EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH POLITICAL ANALYST AKRI ÇIPA–
A consultant and expert on Balkan affairs foreign policy, Akri Çipa renders a deeply insightful perspective and context into the Kosova-Serbia economic agreement. In reference to the Albanian-American community, he says it is critical to educate the new generation of lawmakers and not take the US support for granted.
by Rafaela Prifti
The September 4th meeting in Washington DC between Kosova Prime Minister Hoti and Serbian President Vucic was expected to resume an interrupted US-led process of negotiations. Instead of a dialogue, we got an event: the signing of a Kosova-Serbia economic agreement. Was it a surprise?
From the onset, there were high expectations that a deal would be reached in D.C. The US administration was directly invested, and when the US flexes its diplomatic muscles there are few things that can stop it from achieving results. This is even more true when dealing with Balkan issues. The biggest question was how far-reaching and consequential the agreement would be.
As it became clear, some commitments were announced by both parties, however there was no comprehensive agreement – there was no agreement at all for that matter. Both parties negotiated an economic package and pledged support for a series of policies and positions that affected the dialogue. The event aimed to incentivize both parties as they continue the EU-facilitated dialogue in Brussels. It is positive there was an impetus and focus on the issue in Washington, but the results were, overall, disappointing.
Aligning with Kosova leadership, the community and supporters of Albanians in the US have made the arguments in favor of a more “robust” U.S. involvement. President Trump’s Special Envoy, Ambassador Grenell, has come under some criticism with regard to knowledge of the region to the point where he is called ‘unqualified’ for the task at hand. Yet Ambassador Grenell did mediate the signing of the agreement at the White House. Did he prove those critics wrong?
In light of the special bond and alignment of strategic interests, US involvement in the Balkans has been strongly supported by the leadership of Albania and Kosova and by the larger Albanian-American community. This was reflected also by President Thaçi’s calls for the US to lead the dialogue between Kosova and Serbia. Ambassador Richard Grenell, who was serving as the US Ambassador to Germany when he was appointed as the Special Envoy for the Kosova-Serbia dialogue, he had a critical asset on his side: he had President Trump’s ear and attention. That’s a very rare commodity. Unfortunately, Ambassador Grenell lacked an understanding of the history and complex dynamics of the region. Eventually, this was reflected in the process. When Ambassador Grenell was announced as Special Envoy in 2019, the expectations were much different compared to the end results.
The Kosova and Serbia normalization agreements are two separate documents signed by the respective parties. The EU has facilitated 33 agreements between Serbia and Kosova, most of which have been blocked by Serbia. Secondly, the implementation of the agreement is to be conducted by both the EU and US. Three days later in Brussels, both Prime Minister Hoti and President Vucic reassured the Parliament that EU integration is their highest priority. What exactly was achieved in economic terms?
Similar infrastructural projects are much needed in a region like the Balkans that still suffers from underdevelopment and relatively modest economic growth. The commitment of the United States to assist with a set of projects is positive. However, there should be some reasons for concern about how these projects will be implemented. As part of the commitments the parties took in Washington, it was announced that the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) would open an office in Belgrade. Its main objective will be to support economic progress in the area and implement the agreed-upon projects. Yet, it is perplexing why the implementation should go through a Belgrade office, giving centrality to the Serbian capital and granting them another avenue for strengthening cooperation with the United States. DFC’s CEO Adam Boehler announced a high-level delegation to Belgrade the week of 9/21 to “start right away on projects key to economic normalization.” This creates an asymmetric situation between Belgrade and Prishtina.
The Brussels dialogue has shown that it is not only a matter of sticks and carrots. The process is also important and the need to level the playing field for both parties is pivotal.
The crucial point – the full and final agreement on mutual recognition was taken out of the documents. On this topic, Kosova President Thaçi has stated that this important and sensitive item was on the draft agreement last summer when his trip to Washington was canceled due to the publication of his indictment. Did the agreement move the needle to resolve Kosova’s recognition while removing tariffs might impact the leverage in the next round of negotiations?
Unfortunately, the Washington meeting resulted in a set of principles that are far from the comprehensive agreement that is needed to finally settle the Kosovo-Serbia conflict. The meeting did little to move the parties towards mutual recognition, address Serbia’s crimes in Kosovo and delineate the principles of justice. Without addressing these issues, there can be no real closure and reconciliation.
With the presidential elections in the United States fast approaching, the process will be now in the hands of the EU. The latter has shown that it lacks credibility and leadership and there is much skepticism about whether it will be able to deliver in a process that has been dragging on for almost a decade now.
In this moment, Kosova is in a disadvantaged position. It has made many concessions in order to try to build a positive environment and to convince Serbia to recognize it. Sadly, Serbia’s leaders have exploited the dialogue to score political, diplomatic, and economic gains without being seriously committed to the dialogue. This asymmetry is fundamentally wrong. The US and major European powers must lead a renewed push to strengthen Kosova’s position by at least securing new recognitions, especially from the five EU member states that still do not recognize it. That would build momentum and pressure Serbia to finalize the dialogue. Otherwise, the process will be stuck and, with no major breakthrough in the horizon, Kosova’s leadership will be under pressure to concede even more vis-à-vis Serbia.
Let me lay out some opinions and statements: “the Kosova-Serbia agreement could sway US elections”, “economic normalization will lead to recognition”, “a technical agreement facilitated by US is better than no agreement”, “an agreement that does not include Serbia’s accountability and Kosova’s recognition as independent bears no significance”. Could these statements carry some validity to some extent? What is your position?
With so much going on right now in the United States and in the world, it would be naïve to think that this issue could somehow sway US elections. The event in Washington had a branding component, but in the end it did not even dominate the day’s news cycle.
The security and peace of the Balkans is dependent on the United States, and thus US engagement on Balkan issues is always welcome. However, the Washington meeting had an effect that should worry Albanians and the Albanian-American community. One of the most consequential changes in recent years is the rapprochement of Serbia with the United States. President Vucic has been able to create the image of Serbia as a modern country and as a possible partner for the US in the Balkans. The Trump administration has been open and receptive to Serbia’s signals and lobbying. This is deeply problematic because it rebrands Serbia despite its failure to acknowledge past crimes. Moreover, it shows that there are no consequences for its obstructionism towards Kosovo and its destabilizing behavior in the region.
Speaking of the economic projects, while the Russian and Serb alliance gets more attention, Serbia President Vucic has drawn Serbia closer to Sino-interest in the region with China’s Belt and Road Initiative coercing countries to hire Chinese contractors with loans from Beijing. Does the signing of the economic agreement at the White House affect Chinese expansion of interest in the region?
Besides the economic package and the elements pertaining to the Kosova-Belgrade conflict, the documents signed in D.C. had also a geopolitical connotation and aimed to advance US interests in the region. In this regard, there were elements worth highlighting. One was the commitment of both Kosova and Serbia to diversify their energy supplies. This is clearly aimed at Russia and Serbia’s reliance on Russia in the energetic sphere. The other important element was the targeting of what the US calls “untrusted vendors” in terms of 5G infrastructure. This specific point is indirectly impacting Serbian-Chinese cooperation. Still, President Vucic succeeded in making sure that there would be no direct reference to China or Huawei in the document. That would have led to Chinese reprimands and diplomatic reactions. These two commitments signed by Kosova and Serbia represent a working framework that the United States will likely try to push in regard to all the countries in the Balkans. They aim to keep in check and create safeguards against influence from other great powers in the region.
The signing of the agreement was praised by President Trump as “a truly historic day”, noting the importance of a country with a Muslim majority setting up an embassy in Jerusalem and thus being recognized by Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu stated “First country with a Muslim majority to open an embassy in Jerusalem.” The Arab League criticized the decision. Turkey expressed concern citing ‘clear violation of international law’. The focus of the agreement on religion caused an unfavorable reaction among Albanian politicians and community leaders. President Thaçi countered it by saying Kosova was and always will be a Western country. Community leaders in the US responded by saying that Albanians are united by their heritage, culture, traditions and language. While Albanians have historically followed three main religions, they have not identified with any religion. What is your comment?
The decision of Israel and Kosova to mutually recognize each other and establish diplomatic relations is very welcome, especially in light of Kosova’s repeated overtures to the Jewish state. President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu emphasized for domestic reasons the fact that Kosova has a Muslim-majority population. Nevertheless, Kosova brings much more than that to the table. Kosova has religious pluralism and is characterized by tolerance and interreligious dialogue. Furthermore, it cherishes both its Muslim and Christian traditions and is committed to protecting all communities and religions. There are no doubts about these facts. Israel’s recognition is particularly important because it reinforces the fact that Kosova is a sui generis case and does not set a precedent in the international arena. It reinforces the opinion of the International Court of Justice that confirmed the legality of Kosova’s declaration of independence and that Serbia has actively tried to undermine. Now, the countries that do not recognize Kosova because of the fear that it could encourage unilateral independence declarations cannot hide behind that justification any more.
US foreign policies in the Balkans have largely been defined by bipartisan support. In a highly politicized climate in the nation’s capital and across the US, what position should Albanian-Americans take to advocate, in particular for Kosova?
US bipartisan support for Kosova has been critical to ensuring the security and progress of the youngest country in Europe. Unfortunately, there are some shifts in the United States, and not only, that are changing the world as we know it. There are some revisionist efforts in the United States that for purely partisan and, I might say, misguided reasons are revisiting recent history. These efforts include criticism to US leadership in securing the NATO intervention against Serbia and to the unequivocal US support for Kosova. Moreover, Serbia has restyled its image and has intensified its lobbying efforts.
The Albanian-American community cannot afford to take some things for granted. Geopolitical developments have changed some considerations in Washington. Congress is experiencing a generational change – many of the new decision-makers have a limited knowledge and understanding of the Balkans and of Albanian issues. It is critical for Albanian-Americans to mobilize. Concerted efforts need to be made to organize the community in order to approach this new generation of lawmakers from both parties and educate them on the historical context and the importance of the US alliance with Albania and Kosova.
Thank you for the interview!