Serbian president Aleksander Vucic meets the master.
First published in LeftEast journal at https://lefteast.org/serbia-kosovo-trump-jerusalem-israel-palestine/
By Michael Karadjis
A bizarre Trumpist ceremony in the White House on September 4 saw the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo apparently signing two separate documents with the United States involving American-funded economic agreements between the two estranged countries.
Bizarre in so many way – not least with Trump claiming that he had ended “hundreds of years” of “mass killings” between Serbia and Kosovo because he said “fellas, let's get together.” Of course, apart from a two-day outbreak in 2003, there have been no “mass killings” since 1999. In contrast, his equally right-wing Balkan envoy, Richard Grenell,
thought the Kosovo war was merely a “perceived conflict, which in some ways is a conflict.” Believing that Serbia and Kosovo are fighting over the name of the Gazivoda/Ujmani lake which borders the two countries, he suggested calling it “Trump Lake” as a solution.
But leaving aside this truly abysmal state of the US political leadership presiding over the deal, the strangest thing about these “agreements” was the added extras that had nothing to do with the issues between Serbia and Kosovo.
One example is the clause whereby the two countries agree to prohibit the use of 5G equipment “supplied by untrusted vendors.” Apparently, reconciliation between Serbia and Kosovo involves getting stuck in the middle of the global conflict between Chinese and US imperialism.
Even stranger was that these deals included a signed commitment by Serbia to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to illegally occupied Jerusalem by July 2021 (and to open a Ministry of State Affairs in Jerusalem immediately), and that “Kosovo (Pristina) and Israel agree to mutually recognise each other.” While not explicitly on the signed document, it has been widely reported that the condition for Kosovo to gain Israel’s recognition is that it also places its eventual embassy in Jerusalem, which it later promised to do.
Since, apart from the US itself, only some quisling regime in Guatemala has violated this article of international law by moving its Israeli embassy to illegally occupied Palestinian territory, if Serbia does move its embassy it will be the first European country to do so. Meanwhile, ideologically separating Kosovo from its European reality, Trump has disingenuously presented Israel’s reluctant recognition of Kosovo as a case of another ‘Muslim’ state recognising Israel, following in the footsteps of the recent, also Trump-sponsored, recognition by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Not surprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked “my friend the president of Serbia” for the Jerusalem decision, while Palestine's ambassador to Belgrade Mohammed Nabhan declared it “contrary to international law.” Meanwhile, Turkey, a strong supporter of Palestine which was also one of the first countries to recognise Kosovo, said Kosovo’s Jerusalem promise was disappointing and urged it “to refrain from such steps that would undermine the historical and legal status of Jerusalem.”
Observers would be correct in wondering what Israel and Jerusalem have to do with the Serbia-Kosovo dispute. It is not difficult to see what’s in it for Trump: by attempting to “Middle Easternise” the Balkan dispute, the Trump regime seeks to present – in a flagrantly dishonest way – another Trump victory on behalf of Israel to the US electorate, especially the ultra-Zionist Christian fundamentalist part of it.
In addition, as we will see below, if Serbia and Kosovo do make these Jerusalem moves they may jeopardise their plans to join the European Union, which does not recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and which, until recently, has been the main body presiding over Serbia-Kosovo negotiations within the EU accession framework. With this move – and the background process, detailed below, involving a US-pushed move to partition Kosovo - the US is making inroads into the EU’s “backyard.” Ironically, in doing so, it is also competing with Russia on similar terms, virtually stealing its thunder, as both Trump and Putin see a partner in Serbia’s ambitious right-wing president, Aleksander Vucic.
Decades-long alliance between Israel and Serbian nationalism
However, what do Serbia and Kosovo get out of this? And what can one make of this Israel connection to the agreement from their perspective? On the one hand, Israel and Serbian nationalism have had something like a 3-decade long strategic alliance. The former Yugoslavia severed relations with Israel after Israel’s conquests of 1967, and as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, it was historically allied to Arab leaders such as Egypt’s Gamal Nasser, and was a strong supporter of the Palestinian struggle.
However, with the rise of anti-Yugoslav Serbian nationalism in the late 1980s and 1990s, led by Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, a new special understanding was reached with Israel, whereby both saw themselves resisting “Islamic extremism”, which Israel identified with the Palestinian quest for liberation, and right-wing Serbian nationalism identified with the Bosnian Muslims, who it wanted to eliminate, and the Kosovar Albanians, over whom it imposed a regime not unlike that imposed by Israel on the Palestinian West Bank. According to some sources, Henry Kissinger helped facilitate this alliance. This alliance was consecrated with a major deal Israel made to sell arms to Serbia in October 1991, when its army was razing the Croatian city of Vukovar to the ground. When the former Yugoslavia was dissolved and a ‘New Yugoslavia’ established by Milosevic’s Serbia and Montenegro in 1992, relations were established with Israel, and a delegation from the Israeli defence ministry arrived in Belgrade to do another deal to sell Serbia large numbers of shells
Throughout the war in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, Israel was identified as one of the countries, along with Greece and Ukraine, violating the UN arms embargo on “all of Yugoslavia” by arming the Bosnian Serb ‘republic’ (Republika Srpska), led by Chetnik genocidist Radovan Karadzic, as it seized 70 percent of Bosnia and ethnically cleansed these regions of their Bosnian Muslim (‘Bosniak’) majority. Bosnian Serb general Mladic, also convicted of genocide, refers to these arms in his diary; and according to Israeli professor Yair Auron, it was almost certainly Israeli-made shells used by Serbian Chetnik forces in the Markale market massacre in August 1994, which killed 68 people and wounded 142. In 2016, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a petition calling for details of Israel’s arms exports to Serbian forces during the Bosnian war be revealed.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the Bosnian Serb ethno-statelet in half of Bosnia, that was consecrated by the US-orchestrated Dayton peace agreement in 1995, has long been one of the strongest supporters of Israel in Europe, continually stymying Bosnian government policy. For example, when the UN voted on recognition of Palestine in 2011, the Bosniak and Croat representatives in the tripartite Bosnian government were in favour, but the Serb delegates vetoed it, resulting in Bosnia being forced to abstain. Then three years ago, in a vote on a UN resolution to get the US to drop its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Bosnia was forced to abstain rather than vote against like virtually all other Muslim-majority countries, due once again to the veto of the pro-Israel Serb representatives in the government.
When Israel’s US sponsor led NATO into its air war against Serbia in 1999, and Milosevic attempted to physically empty Kosovo of its Albanian majority, Israeli defence minister and famous Sabra-Shatilla butcher, Ariel Sharon, declared his solidarity with Serbia:
“Israel should not legitimise NATO’s aggression, led by the United States…Israel could be the next victim of the sort of action now going on in Kosovo… imagine if one fine day the Arabs declared autonomy for the Galilee and links with the Palestinian Authority.”
This alliance has included Israel refusing to recognise Kosovo for 12 years after it was recognised by the US, its biggest, most unconditional ally. As such, if Serbia really has decided to move its embassy to Jerusalem, this rather makes sense – if seen in isolation.
But then … why the Jerusalem move if Israel recognises Kosovo?
However, there is a context; and the context is ... Israel ending that long period of non-recognition of Kosovo. Which would seem a somewhat strange moment for Serbia decide to reward Israel by promising to move its embassy to Jerusalem, in isolation from the rest of the world, and in particular, from the European Union, as we will explain below. So, how can this decision be explained in this context?
On the one hand, it is possible that Serbian president Aleksander Vucic did not even know that he had agreed to move its embassy to Jerusalem. This video of the ‘agreement’ makes Serbian president Vucic appear surprised when Trump announces Vucic’s decision on this.
However, Vucic’s signature is on the document immediately below the explicit statement regarding Jerusalem, so unless Vucic is a dill, it is not credible that he did not read it; and several months ago Vučić had already announced that Serbia’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry would open in Jerusalem, and that a substantial package of Israeli arms was to be purchased. And the more general strategic alliance continues to play out: the day after the Trump show, Milorad Dodik, president of ‘Republika Srpska’ and Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, demanded that Bosnia move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He was overruled by the Bosniak and Croat leaderships.
So, if we assume that Serbia has in fact agreed to the Jerusalem move, despite Israel’s recognition of Kosovo, what might this mean is happening behind the scenes?
A Serbia-dominated south Balkan economic zone?
One possibility is that Serbia figures the economic agreements will be so much in its favour that the economic rewards outweigh Israeli recognition of Kosovo; so Serbia is rewarding Trump (rather than its ally Israel as such) with Jerusalem. This reasoning is based on solid ground. Serbia, after all, is already in a vastly superior situation compared to Kosovo. With 7 times Kosovo’s GDP and double its per capita GDP, and half the poverty and unemployment figures of Kosovo, Serbia manufactures and exports products such as automobiles, iron and steel, machinery, pharmaceuticals, electrical appliances and weapons; by contrast, Kosovo is heavily dependent on mining, base metals, foodstuffs and beverages and textiles.
Despite the “economic normalisation” hype about this agreement, Serbia and Kosovo have never stopped trading, and ever since 1999, the far more powerful Serbian economy has commanded a massive trade surplus over Kosovo; indeed while Kosovo exports very little to Serbia, Serbia is the Kosovo’s major source of imports; the value of imports from Serbia is twice as big as that of Albania.
Serbia may therefore believe that this inevitable domination of economic rewards will mean the ability to further economically dominate Kosovo; and extending this thinking, that such economic dominance may allow Serbia to impose political costs on Kosovo down the road.
From this perspective, the statement by the Kosovar opposition Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) movement condemning the agreement, where its states that “the construction of these internal corridors [ie, US-funded road and rail corridors] for Serbia in Kosovo create the ground for a dangerous project, such as the territorial division of the northern part of the country,” may well be the thinking of Serbian leaders. For Serbia, these major road and rail projects from Serbia into Kosovo, and in particular, cutting across the north of Kosovo through Albania to the Adriatic sea, are indeed huge – landlocked Serbia essentially gains a sea port funded by the US International Development Finance Corporation.
Another point made by Vetevendosje and other critics is that Kosovo has agreed to join the ‘Mini-Schengen’ agreement between Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania in 2019, involving the free movement of people, capital, goods and services between these countries of the southern Balkans. Montenegro and Bosnia have also been invited to join. But all Kosovar political parties had been opposed to joining a bloc; Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti claims he was pushed by the White House to accept it. As Vetevendosje explains, the Mini-Schengen “is a space that would be easily hegemonized by Serbia, due to military, demographic and economic inequality between it and other countries” – a logical statement, given the economic data noted above.
Indeed, Serbia commands very large trade surpluses not only with Kosovo but also with Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia; is the third biggest foreign investor in Bosnia and Montenegro; and the Serbian dinar rules in northern Kosovo and Republika Srpska. Thus, alongside the recent change in government in Montenegro – elections won by a Russian-backed, trenchantly pro-Serbia coalition which aims to revive the lapsed federation with Serbia – and continual threats by Republika Srspka – itself heavily dominated by Serbia’s economy – to secede from Bosnia, it is clear that Mini-Schengen can well serve as a vehicle for the hegemony of Serbian capital throughout the southern Balkans.
Furthermore, some of the economic agreements do arguably touch on sovereignty issues, in particular the clause which commits the two parties to “work with the US Department of Energy on a feasibility study for the purposes of sharing Gazivode/Ujmani Lake, as a reliable water and energy source.” The importance of this can hardly be underestimated; this lake supplies drinking water to one third of Kosovo’s population, and cooling water for two coal plants that produce 95 percent of Kosovo's electricity; yet the power infrastructure is owned by a Serbian power company, and it is situated within the province of Zubin Potok, an ethnically Serb province in northern Kosovo bordering on Serbia which in practice has little to do with Kosovo’s government. Therefore, talk about “sharing” a strategic resource that Kosovo considers it sovereign territory comes on top of a situation in which most Kosovar politicians consider the region far too “shared” already.
According to Vetevendosje, by agreeing to this point, Kosovo prime minister Hoti “has allowed Serbia to intervene in Kosovo’s energy sovereignty, security, production and market,” further claiming “this also harms Kosovo’s position vis-à-vis the European network of operators who made Kosovo’s energy transmission operator independent from Serbia.” Notably, alongside the opposition Vetevendosje, even the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) party, a member of the current governing coalition, has threatened to withdraw from the government over this clause.
While certain other aspects of the agreements could be considered political concessions to Serbia, these are minor. Certainly the “protection of religious sites and implementation of judicial decisions pertaining to the Serbian orthodox Church” are relevant to Serbia (and highly justified), but only refer to long-term agreements giving special status to the church in Kosovo that Kosovo has not objected to.
There is also the fact that the original agreement included the ‘Republic of Kosovo’ but upon Serbian objections, the agreement called the two entities simply ‘Serbia (Belgrade)’ and ‘Kosovo (Pristina)’, thus highlighting Kosovo’s limited status; but this in itself is simply continuation of the status quo. Kosovo also agreed to suspend its campaign to gain recognition from other countries, but only for a year.
Vetevendosje may be stretching things when claiming the road and rail links could facilitate the territorial division of northern Kosovo – ie, the long term Serb nationalist project – but there is no doubt that these economic agreements as a whole – the road and rail networks connecting Serbia to the Adriatic cutting across northern Kosovo, the sharing of Kosovo’s major energy resource located in the north, all within a US-funded, Serbia-dominated, south Balkan mini-Schengen zone – will further entrench Serbia’s regional domination, arguably thereby reducing an internationally unrecognised Kosovo’s effective status.
Some background: EU negotiates Serb autonomy in Kosovo
Nevertheless, while this scenario arguably describes a comprehensive US-financed boon for Serbia, economically lording it over a hobbled Kosovo, this still represents a retreat from a more formal partitionist scenario that has been on the recent agenda. The big issue the last few years and earlier this year was a US-facilitated discussion on the possibility of ‘border correction’. While this has apparently disappeared in this agreement, it has never been given a burial; does Serbia perhaps think that is still somewhere in the sub-text, or something that its economic superiority may still be able to push in practice?
To put this question in context, it is worth going over these developments, which requires some background. Despite recognition by the US and EU and some 100 countries after 2008, Kosovo’s development has remained frozen due to crucial countries inside both the EU and the UN Security Council, which veto EU and UN membership. For the EU, unfreezing the conflict is an essential step in integrating the remainder of the southern Balkans.
In the 2013 Brussels Agreement, Serbia and Kosovo, under EU auspices, agreed that an autonomous Community of Serbian Municipalities (ZSO) would be set up inside Kosovo. This was a more explicit and detailed variation of Serb autonomy clauses already in Kosovo’s constitution as outlined in the Ahtisaari Plan which prepared it for recognition in 2008. The ZSO was thus seen as a landmark agreement with the potential to unfreeze the conflict.
The revolt of the Kosovar Albanian majority for independence from Serbian rule in the 1990s had, after all, begun in 1989-90 when Serbian nationalist warlord Slobodan Milosevic had suppressed Kosovo’s status of high-level autonomy, which it had enjoyed in Communist Yugoslavia under the rule of Broz Tito. Given that Milosevic had attempted to physically “cleanse” the entire region of Albanians in 1999 while NATO rained down bombs to “protect” the Albanians – protection which plainly didn’t happen – it was hardly surprising that the autonomous Kosovo emerging from that war, led by hardened Albanian nationalists, with a vengeful population, in chaotic post-war conditions, would in turn act oppressively towards the Serbs. After all, unlike the multi-ethnic Bosnian society which Serbian nationalism had destroyed, there was never any such thing in Kosovo, an outright Serbian colony, and now the tables were turned.
Therefore, the ZSO – Kosovar Serbs getting the autonomous rights in Kosovo that Kosovar Albanians had once had in Serbia – would seem a highly appropriate solution.
However, Kosovo has dragged its feet in implementing this agreement, which tends to be opposed by whichever Kosovar Albanian parties are in opposition at any time, a convenient nationalist target; and given that Serbia says it will never recognise Kosovo regardless, Kosovar leaders do not feel obliged to move in that direction with no bargain.
Meanwhile, while the ZSO would be of great benefit to smaller Serb communities scattered around Kosovo, the northern part of Kosovo – the four provinces of Zubin Potok, Leposevac, Zvecan and northern Mitrovica - has remained effectively independent of Kosovo, and linked directly to Serbia, ever since 1999; the Serbian dinar is the currency. Much of the Serbian elite therefore has little more interest in the ZSO than the Kosovo Albanian elite, as it is more interested in keeping the north, with its economic resources, than an agreement that, if implemented, would reduce its argument for non-recognition.
Therefore, as Kosovo did not implement the agreement, Serbia went on a campaign to convince countries that had recognised Kosovo to withdraw recognition, a campaign which has led to some 15 countries doing so. This campaign gave Kosovo more excuses to not implement the ZSO, and in retaliation, in 2018 it imposed 100 percent tariffs on Serbian products.
US-backed drive for partition of Kosovo
Both the US and the EU tried to push Serbia to end its de-recognition campaign, and for Kosovo to scrap its 100 percent tariffs. But while the EU sees the solution as returning to the ZSO framework, in 2018 the Trump regime adopted a new tack. Led by Trump’s Balkan envoy Richard Grenell, the US got to work with a pair of ambitious and somewhat idiosyncratic leaders - Serbian president Aleksander Vucic, whose Serbian Progressive Party is a pragmatic split from the Chetnik-fascist Serbian Radical Party of war-criminal Vojislav Seselj, and Kosovo president Hashim Thaci, of the People’s Democratic Party (PDK), one of the parties to emerge from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Together these leaders jointly proposed the territorial exchange of Serb-majority northern Kosovo for the Albanian-majority Presevo region of southeast Serbia.
This proposal was strongly rejected by most EU leaders, especially Germany; any ethnic-based border changes pose the question of the Albanian minority in Macedonia, or of the Bosnian Croat demand for third republic status in Bosnia, or the Bosnian Serb campaign for secession from Bosnia, and are thus considered highly destabilising.
In contrast, for the Trump regime, pushing this expedient and iconoclastic solution probably involved little more than an attempt to add a great “peace agreement” – like that between Israel and the UAE – to its resume, while gaining a special US foothold in the EU’s backyard, competing with Russia for the same turf. At another level, however, this course tapped into the views of a section of the US right who had never been comfortable with US support for Kosovar independence, which they associate with the Clinton legacy and ‘liberal internationalism’.
In particular, while then National Security Advisor John Bolton explained pragmatically that “if the parties themselves felt that as part of an overall solution that adjustments to territory made sense, that the United States would support that,” in reality he has long condemned successive US governments for alleged “anti-Serbian policy since the break-up of Yugoslavia,” and issued a joint declaration with other US leaders in 2007 opposing recognition of Kosovo. Grenell has indicated that Bolton was his inspiration for pursuing this course. Meanwhile, voices on the hard-right and Christian-right among Trump’s support base are even more committed to an anti-Albanian position. Grenell, who was spokesman for Bolton when he served as anti-UN UN Ambassador for the Bush regime, is a rather controversial figure himself; arriving as new US Ambassador to Germany in 2018, he gave an interview with the far-right Breitbart where he declared the US would “empower” right-wing forces in Europe.
For Vucic, enthusiasm for this partition proposal is a no-brainer. While the proposal takes the form of an exchange of territory of similar size (both approximately 1000 square kilometres), there is no equivalence. For pragmatic Serb nationalists, giving away one percent of Serbian territory populated by Albanians, with no special significance, is small change for gaining ten percent of symbolically invaluable Kosovo – especially the resource-rich north with the massive Trepca mining and metallurgy complex, and Gazidvoda/Ujmani lake – indeed, the entire worry about “sharing” the lake with Serbia in the agreements would be irrelevant if this partition took place.
As for Kosovo, this proposal was only supported by president Thaci and his PDK, which was part of the governing coalition. While Thaci assumed this would lead to Serbian recognition of Kosovo and therefore an end to the deadlock, he may also see it in broader nationalist terms – last year he proposed the unification of Kosovo with Albania, a course consistent both with gaining Albanian-populated Presevo and dispensing with Serb-populated northern Kosovo.
All other parties in Kosovo – both those in opposition (Vetevendosje, and the Democratic League of Kosovo – LDK – the old party of Kosovo civil opposition leader Ibrahim Rugova), and the AAK (the other party that arose from the old KLA), which was part of the governing coalition and whose leader, Ramush Haradinaj, was Thaci’s prime minister – strongly opposed this partitionist scenario.
To digress, while such a partition would allow Serbia to keep the north’s economic assets, it would be the worst outcome for Kosovar Serbs, only 40 percent of whom live in the north. The secession of the wealthy north would abandon the majority of Serbs, living in smaller, more vulnerable enclaves surrounded by the Albanian majority throughout the rest of Kosovo, and they would lose the city of northern Mitrovica as their major Serb centre (with university, hospital and so on) inside Kosovo.
Therefore, many Kosovo Serb leaders oppose partition; Rada Trajkovic, president of Kosovo’s Serbian National Council, proposes instead “the Cyprus model,” meaning the UN’s Annan plan for reunification based on a Greek Cypriot entity and a Turkish Cypriot entity forming a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. Such a scenario for Kosovo – more than mere Serb autonomy, less than full partition – would indeed represent the Kosovo reality, like the Cypriot reality – both involving parts of two external nations fated to living in the same geographic space.
Did the partition drive lead to the US overthrow of Kosovo’s elected government?
The Vucic-Thaci-Trump drive received a significant set-back with the shock election victory of Vetevendosje (‘Self-Determination’) in October 2019, a party furiously opposed to partition. Noting its opposition to partition was not a stance against the Serb community, the party’s leader, Albin Kurti, declared “I am ready to discuss the needs of the communities, rights of the citizens but not territorial exchange.”
Vetevendosje emerged after Kosovo gained its freedom from Serbian rule among a radical wing of Kosovar civil society, led by youthful radical Albin Kurti, a former political prisoner in Serbia and advisor of historic Kosovar Albanian leader Adem Demaci, who had spent 28 years in Serbian prisons. Radically opposed to any Serbian-state interference in Kosovo affairs (while, however, rejecting anti-Serb chauvinism at a popular level), Vetevendosje also opposed the entire structure of UN and EU institutions ruling Kosovo over the next decade, denying it independence; and then after independence in 2008, it opposed the “supervised” strictures imposed on it. Some analysts have called it Kosovo’s “anti-colonial movement.” Also campaigning against entrenched corruption among Kosovar political parties, big on street campaigns and radical direct action stunts, Vetevendosje is seen as a huge factor of instability by the incipient Kosovar Albanian bourgeoisie and all wings of the traditional political elite.
Despite this, needing a coalition partner, Vetevendosje managed to stitch together an unstable coalition agreement with the LDK, which received the second largest number of votes. However, while Thaci’s party was now out of office, he remained president and continued to push partition via heavily executive decision-making.
From its inception, the Vetevendosje-led government was confronted by a US-orchestrated campaign involving both its LDK partner and the now-opposition PDK. Vetevendosje indicated its readiness to drop the 100 percent tariffs on Serbian goods, but aimed to drive a bargain involving Serbia reciprocating by removing non-tariff barriers and ending its lobbying against recognition of Kosovo. Despite this, it was confronted by a sudden holier than thou campaign by parties inside and outside of government (including those who introduced thee tariffs) denouncing it for not scrapping the tariffs immediately, in order to remain in America’s good books!
They were joined, or possibly ordered, by the US government, which froze $50 million in development aid to Kosovo because of Kurti’s refusal to immediately and unconditionally lift the tariffs, while the US embassy informed Kurti the US was considering withdrawing its peacekeeping forces from Kosovo. As part of this campaign, Vucic dropped into Washington in late March for photo shoots with Grenell, Kushner and national security advisor Robert O’Brien, and announced Serbia’s rejection of Kurti’s conditional lifting of tariffs – a stance explicitly supported by Grenell, and also by both Thaci’s PDK and by the LDK coalition partner! Other Republicans and Trump cronies joined in the assault.
When the LDK moved a no-confidence motion against Vetevendosje in late March, all the other parties supported the move, in what has been described as a US-inspired soft coup against the just-elected government; in the face of this, angry Pristina residents, unable to protest in the streets due to the Covid-19 lockdown, banged pots and pans from their balconies in protest. Kurti himself accused the US of orchestrating his overthrow, stating “my government was not overthrown for anything else but simply because Ambassador Grenell was in a hurry to sign an agreement with Serbia.”
Just before Vucic and Thaci were to arrive for a summit in the US on June 27, where big announcements were expected, the EU-run Kosovo Specialist Chamber (set up in 2015 to investigate war crimes in Kosovo) indicted Thaci and nine others for some 100 killings during the war in 1999 – timing widely considered fortuitous to the EU. This put the deal on the back-burner, as new prime minister Avdullah Hoti of the LDK took Thaci’s place in negotiations.
While the parties were all united against the radical Vetevendosje on one side, the LDK, AAK and other small parties were also united against the partitionist agenda of Thaci’s PDK on the other. Thus the new government formed by a coalition between the LDK and the AAK had neither the mandate nor the interest in furthering the partition deal; the lack of any such deal in the Trump-Vucic-Hoti agreement may well represent the death of these scenarios.
The fact that Vucic is clearly pleased with the deal, however, may indicate that Serbia, and perhaps some in the Trump regime, perhaps see this as a mere setback, and believe that the weakness of the current Kosovo coalition and the continuous political instability in Kosovo, combined with Serbian economic domination, may give way to political concessions in the future. But even without that, it is not difficult to understand the huge advantages Serbia sees in this agreement in terms of its regional economic position, as described above, regardless of the formalities of Kosovo statehood.
and ‘Muslim’ Kosovo
Returning to the question of the connection of Israel and Jerusalem to all this, an additional question is: why would Israel recognise Kosovo if it had rejected doing so for so long? On the one hand, clearly Netanyahu simply did it for Trump, to give his ally a propaganda victory for his upcoming election, allowing him to push the dishonest discourse of another ‘Muslim’ state recognising Israel, and as bait for Kosovo to accept a deal otherwise not very favourable to it.
However, we need to consider that this is part of a deal involving Vucic and Serbia; and that the reasons Israel had rejected recognising Kosovo were twofold, namely, due to its alliance with Serbia (and huge economic relationship – Israeli companies have invested more than a billion euros in Serbia and tourism has risen by hundreds of percentage points), and due to fear that it sets a precedent for recognition of Palestine. Which raises the questions of whether Serbia has given Israel the go-ahead, and whether Israel no longer fears the precedent.
For its part, Vucic denies giving any go-ahead to Israel; in a seemingly rational reaction, Serbia has indicated that while Israel may have some form of “diplomatic relations” with Kosovo, if it actually recognises Kosovo as an independent state, Serbia will renege on moving its embassy to Jerusalem. Yet even this message offers a way out; in situations where symbolism is everything, the fact that the document refers to ‘Kosovo (Pristina)’ rather than the Republic of Kosovo – as explained above – may turn out to be significant.
Alternatively, if there was actually a cryptic OK from Serbia to help stitch the whole deal together, this may mean that Serbia believes, as described above, that the agreement will allow for its regional dominance to effectively control a weak, unofficially dismembered, Kosovo; and if this is the case, then that kind of precedent for Israel/Palestine that would be acceptable to Israel as well. All of this is of course conjecture at present. But it is worth recalling that Serbia recognised Palestine back in 2011 – ironically enough at the same UN vote where the Bosnian Serb republic blocked Bosnia’s recognition – yet this had no effect on the increasingly blooming Israeli-Serbian relationship in the decade since. If Israel knows it can handle an ally recognising a dismembered, dominated semi-state, then perhaps Serbia can as well.
Trump’s tweet that framed Israel finally recognising Kosovo as a case of another “Muslim-majority” country recognising Israel which will lead to “more Islamic and Arab nations” doing so, thereby helping peace in the “Middle East” is absurd on multiple levels; and Netanyahu used the same discourse, declaring that Kosovo will be the “first country with a Muslim majority” with its embassy in Jerusalem.
Neither of them did Kosovo any favours by Middle-Easternising the Kosovo issue in this way. Kosovo is in Europe, not the Middle East, is not an Arabic country, and while the majority of Albanians are Muslim and a minority Catholic (with an Orthodox Serb minority who hold positions in all state institutions), it is in no way an “Islamic” nation, but is rather intensely secular and western-oriented.
Since Serbia framed its repression of Kosovar Albanians as a case of fighting “Islamic terrorism,” while an obvious bald-faced lie, this same framing by Trump and Netanyahu is seen as rationalising Serbian discourse. Further, Kosovar Albanians understand the effect such ‘Islamic’ framing has in the West, which they therefore deeply resent, especially at a time when the EU is “led mainly by conservative parties and with ideologies that see “Christian values” at the core of European identity” and where “public opinion … is increasingly influenced by right-wing, anti-Muslim, rhetoric.”
As a consequence, Kosovar Albanian leaders tend to bend the stick in the opposite direction, to rather an excessive degree, following an intensely ‘French-style’ secularism virtually hostile to the Muslim religion, which does not prevent them constructing an enormous new Catholic cathedral in the centre of Pristina, and erecting statues to (Catholic) Mother Theresa in towns all over Kosovo, vainly seeing this as the road to Europe.
Mother Theresa’s statues can compete only with those of the likes of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, as a result of seeing the United States as their saviour in 1999. Kosovo in fact is the number one most pro-American country on Earth. Hence, far from ‘Muslim’ Kosovo finally deciding to recognise Israel as Trump implies, Kosovo has craved recognition by Israel forever, no matter how much Israel treated it with disdain, for the simple reason that Israel is known as the closest US ally in the Middle East. It is nothing to do with Israel as such; really, if the US were a supporter of Palestine, the Kosovar leaders would be the biggest backers of Palestine on Earth.
Thus, while Israel continually stressed its refusal to recognise Kosovo and its great friendship with Serbia, we get the spectacle of Hashim Thaci in 2007, just before the declaration of independence, declaring “I love Israel. What a great country. Kosovo is a friend of Israel … I met so many great leaders when I was there – Netanyahu, Sharon — I really admire them.” It is quite an extraordinary case of cognitive dissonance – not to mention political cringe – for Thaci to refer to Sharon, who openly cheered on Milosevic’s version of al-Nakbah on the Kosovar Albanians in 1999 – as a “great man.” The fact that it is also demonstrates an intense lack of awareness of the most elementary principles of solidarity among the oppressed is less of a surprise – unfortunately bourgeois nationalist leaders the world over rarely ever care about such inconvenient details.
By way of further conjecture, there may be another element at work in this puzzle. As noted above, the Bosnian Serb republic – dubbed by the Jerusalem Post ‘Israel’s best friend in Europe’ – demanded Bosnia also move its embassy to Jerusalem but was blocked by the Bosniak and Croat members of the tripartite presidency. The Bosnian Serb leadership has continually claimed that if Kosovo is internationally recognised, then ‘Republika Srpska’ – a pure product of ethnic cleansing whose particular size and shape has no geographic, historic, ethnic or cultural validity – will also secede from Bosnia. Is it just possible that the RS leaders, and perhaps even Serbian leaders, may see in Israeli recognition of Kosovo a potential spin-off, and may believe, rightly or wrongly, that Israel may see RS similarly? Bosnian Serb leader Dodik’s visit to Croatia straight after the Trump circus may well be pat of further geopolitical manoeuvring, given the decades-long strategic alliance of “friendly enemies” – Bosnian Serb and Croat nationalists – against the very existence of Bosnia.
Path to the EU or to Trump?
One explanation of the absurdity of the whole charade may well be simply that both Serbian and Kosovar leaders decided to try to get what they could out of an idiosyncratic Trump regime while it lasts, while realising they may not have to do any of it if Trump is out of power in a couple of months. And this applies particularly to the strange Jerusalem issue.
After all, both Serbia and Kosovo aim to join the European Union; Serbia signed its Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) in 2007 and became a full candidate in 2013, while Kosovo signed its SAA in 2016. Kosovo’s candidacy is currently blocked by the refusal of five EU member states to recognise Kosovo, while the EU has told both Serbia and Kosovo that membership is dependent on the two countries working out their dispute.
But moving your embassy to Jerusalem (Serbia) or promising the new embassy will be there (Kosovo) does not make sense from that perspective, because the EU does not recognise Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, rejecting any unilateral moves on “final status” issues.
In a press conference shortly after the Trump circus, the European Commission spokesman, Peter Stano, stressed that
“ .. there is no EU member state with an embassy in Jerusalem. The EU delegation is not in Jerusalem. This is in line with the UN Security Council resolution nr.748, from 1980. The EU has repeatedly reaffirmed our commitment to the negotiated and viable two-state solution … A way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states, Israel and Palestine. …
“Since Kosovo and Serbia identified EU accession as their strategic priority, the EU expects both to act in line with this commitment.”
So why would both risk their EU accession plans? On possibility is precisely that the frozen nature of the process of EU accession has led both to try to get a better deal from the US; or at least to show the EU that they have other options. But this also means neither is likely to be in Jerusalem if the EU itself manages to break the deadlock and move accession forward; and if Trump is voted out shortly, a Biden administration, while shamefully ruling out leaving Jerusalem, would be unlikely to pressure European countries into conflict with the EU over the issue.
As such, it is hardly surprising that Serbia’s proposed move is for July 2021, allowing plenty of time to see which way the wind is blowing; as for Kosovo, so far mutual recognition with Israel has consisted of little more substantial than tweets. Keeping doors open, the EU is moving forward on its own next round of negotiations with the two countries, and as part of this, Hoti visited Brussels on September 10 and pledged to implement the Association of Serb Municipalities agreement.
Therefore, despite Trumps’ bluster, and the idiosyncratic and contradictory moves and statements by current Serbian and Kosovar leaders, the possibilities arising from this photo op range from a very significant shake-up of the geopolitics of the region to a mere hiccup within the ongoing status quo.
Let the masses eat nationalist poison
The emergent bourgeois leaders throughout the region have been attempting to bridge the long-term ‘national’ issues – in a way suiting their own nation – in order to stabilise the wider region for investment and ‘growth”; thus, alongside the Serbia-Kosovo issue, we have the recent Greece-Macedonia accords, and the ongoing wrangling inside Bosnia, often involving both Serbia and Croatia. Needless to say, however, this “growth” feeds the bourgeoisie far more than the working classes of the region, and therefore the status quo referred to above also sees these same bourgeois leaders concurrently continue their decades-long game of feeding the masses with the circus of nationalism.
Even before Covid-19 hit, the Balkan region has long been characterised by very high unemployment rates relative to the rest of Europe. It is significant that Serbia’s unemployment rate of around 10 percent – no small figure – is the lowest in the region, which ranges up via Bosnia’s 15 percent to Kosovo’s rate of 25 percent, the region’s highest. Clearly Kosovo’s situation is the most dramatic, being also the country with the lowest per capita GDP in Europe after Moldova, and some 17 percent of the population living below the poverty line, double Serbia’s figure. However, Serbia’s relative success, in being hailed in 2019 as the world champion of foreign investment, hides deep problems with precisely such a growth model: in 2017, the richest 20 percent of Serbs earned 9.4 times more than the poorest 20 percent, the highest level of inequality within the EU and candidate countries.
Enormous mass protest movements in Serbia in 2018-19, in Macedonia in 2016, in Bosnia in 2014, amongst others, have shaken the local ruling classes, alerting them that the free reign of post-Cold War neoliberalism under corrupt and semi-authoritarian governments is continually under challenge. In particular, in the Bosnian and Macedonian cases, a tendency to bridge the ethnic divide was a prominent feature of the mass movements, if less so in the Serbia case.
If we go back to 1987-88 when 2000 strikes involving workers of all Yugoslav nations united challenged the Yugoslav regime’s IMF-pushed austerity, the virulent nationalism of Milosevic, and later Tudjman, was the answer put up by the ruling classes to stupefy, divert, divide and break the movement – with the results now history. This choice of resorting to nationalism will not be given up lightly.