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President Vučić’s bizarre interview and what it reveals about the upcoming Serbia-Kosovo dialogue

A recent interview with the president of Serbia leaves behind some clues as to what may unfold in the upcoming White House meeting.

September 2, 2020 - Leon Hartwell - Articles and Commentary

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with Serbian President Aleksander Vučić, at the Department of State, on March 2, 2020. Photo: Freddie Everett. US State Department.

On September 3rd 2020, the White House is scheduled to mediate the Serbia-Kosovo normalisation process. What can be expected from it? Recently, Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić gave a somewhat bizarre and lengthy interview of nearly 7,000 words to Ksenija Pavlovic McAteer. The interview left behind some clues as to what may unfold at the White House.

Who is Ksenija Pavlovic McAteer?

The interviewer, Pavlovic McAteer, was a doctoral fellow at Yale University and is the founder of The Pavlovic Today, a self-styled independent news organisation that came into being in the midst of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The Belgrade-born journalist asserts that she has interviewed an impressive list of prominent individuals, including Arianna Huffington, Richard Branson, Jim Yong Kim and Steve Forbes, as well as a string of Serb politicians, including former President of Serbia Boris Tadić and Milorad Dodik, the controversial Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A quick online search could not locate all the said interviews.

According to Pavlovic McAteer, at age 10 she went to her first protest against Slobodan Milošević’s suppression of the media. In 2017 she made a name for herself when, as a White House correspondent, she defiantly livestreamed audio of a press briefing through Periscope at a time when cameras and live audio broadcasts were banned. 

In 2018, Pavlovic McAteer quoted a couplet from Edmund Blunden, ‘This was my country and it might be yet. But something came between us and the sun.’ She likened President Donald J. Trump to Blunden’s ‘something’ and attacked him for inspiring dictators by suppressing media freedom and bringing celebrities with no government experience into the administration.

By the end of that year, Pavlovic McAteer referred to Trump’s government shutdown as a ‘textbook example of the politics of coercion by the sitting president of the United States who is showing to the whole world that there is only one way to govern, and that is my way, or the highway.’

The U-turn

These days Pavlovic McAteer is full of praise for Trump and even defends him. On July 22 2020, Pavlovic McAteer tweeted, ‘People are reading too much into @realDonaldTrump‘s: ”I wish her well” to Ghislaine Maxwell [the serial sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s accomplice]. Wishing someone well is the easiest way to not say anything, the most neutral position one can take.’ 

What explains Pavlovic McAteer’s change of tune? Perhaps the answer is that in Trump and his special envoy to the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, Richard Grenell, she has finally found two people who she thinks champion and understand Serbia and the trauma inflicted upon Serbs by Kosovo and previous American administrations. 

There is not much daylight between Pavlovic McAteer’s views and that of Vučić. On June 30th 2020, she retweeted James Bovard, who claims that, ‘The Clinton administration empowered a terrorist group to seize Kosovo from Serbia and the American media cheered all the way, notwithstanding subsequent charges the terrorist group was guilty of killing Serbs & harvesting body parts.’   

In contrast to Trump, presidential candidate Joe Biden is criticised for favoring many of the perceived injustices against Serbia from the 1990s up to now. According to an article penned by Pavlovic McAteer on July 4th 2020, Biden’s greatest crime against Serbia is that he sponsored the [NATO] bombing of Serbia.’ 

The July 4th article is silent on the fact that rump Yugoslavia under Milošević committed large-scale atrocities against non-Serbs from 1991 to 1999, including ethnic cleansing and genocide against Kosovar Albanians. NATO’s 1999 air strikes halted genocide in Kosovo.

Pavlovic McAteer also accuses Trump’s self-proclaimed enemies– CNN, the Washington Post and The New York Times– of presenting ‘one-sided political narratives’ on Serbia. She slams the EU for mishandling the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue and praises Grenell’s business-like approach, which is focused on economic normalisation.       

Serbian officials were undoubtedly well acquainted with Pavlovic McAteer’s views prior to the ‘exclusive interview’ with Vučić. What are the main takeaways from the interview and what does that mean for the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue? 

Vučić seems narcissistic

Vučić comes across as narcissistic– someone who is arrogant, self-centered, in need of great admiration and lacking empathy (sound familiar?). 

The Serbian president views himself as a historic figure charged with saving Serbia so that it ‘does not become isolated.’ He boasts that his ‘opponents were always losing the election [sic]’ while he achieved ‘new records.’ Moreover, he alleges that his greatest surprise in politics is witnessing ‘how quickly some people I helped so much can become disloyal.’

Throughout the interview, Vučić made several references to how unfairly he is treated by the media, the opposition and the international community. He claims there is a 24/7 media campaign waged against him. 

Rather than taking responsibility for prematurely relaxing COVID-19 restrictions in Serbia so that he could have an election at an opportune moment, Vučić blames recent protests, which he refers to as ‘riots,’ for providing the media with ammunition ‘to attack our country’ and for the spike in coronavirus cases.

Vučić views Serbs as the main victims and Kosovars as the main perpetrators

During the interview, Vučić showed no empathy for Kosovars. In fact, he continues to frame the Serbia-Kosovo issue as a victim-versus-perpetrator narrative in a similar manner as some of Pavlovic McAteer’s earlier tweets and articles. 

The Serbian president claims that Kosovars do not want to make a deal because ‘their only interest [is] in humiliating Serbia.’ He even mockingly implies in the interview that Kosovars are lying about mass graves despite the fact that the vast majority of those who died during the Kosovo War were Kosovars, many of whom were massacred. 

Following an armed conflict, it is not uncommon for adversaries to think of themselves as the victim and the other party as the perpetrator.  Nevertheless, negotiators tend to tone down their hateful rhetoric against their adversaries, especially if they are serious about making peace.

Vučić is unwilling to recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty

In response to Pavlovic McAteer’s question about the primary obstacle in resolving the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, Vučić replied, ‘The only complete solution that Albanians see is the full Serbian recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Period.’

For the majority of Kosovars, recognition of Kosovo’s sovereignty is the main point of normalisation. Vučić thus drew a line in the sand and it is unlikely that the White House talks will deliver a comprehensive agreement which deals with the fundamental political issues needed for true normalisation.

Vučić is willing to make a minimalist deal

It is clear from the interview that Vučić is willing to enter a minimalist agreement that would ‘facilitate free trade, the movement of goods, services and capital.’ It would allow him to avoid compromising on anything and make him look like the winner.    

This in part explains why Vučić is such a huge fan of Trump and Grenell. According to Grenell, the U.S. should shy away from politics and merely aim to ‘normalise the economies’ of Serbia and Kosovo. 

Vučić is frustrated with the EU

Pavlovic McAteer’s interview suggests that Vučić wants the U.S., rather than the EU, in charge of the mediation process. Vučić even ridicules the EU for apparently bullying Serbia into making concessions. 

According to Vučić, ‘You can talk to some people in Europe as much as you want, but believe it or not, they never really hear you. They have their agenda, and for them, an excellent Serbian president would be the one who will accept all their demands, pressures and blackmails.’

The EU is starting to push harder for political reforms, which coincides with the rise of authoritarianism in Serbia. Besides, the EU also seems to favor a more comprehensive agreement rather than a minimalist deal.

It is thus not surprising that Vučić gravitates towards the U.S. as an alternative mediator. Nevertheless, upon closer inspection, it is clear that Vučić does not merely want the U.S. to lead the process, he specifically wants the Trump administration in the driver’s seat. 

Vučić specifically wants the Trump administration to be in the driving seat 

The interview makes 27 references to Trump by name, mostly in a positive manner. Both Vučić and Pavlovic McAteer paint Trump as an American outsider who is untainted by the experiences of the NATO bombings of the 1990s. Unlike Biden, Trump played no part in recognising Kosovo’s sovereignty following its declaration of independence in 2008. 

Trump and Grenell are seen as honest brokers, and unlike the EU and previous U.S. administrations, they apparently ‘listen’ to Serbia. Biden is a different story. He has been in U.S. politics for a long time and Vučić’s problem with him is that he ‘understands the situation… When Biden came for meetings, he was always well-prepared.’    

Key takeaways

Vučić’s narcissism may be a stumbling block in sealing a comprehensive agreement that leads to true normalisation. Over the past few months, several Serbian analysts told me that Vučić will only make a deal with Kosovo if it is seen as a big win for him. 

In addition, Vučić’s victim-perpetrator narrative is also a major impediment to the negotiations, because as the Faustian parable suggests, one should not make a deal with the devil. Even if an agreement is reached, the lack of trust between Serbia and Kosovo could hinder implementation.     

Vučić has never been a huge fan of the U.S., but he has found some friends in the Trump administration. Given Pavlovic McAteer’s views and links to the White House, it wouldn’t be surprising if Vučić used the interview with the White House correspondent as a means to signal to Trump his readiness to negotiate a deal that would serve their mutual interests, especially at this pivotal moment.

It is no secret that Trump wants a foreign policy victory in advance of the U.S. presidential election. Why else the urgency to broker a deal during a dispute, (not even an armed conflict!), in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis which has already claimed the lives of over 180,000 Americans? 

Vučić, for his part, explicitly admits that relations between Serbia and the U.S. will be better ‘if Trump wins [the] re-election.’ He views Biden as a perpetrator and someone who is biased against Serbia. In addition, the EU is starting to demand greater political reforms in Serbia, and the Trump administration has not shied away from snubbing Brussels, especially on the Serbia-Kosovo issue. Thus, rather than gambling on the outcome of the U.S. election, Vučić wants a deal right away under seemingly favorable circumstances. 

Grenell and Vučić are mainly interested in a minimalist agreement on economic normalisation. In negotiations, economic issues are far easier to resolve in comparison to the issues of sovereignty, security and identity politics. While an economic agreement would allow the narcissistic Vučić and Trump to proclaim victory to their audiences, it would also diminish Serbia and Kosovo’s ability to negotiate a comprehensive package deal at a later stage, especially if it is disconnected from the EU dialogue. 

Another risk with the upcoming White House negotiations is that the Trump administration has not shied away from bullying Kosovo into bending to its will. On March 10th 2020 Republican senator David Perdue tweeted that the U.S. should ‘reconsider its commitment’ to Kosovo if it does not ‘abolish all duties imposed on Serbia.’ A few hours later Donald Trump Junior chimed in, tweeting, ‘Agree. There are 650 US troops in Kosovo. Time to bring them home.’ 

Grenell also retweeted Perdue’s tweet, which caused great concern in Kosovo. Those threats played no small part in a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Albin Kurti in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. 

As I have argued elsewhere, Kosovo’s negotiation team is fragile at present, and given what happened with Kurti, Kosovars may be cautious about opposing the Trump administration’s propositions at the negotiation table on September 3rd.  

While the Trump administration may strongarm Kosovars into signing a deal at the White House, Kosovo’s Constitution requires two-thirds of its parliament to support an agreement before it can be ratified. 

If an agreement is brokered by the White House and not ratified, then Kosovar negotiators can blame political parties for failure to follow through, but that will also have consequences for future negotiations. In this case, Serbia will accuse Kosovo of not being serious about normalisation. 

Furthermore, in the event of a White House agreement and if Trump wins the November election, Serbia may continue to use the Trump administration to follow through on the agreement. If Biden wins, Kosovars may request a renegotiation of the agreement.    

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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