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Kosovo-Serbia Summit at the White House: What was it all about?

The so-called “economic normalisation deal” between Kosovo and Serbia was exploited by President Trump to further his foreign policy objectives in the Middle East.

September 14, 2020 - Visar Xhambazi - Hot Topics

Photo: The White House Flickr page (CC)

On September 4th, Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić were hosted by US President Donald Trump at the White House in order to sign documents officially focused on normalising their bilateral economic relations. 

Trump described the move as historic after years of failed negotiations. The meeting was organised by Richard Grenell, the Special Presidential Envoy responsible for Kosovo and Serbia’s peace negotiations. Grenell had consistently stated that he would leave politics aside and focus solely on economic matters.

Despite this, the documents signed are clearly full of political points and are often not specifically focused on Kosovo and Serbia’s ongoing talks. Furthermore, it appears that the so-called “historic deal” is nothing more than a series of pledges signed by both parties in two separate and different documents.

Not an international agreement

When a journalist asked Grenell if Kosovo and Serbia had signed an agreement with each other or with the US, Grenell replied, “they signed an agreement to work with each other, they did not sign with the US, we are not a signature.”

The journalist further asked, “President Trump signed something… we watched him. What did he sign?” Grenell awkwardly responded that “he signed a… how would you describe it, a basically, a letter acknowledging that they are going to work together and do this agreement.”

Even Grenell had difficulties explaining what President Trump and the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia had ultimately agreed upon. The signed documents may be described as a historic move or diplomatic breakthrough. However, this does not mean that they represent an international agreement.

Naturally, international agreements are commitments made between two (bilateral) or more (multilateral) countries. When those agreements are ratified by signatories, they become treaties. Under international law, a treaty is any legally binding agreement concluded between sovereign countries.

Kosovo and Serbia have signed different formal letters of commitments and are not joint signatories to any recent agreement. Similarly, Trump has signed two other documents. As a result, these letters are nothing more than political pledges.

Not only about economics

It is true that a large part of both documents focuses on the economy. This includes finalising transportation deals previously agreed on February, loans to support small and medium sized businesses and a commitment to strengthen the region’s “mini-Schengen zone.” However, these agreements included much more than just economics.

For example, Kosovo pledged to stop applying for membership in international organisations. Serbia in return promised to stop its derecognition campaign against Kosovo. These promises have directly impacted long-term politics in Pristina, which has struggled to strengthen its international recognition and has failed to become a member of Interpol and UNESCO.

The agreements also mark a shift in Washington’s policy towards Kosovo. America is, of course, a country which has always supported Kosovo’s sovereignty and its aspirations to join international organisations.

Furthermore, it is interesting to note that point nine of the agreements states that “Both parties will prohibit the use of 5G equipment supplied by untrusted vendors in their communications networks.” The term “untrusted” indirectly refers to China’s Huawei.

Washington sees Huawei as a national security risk and has sanctioned the company, further limiting its access to computer chips and other technology. The Trump administration has been campaigning to limit Huawei’s involvement in 5G networks overseas. Kosovo and Serbia are now just two more countries joining the United States’ bandwagon on this matter.

The documents also emphasised the need to promote freedom of religion and the protection of religious sights. In addition, both parties pledged to “expedite efforts to locate and identify the remains of missing persons”. Kosovo and Serbia simultaneously committed to “identifying and implementing long-term, durable solutions for refugees and internally displaced persons.” Again, nothing to do with economics.

Not only about Kosovo and Serbia

Naturally, it is rather strange to see Israel and Hezbollah mentioned in documents supposedly focused on “economic normalisation” between Kosovo and Serbia.

However, both countries have now pledged to designate Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist political party and militant group based in Lebanon, as a terrorist organisation. For Kosovo, this agreement is especially confusing as its government had already designated Hezbollah a terrorist organisation in June. It makes no logical sense to agree to do something that has already been done.

The last point pushes Serbia to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem by September next year. This would make Belgrade the first European government to make such a move. On the other hand, Kosovo and Israel have pledged to recognise eachother. A few hours later, it was announced that Pristina will also move its embassy to Jerusalem once diplomatic relations have been established.

Jerusalem is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital city. Opening embassies in Jerusalem is therefore a highly controversial decision as it de facto recognises the city as the capital of Israel.

The United States was the first country to move its embassy to Jersualem. In 2017, 128 countries in the UN General Assembly voted in favour of a resolution rejecting President Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem.

The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, stated that Kosovo would be the first Muslim majority country to open its embassy in Jerusalem. Kosovo is subsequently being used as an example that not all Muslim majority countries are against the State of Israel, further serving Trump’s and Netanyahu’s political agendas.

This move is especially controversial for Kosovo, a country which has yet to become a member of the United Nations. The UN and the European Union have stated that Jerusalem’s final status must be negotiated between the Israelis and Palestinians. Until this is done, no country should open embassies in the city. Due to this, the move could seriously damage Kosovo’s future prospects regarding UN membership.

Overall, these developments show that President Trump has simply used Kosovo and Serbia to further his foreign policy objectives in the Middle East. Instead of mutually recognising each other, both sides have ended up deepening their diplomatic ties with Israel.

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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