnessing a power shift in the United States is rising.

Visar Xhambazi is a policy researcher at Democracy for Development (D4D) Institute. He holds a master’s degree in International Studies from Old Dominion University in Virginia, specialising in US foreign policy and international relations.

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