The U.S. will host Avdullah Hoti, the prime minister of Kosovo, and Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia, on Friday for talks on normalizing relations.
The Trump administration had originally planned the talks for June 27, but they were postponed after the indictment on June 24 of Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s president, on war crimes charges.
The administration has prioritized engagement in the Balkan region, in particular the resolution of lingering disputes between Kosovo and Serbia.
In October, President Donald Trump appointed then-U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell to serve as U.S. special envoy for peace talks between Kosovo and Serbia. The special envoy will co-host the talks alongside national security adviser Robert O’Brien.
Kosovo is a small country in the western Balkans with a history rooted in complex relations between its ethnic and religious groups. Following the sectarian wars of the 1990s, Kosovo was placed under United Nations administration in June 1999.
On Feb. 17, 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia and has been recognized by 114 countries, including the United States and all of its neighbors in the Balkans except Serbia, as an independent, sovereign nation.
While other issues, including tariffs and the creation of a Kosovar army, have affected negotiations on normalizing relations in recent years, the crux of the stalemate remains Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence.
U.S.-mediated talks are taking place in parallel with a European Union-facilitated dialogue. On July 16, Hoti and Vucic met in person for the first time in 20 months under the auspices of the European Union. That meeting focused on economic cooperation and unresolved issues related to missing and displaced persons.
U.S. talks are also expected to focus on economic cooperation. National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot recently said, “We believe progress on economic issues, including job creation and accelerating economic growth, is the first step in advancing the peace process.”
Some have suggested that U.S.-hosted talks detract from the EU-facilitated dialogue, but the U.S. has sacrificed significant blood and treasure since the 1990s to ensure that the Balkans remain peaceful and stable—and, therefore, should have a say in any major development in the region.
The U.S. maintains 660 troops in Kosovo as the largest contingent in NATO’s Kosovo Force, a peacekeeping force the alliance maintains in the region.
U.S.-mediated talks are an opportunity to work in consort to maximize momentum on an issue where the U.S. and Europe have shared interests.
Furthermore, it should be noted that while both Kosovo and Serbia aspire to eventual EU membership, for domestic political reasons, five EU member states still do not recognize Kosovo as an independent nation.
For Grenell and O’Brien, it’s important to remember that nothing in the Balkans is easy or straightforward. While the chances of a game-changing agreement coming out of Friday’s talks are slim, that doesn’t mean that smaller agreements that build on recent momentum are not impactful, nor that the political capital the Trump administration is investing in the Balkans is being squandered.
One area the U.S. should be particularly mindful of is the chimera of a land swap as a panacea for normalization of relations. Due to the distribution of minority groups between the two countries, some suggest that a land swap between Kosovo and Serbia could speed up the normalization process.
Swapping land and redrawing borders based on ethnic and sectarian lines would mark a dangerous precedent and would open up a Pandora’s box in the region.
On Friday, the U.S. should encourage the nations of the western Balkans to put aside historical, cultural, or religious complaints and work constructively to increase trade relations, settle border disputes, and forgo inflammatory rhetoric for the sake of stability.
The U.S. maintains an interest in creating a secure and prosperous Balkans that will someday be part of the transatlantic community. Even small steps toward normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia are valuable.
The administration’s efforts on this issue might one day be one of its most underappreciated achievements.