“We, the democratically elected leaders of our people, hereby declare Kosovo to be an independent and sovereign state.” I vividly remember hearing these words for the first time as my parents burst into tears of joy. That parliamentary meeting of February 17, 2008, materialized the struggles of oppressed Albanian-Kosovars for almost a century. The map of the Western Balkans was redrawn once again. Kosovo had become independent. However, the challenges that Kosovars had faced did not disappear; it was only their nature that changed. An armed conflict that began in 1998 against Slobodan Milosevic’s forces evolved into a diplomatic battle against the apparatus of the Serbian state. 2008 found Kosovo with a leadership consisting of mainly former Kosovo Liberation Army generals who were not well-equipped for the upcoming political challenges. Yet, it did not take long before Kosovo started to gain international recognition. The U.S., U.K., Germany, France and most European countries recognized Kosovo as an independent, sovereign and democratic country. However, it appears that this support has converged at the figure of 108 countries, with almost half of the U.N. member states remaining. The consensus seems to be that a change in the status quo is necessary for the dispute to end.
The United States has been Kosovo’s most prominent ally over the last 20 years. From President Clinton’s decision to intervene in the Kosovo War, President Bush’s sponsorship of Kosovo’s independence, to Vice President Biden’s open support in the last decade, U.S. foreign policy in relation to Kosovo has been consistent. However, the current administration seems to have changed that.
Earlier in the year, President Trump came out with an Israel-Palestine “peace plan.” For Kosovo, the content of that proposal is not nearly as relevant as the message it sends. Knowing that Trump’s foreign policy has not been successful, it must be that his interest in the Kosovo-Serbia and Israel-Palestine long-term contests is closely related to his 2020 re-election campaign. Last year Trump named Richard Grenell his special envoy to Kosovo and Serbia. Since then, Grenell has been clear that he demands a “peace agreement” between Kosovo and Serbia by April. One month ago, Trump referred to a modest flight agreement between Kosovo and Serbia as historic and claimed that “everyone said it couldn’t be done.” It is now clear that Kosovo is on Trump’s radar and that he is willing to interpret even the most meaningless agreements as great accomplishments.
Kosovo does not seem to be ready for a final agreement, given the status quo. Serbia’s recent violations of the Brussels Agreement of 2013 — which attempted to normalize relations — by lobbying against Kosovo’s independence forced Kosovo’s then-prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, to impose a 100-percent tariff on all Serbian goods. This act suspended the dialogue between Prishtina and Belgrade and delayed visa liberalization talks with the E.U. Hence, the 12th anniversary of independence finds Kosovo isolated from the European Union, without a seat in the U.N. and with one of the smallest economies in Europe. The last thing that the new government wants is a forced compromise that would likely cause even more social and economic instability. The newly elected Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, has declared that he will replace the 100-percent tariff with full economic and political reciprocity, despite Grenell’s objection. Reciprocity measures are widely popular among Kosovars, but the establishment has always prioritized maintaining good relations with the U.S. Kurti has an important decision to make, arguably the most consequential of his political career. He will either comply with Trump’s requests and lose domestic support or defend Kosovo’s dignity and disregard its biggest ally. At this point, President Trump should be the one to reflect and maintain stability in the Balkans. In fact, encouraging the passage of a hurried agreement goes against the official stance of the United States. Twelve years ago, the U.S. recognized Kosovo as an independent and sovereign state. Yet, by pushing for what would be an unproductive agreement, Trump is undermining Kosovo’s sovereignty.
While Kosovo will bear most of the consequences of Grenell’s stubbornness, the United States will weaken its sphere of influence in the Balkans, a region historically aligned with Russia. It is unclear how U.S.-Kosovo relations will evolve. But if the current administration doesn’t change its stance, Kurti’s best bet is freezing all negotiations until the end of the U.S. presidential elections. That would be no easier than any of the challenges Kosovo has faced in its first 12 years of statehood, but until a new option appears, that’s Kurti’s only alternative. While people in the Balkans are mostly affected by Trump’s pressure, the results will hit closer to home when they affect American elections.
LEART AJVAZAJ is a first year in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at email@example.com .
Editor’s note, Jun. 17: The title of this article has been altered from its original version.