By Faton Tony Bislimi
The recent visit to Prishtina by the US and EU top envoys for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, Mr. Palmer (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State) and Mr. Lajcak (EU Special Envoy for Western Balkans), is a clear indication of their intention to re-launch the dialogue and indeed conclude it as soon as possible. Successfully concluding the lingering Prishtina-Belgrade dialogue with a legally binding agreement resulting in mutual recognition for Kosovo and Serbia would be a major foreign policy win for the Biden Administration.
Former President Trump used this process to score some really important foreign policy points during his bid for re-election. He had named Amb. Ric Grenell (former US Ambassador to Germany) as his Presidential Envoy for Kosovo-Serbia talks. Grenell (mis)used the profound admiration of the Kosovar Albanians for the US to achieve the Washington Agreement of September 4, 2020, which brought together the then-Prime Minister of Kosovo Dr. Hoti and President of Serbia Mr. Vucic in the Oval Office for an agreement on economic normalization.
Now, that Mr. Trump is gone and President Biden is in, it is in the US’ national interest to finalize the process of statehood and independence of Kosovo by committing to concluding successfully the Prishtina-Belgrade Dialogue on normalization of relations between the two countries. After all, the process of liberation and independence of Kosovo from Serbia was started in the mid-1980s by Congressmen Joe DioGuardi and Tom Lantos, a republican and a democrat, respectively. This bi-partisanship effort was instrumental in enabling Mr. Clinton to join NATO airstrikes against Serbia to save Kosovo in 1999, and helping Mr. Bush make the US one of the very first nations to recognize Kosovo’s independence in February 2008. Without such US support, Kosovo would have never become free and independent.
Hence, there are several geopolitical interests in Kosovo that the US must defend by taking a leading role in the region once again. The EU, given Brexit and its own internal divisions, has shown no real capability of handling major disputes such as the Kosovo-Serbia one, be it even in its own backyard.
There are at least four paramount reasons that call for the US to be the frontrunner in shaping the future of the Western Balkans:
- The lack of EU cohesion and growing Euroscepticism increases the potential for renewed conflict in the Balkans (Kosovo remains the only country in the region which has yet to be granted Schengen area visa liberalization, i.e. Kosovo citizens are the only in the region that still require a visa to travel to any country in the EU; so if they cannot travel West, more of them head East);
- Increased involvement of Russia in Serbia both militarily and politically frustrates the neighboring countries with pro-Western stands, such as Montenegro where just a year ago a coup d’état sponsored by Russian elements failed.
- Growing presence of China economically in the region is problematic for the US and the West. They are dumbing billions of dollars through their Road and Belt Initiative – building highways and other critical infrastructure in Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro (thankfully, they’re not present in Kosovo yet).
- The neo-Ottoman ambitions of President Erdogan of Turkey are quite vivid in Bosnia, and a bit less so, but quite significant in Kosovo and Macedonia. The Turks have already privatized key public infrastructure in Kosovo such as the Prishtina International Airport and KEDS – Kosovo Electricity Distribution Service.
There is also geostrategic interest for the US to remain in the lead here. The Albanian people, whether they live in Albania, Kosovo, or in their ethnic lands in the neighboring countries such as Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, are the most pro-American people in the world (as per one of the latest Gallup International polls). To understand who profoundly pro-American the Albanians are, one need not more than to see that they had the highest approval rating in the world for Mr. Trump! This is simply because of their unconditional love for the US, not necessarily a reflection of Mr. Trump’s work as President at all.
Simply put, the US has no better or more trustworthy allies in the Balkans, which historically has been a powder keg ready to explode at any time, than the Albanian people. The ‘Achilles’ Heel’ in this region and Europe as well is the lingering issue of the Dialogue between Prishtina and Belgrade.
Therefore, the Biden administration must act swiftly and wisely. President Biden should immediately appoint a Special Presidential Envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue so as to step up the speed and the substance of this process and aim for a final resolution by end of 2022. Continued lack of direct and bold involvement in this process by the US will have an unbearable cost for everyone. The US has been the biggest investor in Kosovo politically and militarily. To many, Kosovo is a US-sponsored state in Europe. Failure to act now would be seen as President Biden’s weakness in handling a major international affairs issue that his predecessor tackled with stubbornness (much like anything else he did), and in which he was involved significantly when a US Senator.
President Biden has another very personal connection to Kosovo. His late son, Beau, served in the post-war Kosovo with the US forces there. Indeed, a major roadway connecting Gjilan (my hometown) and Ferizaj, another major city in Kosovo, which passes right by the biggest US military installation in the region – Camp Bondsteel – has been named in honor of Beau Biden in 2017, and Mr. Biden as VP then along with his family took part in the naming ceremony here.
So, the bottom line is the Biden Administration needs a seasoned and competent diplomat to handle this delicate issue; someone who understands the history behind the Kosovo-Serbia issue and who has a superb understanding of the current situation. With increased US involvement will come the chance for achieving the much needed comprehensive and legally binding agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, and with that, some lasting peace in the Balkans, too.
Faton Tony Bislimi, PhD, is an Executive Board Member of the Albanian American Civic League (est. 1989) and a former Member of Parliament of the Republic of Kosovo.