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What ‘Twiplomacy’ reveals about the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue

Special US Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations Richard Grenell has divulged a number of interesting insights regarding the ongoing negotiations through social media.

July 9, 2020 - Leon Hartwell - Articles and Commentary

Special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations Richard Grenell speaking with supporters at an "An Address to Young Americans" event, featuring President Donald Trump, hosted by Students for Trump and Turning Point Action at Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo: Gage Skidmore flickr.com

There was a time when mediators kept their thoughts on the negotiation processes under a tight lid. Times have changed, and by 2011, the word “Twiplomacy” was coined in recognition of the increasing use of social media by diplomats. Richard Grenell, President Donald Trump’s Special Envoy for the ongoing Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, is the quintessential Twiplomat with an impressive following of nearly half a million people. Over the past few weeks, Grenell has divulged a number of interesting insights regarding the ongoing negotiations.

Source: Twitter

As Special Envoy, Grenell is responsible for “normalising” relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Of course, this is no easy task. Following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the two entities fought a brutal war with one another. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Kosovo’s sovereignty is recognised by the US and over 100 other states but not, most importantly, by Serbia, Russia, China and five European Union (EU) member states.

In an attempt to facilitate normalisation, Grenell has been accused of promoting controversial “land swaps” between the two entities. Balkans expert Gorana Grgic argues that the land swap idea was attractive to Trump’s Special Envoy because Grenell thought it gave him an opportunity to rapidly conclude an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. This in turn could be presented as a foreign policy victory for Trump in advance of the presidential election in November.

Source: Twitter

Grenell vehemently denies his support for potential land swaps. If one accepts that Grenell was initially attracted to the idea, he has since backtracked from it. On April 21st, Grenell tweeted: “There has been absolutely no talk of land swaps from me – and it’s never been discussed by anyone else in my presence.” Perhaps this is a pragmatic decision, as a significant number of Kosovars remain opposed to the idea.

If land swaps are not on the table, then what is Grenell’s basic negotiation strategy? On Twitter, he regularly characterises his role as a promoter of “economic normalisation”. For example, on June 26th, he tweeted; “our approach has always been to concentrate on jobs and the economy.” This businesslike approach is in line with the image that Trump attempts to project: it is all about business.

According to Grenell’s tweets, he believes that the Trump administration should not “get involved in the politics” of Serbia and Kosovo, but rather aim to “normalise the economies” of these states. In terms of the sequencing of the negotiations, he is adamant that “we must first make progress on growing the economies” before focusing on political issues.

Negotiation experts generally differ in their support for ‘fractionating’ issues or proposing ‘package deals’.

Mediators who adopt the ‘fractionating’ approach attempt to separate issues related to the conflict into individual parts. The advantage of this approach is that the mediator can encourage parties to reach agreement on issues that are not highly divisive. Subsequently, it is hoped that this will facilitate the actual implementation of these agreements which, in turn, may produce enough goodwill to open negotiations on more contentious issues.

In contrast, package deals involve lumping all (or most) issues – popular and unpopular – into a simultaneous settlement. Generally speaking, package deals take much longer to negotiate than fractionating. The advantage of package deals is that negotiators can embark on ‘logrolling’, whereby losses in one area can be offset by gains in others. Consequently, the overall aim should be to forge a package deal that is acceptable to both parties.

Grenell’s strategy most closely resembles the fractionating approach. Of course, the major disadvantage of this choice is that the positive spillover effect may never occur, as some issues are more important to one party than another. As a result, highly contentious issues – in this case, the recognition of Kosovo’s sovereignty – may never be resolved.

As argued by Stefan Vladisavljev, a foreign policy analyst for the annual Belgrade Security Forum, Vučić’s power and legitimacy is unmatched by anyone in Serbia. He has the ability to make an agreement with Pristina on recognition, which may even lead to its implementation. However, it is clear that “he will be decimated by the opposition.”

Officially recognising Kosovo remains deeply unpopular among Serbians. Kosovo is often described as the “Serbian Jerusalem”, as a strong emotional attachment to the territory and its historical sites persists in the country. In other words, it would be political suicide for Vučić to make a deal with Kosovo. Consequently, Marko Savković, programme director for the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, has argued that agreement will only be possible if mediators negotiate a “face-saving agreement” that would present the Serbian president as the winner. That being said, a comprehensive package deal stands a far greater chance of achieving bilateral normalisation rather than a fractionating approach limited to economic matters.

Source: Twitter

Furthermore, as argued by Austin Doehler, a visiting scholar at the Penn Biden Center, “one cannot divorce the economic issues from the political ones in the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue. For example, the issue of trade normalisation is not solely about whether Kosovo can export its goods to Serbia without barriers to trade, but also about if labels reading ‘made in Republic of Kosovo’ will be on the packages.”

Grenell’s defence is that his approach is being coordinated with the Europeans – he implies it is part of a collective strategy. A day before the White House’s “Dialogue discussions” on Serbia-Kosovo were scheduled, Grenell tweeted; “I spoke directly with German & French National Security Advisors to coordinate our limited (& solely economic) approach.”

Several things stand out regarding Grenell’s tweet:

Firstly, he only makes reference to coordinating the mediation process with Germany and France, but he made no mention of the EU. It could be because these two countries offered to host the upcoming summit in Paris. At the same time, Grenell has come under a lot of fire for blatantly snubbing the EU.

David L. Phillips, an old Balkan hand, recently noted that;

Miroslav Lajčák, the EU special envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue, was at the airport in Zurich en route to Kosovo when he received a tweet from … Grenell, announcing that [Kosovo’s president Hashim] Thaçi and Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić would meet at the White House on June 27th.

Source: Twitter

Secondly, note that the White House talks on economic matters were scheduled for June 27th. This is of course before the Paris Summit, which is slated for mid-July. Although the White House talks fell through at the last-minute, ultimately due to the indictment of Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaçi, it was a strange move by Grenell to suggest that economic and political issues would be negotiated separately and especially in that order. An initial agreement on economic and trade related issues will arguably remove the leverage needed to address more contentious political disagreements.

According to a European ambassador who would like to remain anonymous, the general impression is that the US and EU “lack coordination” on the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue. Due to this, fractionating the issues into economic and political components, as suggested by Grenell, is set up for failure.

If Grenell is serious about normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo, he has to address the sovereignty question, a notoriously difficult issue to resolve. It will arguably require full coordination with the EU in order to maximise the power of their collective ‘carrots and sticks’. It will also necessitate a package deal – bringing together a mix of popular and unpopular issues simultaneously – that would help bring even pessimists to the table.

Dr. Leon Hartwell is a Title VIII Transatlantic Leadership Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C. He specialises in mediation, negotiation and conflict resolution.

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