Wednesday

8th Jul 2020

EU or US: Who's in charge of Kosovo-Serbia talks?

  • US special envoy Richard Grenell, who is also acting director of national intelligence (Photo: bmvi.de)

The US is pushing Kosovo and Serbia to make a peace deal, over a year after the last EU-led talks took place.

In a new gambit, senior American personalities have threatened to pull out US troops from Kosovo unless it made concessions.

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  • EU foreign service chief Josep Borrell was in Pristina and Belgrade in January (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

"Now, with historic progress in sight, Kosovo must do its part and abolish all duties imposed on Serbia. If Kosovo is not fully committed to peace, then the US should reconsider its presence there," David Perdue, a Republican US senator, tweeted on Tuesday (10 March).

Rand Paul, another Republican senator, also tweeted: "I encourage Kosovo to turn a page and work with Serbia for a lasting peace. Time to bring our troops home".

Perdue's comments were retweeted by Richard Grenell, a US special envoy on the Western Balkans, causing alarm in Kosovo.

The US president's son, 42-year old businessman Donald Trump Jr., also retweeted Perdue, adding: "There are 650 US troops in Kosovo. Time to get them home".

Perdue's reference to "abolishing duties" comes after Kosovo imposed a tax on Serbian imports in 2018 because Serbia had blocked its recognition by international bodies.

The 650 US troops are the largest contingent out of 3,526 soldiers in a Nato peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

The US also led the air strikes that ended the Kosovo War in 1999, giving the American flag symbolic weight.

"Nato remains fully committed to our Kfor [Kosovo Force] mission, which ... continues to provide a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities in Kosovo," a Nato official told EUobserver in reaction to the US tweets.

The US gambit came after EU-led Kosovo-Serbia talks on "normalising relations" stalled in November 2018.

Kosovo president Hashim Thaçi and Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić sometimes rubbed shoulders at international events, such as the Munich Security Conference.

But the formal EU-led negotiations never resumed, even though EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell had called for it when he went to Pristina and Belgrade in January.

At the same time, Grenell managed to organise talks between Thaçi and Vučić at the White House on 3 March.

"America has finally taken over the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia [from the EU]", Thaçi said in Washington.

Grenell, who is also the US ambassador to Germany and acting director of US national intelligence, declined to comment on whether Thaçi was right when contacted by EUobserver.

His own retweet of Perdue should not be seen as a threat to pull out US troops from Kosovo, Grenell told this website. And recent reports by Kosovo newspaper Bota Sot that a draft US deal included the option of a territorial swap between Kosovo and Serbia were untrue, he added.

"Of course not," an EU foreign service spokesman said when also asked about Thaçi's remarks on the US taking over the peace process.

The EU "welcomed" the US "engagement", the spokesman said.

But "the EU is the only internationally tasked facilitator of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue ... no one else is organising it," the spokesman added, citing a UN mandate for the EU's diplomacy.

"The talks the leaders from Serbia and Kosovo might have had in the US were not part of the EU-facilitated dialogue," the EU spokesman said.

"Nato also fully supports the continuation of the EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina," the Nato official said.

Some EU sources believed the White House was pushing for a quick deal between Kosovo and Serbia even if it came at the cost of UN mandates.

But whoever was in charge, the EU foreign service voiced a gentler approach than the US.

"We cannot force them [Thaçi and Vučić] to sit down behind one table if they do not want to," the EU spokesman said.

Land swap

Talk of a land swap between Kosovo and Serbia has in the past attracted fierce criticism by Germany, which warned that border changes just 20 years after the Western Balkan wars could destabilise the region.

And German chancellor Angela Merkel has also tried to seize the initiative by inviting Kosovar and Serbian leaders to Berlin next week.

Meanwhile, the US line is that it was up to the two parties, Kosovo and Serbia, to decide on territories, leaving the door open for the land-swap option.

But whether the US or the EU foreign service was really in charge of the process, that option appeared to remain on the table despite German objections.

When asked if the EU foreign service backed the idea, the EU spokesman said: "The objective here is full normalisation of relations through a legally-binding agreement".

"The content, extent, nature, and scope of such an agreement is to be determined by the two main actors (Belgrade and Pristina)", he said, echoing the US formula.

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