Serbia and Kosovo go to Jerusalem: Passing Trump circus, or profound geopolitical shake-up?

Serbian President Aleksander Vucic signs the guest book, at the Department of State, on March 2, 2020.
Photo: State Department by Freddie Everett/ Public Domain

A bizarre Trumpist ceremony in the White House on September 4 saw the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo signing two separate documents with the United States involving American-funded economic agreements between the two estranged countries.

Especially bizarre is Trump’s claim to have ended “hundreds of years” of “mass killings” between Serbia and Kosovo; apart from a two-day outbreak in 2004, there have been no mass killings since 1999. In contrast, his 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, he suggested naming it “Trump Lake” as a solution.

But leaving aside this abysmal state of the US political leadership presiding over the deal, the strangest thing about these agreements was the added extras that are unrelated to 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 in the Balkans involves taking a side in 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 Jerusalem by July 2021 (and to open a Ministry of State Affairs in Jerusalem immediately), and a clause that “Kosovo (Pristina) and Israel agree to mutually recognise each other.” The condition for Kosovo to gain Israel’s recognition is reportedly that it also place its eventual embassy in Jerusalem, which it subsequently promised to do.

Israel seized Palestinian East Jerusalem in the 1967 war and later annexed it, declared both east and west Jerusalem one united city, and made it Israel’s capital. Israel’s annexation is not internationally recognised, so almost all countries in the world continue to view Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital, refusing to move their embassies to “united” Jerusalem in order to not pre-empt final status negotiations on the city’s status, which the Palestinians also view as their capital. However, the Trump administration recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there in 2018. Only tiny Guatemala has followed suit, so if Serbia moves its embassy it will be the first European country to do so. 

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.” 

It is not difficult to see what’s in this for Trump: by attempting to “Middle Easternise” the Balkan dispute, the US administration seeks to present another Trump victory on behalf of Israel to the US electorate, especially the ultra-Zionist Christian fundamentalist part of it.

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. Therefore, with this move – and the background process, involving a US-backed move to partition Kosovo – the US is making inroads into the EU’s “backyard.” Ironically, in this apparent bid to out-compete the EU, the US is also competing with Russia on the same turf, as both Trump and Putin see a partner in Serbia’s ambitious right-wing president, Aleksander Vucic.

Watching Serbian and Kosovar leaders trying to navigate these complex alignments and divergences between the US, Israel, the EU, and Russia showcases how distant today’s geopolitical realities are from the kinds of simplistic binaries often presented as left or ‘anti-imperialist’ analyses, which often make the writers appear to be still living in the Cold War. Competing interests between global imperialist and regional sub-imperial powers present a dizzying constellation of interlocking and overlapping capitalist rivalries and nationalisms, among which smaller players such as Serbia and Kosovo manoeuvre in ways that do not fall into neat categories. These apparent contradictions can be accentuated by the role domestic politics and interest groups increasingly play in the foreign policy of powerful nations, especially the US.

Decades-long alliance between Israel and Serbian nationalism

To begin with, while the Jerusalem issue might serve Trump’s issues, observers might wonder what Serbia and Kosovo get out of this, and what Jerusalem has to do with the Serbia-Kosovo dispute. 

The former Yugoslavia severed relations with Israel after Israel’s conquests of 1967, was a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement historically allied to Arab leaders such as Egypt’s Gamal Nasser, and was a strong supporter of the Palestinian struggle. 

However, after Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic rode a wave of anti-Yugoslav Serbian nationalism to power in the late 1980s, a new understanding was reached with Israel, beginning a 3-decade long strategic alliance. For those imagining a world split between US imperialism and “anti-imperialist” forces, this alliance between a country that in 1999 was bombed by the US, and the largest recipient of unconditional US aid in the world, may not make sense, but highlights the nature of post-Cold War capitalist geopolitics.

Both Israel and Serbia saw themselves resisting “Islamic extremism”, which Israel identified with the Palestinian liberation struggle, and Serbian nationalism identified with the Bosnian Muslims, whom it wanted to eliminate, and the Kosovar Albanians, over whom it imposed a regime similar to that imposed by Israel on the Palestinian West Bank. This alliance was consecrated with a major deal Israel made to sell arms to Serbia in October 1991, while the latter’s army was razing the Croatian city of Vukovar. The ‘New Yugoslavia’ established by Serbia and Montenegro in 1992, when the former Yugoslavia was dissolved, established relations with Israel.

Throughout the Bosnian war of 1992-95, Israel, along with Greece and Ukraine, continually violated the UN arms embargo on “all of Yugoslavia” by arming the Bosnian Serb republic (Republika Srpska), led by Chetnik leader Radovan Karadzic (later convicted of genocide in the Hague), as it seized 70 percent of Bosnia and ethnically cleansed vast regions of their Bosnian Muslim (‘Bosniak’) majority. Bosnian Serb general Mladic, also convicted of genocide, refers to these arms in his diary; and Israeli professor Yair Auron claims Israeli-made shells were used by Serbian Chetnik forces in the Markale market massacre in August 1994. In 2016, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a petition demanding 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, consecrated by the US-orchestrated Dayton peace agreement in 1995, is one of the strongest supporters of Israel in Europe. 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, Bosnia was forced to abstain on a UN resolution calling on the US to reverse its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which most Muslim-majority countries supported, again due 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.”

Try fitting that into a Cold war binary. This alliance meant that Israel refused to recognise Kosovo for 12 years after it was recognised by the US, its biggest ally. Therefore, Serbia’s decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem would make sense – if seen in isolation.

But then … why the Jerusalem move if Israel recognises Kosovo? 

However, the context is Israel finally recognising Kosovo. Which would seem a strange moment for Serbia to reward Israel with the Jerusalem move, in isolation from the rest of the world, and in particular, from the European Union. So, how can the decision be explained in this context?

One possibility is that Serbian president Aleksander Vucic did not know that he had agreed to the embassy move. This video of the ‘agreement’ makes the Serbian president appear surprised when Trump announces the decision. 

However, Vucic’s signature is on the document immediately below the explicit statement regarding Jerusalem, so it is hardly credible that he did not read it; and several months earlier Vučić had already announced that Serbia would open a Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Jerusalem and purchase a substantial package of Israeli arms. And the broader strategic alliance continues still operates: following the Trump show, Milorad Dodik, president of ‘Republika Srpska’ and Serb member of Bosnia’s presidency, demanded that Bosnia move its Israel embassy to Jerusalem (but he was overruled by the Bosniak and Croat leaderships). 

So, given Israel’s recognition of Kosovo, what might be happening behind the scenes to entice Vucic to sign an agreement which includes the Jerusalem decision?

A Serbia-dominated south Balkan economic zone?

One possibility is that Serbia believes the economic rewards from these agreements will be overwhelmingly in its favour and far outweigh Israeli recognition of Kosovo; Serbia is therefore rewarding Trump (rather than Israel) with Jerusalem. This is based on solid reasoning; the smaller and poorer capitalist countries are far from being an equal mass of underdevelopment. Rather, relations between them are characterised by degrees of political and hegemony which mirror on a small scale the starker global inequalities of power.

Serbia enters these agreements with 7 times Kosovo’s GDP, double its per capita GDP, and half its poverty and unemployment figures. Since 1999, Serbia has commanded a massive trade surplus over Kosovo. While Kosovo exports very little to Serbia, Serbia is the Kosovo’s major source of imports, the value of imports from Serbia being twice as big as that of Albania. Serbia manufactures and exports products such as automobiles, iron and steel, machinery, pharmaceuticals, electrical appliances and weapons, whereas Kosovo is heavily dependent on mining, base metals, foodstuffs, beverages and textiles. 

From this perspective, the statement by the Kosovar opposition Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) movement condemning the agreement may reflect the thinking of Serbian leaders. The statement claims the major US-funded road and rail projects in the agreement “create the ground for a dangerous project, such as the territorial division of the northern part of the country.” While the claim regarding territorial division may be stretching things, 

for landlocked Serbia, these projected road and rail corridors from Serbia, cutting across northern Kosovo then through Albania to the Adriatic sea, mean it gains a seaport funded by the US International Development Finance Corporation. 

Vetevendosje also criticises the requirement in the agreement for Kosovo to join the ‘Mini-Schengen’ bloc between Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania, 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. While all Kosovar political parties had been opposed to joining the bloc, Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, who signed the deal for Kosovo, claims the White House pressured him to accept it. As Vetevendosje explains, the Mini-Schengen “would be easily hegemonized by Serbia, due to military, demographic and economic inequality between it and other countries.”

Indeed, Serbia commands very large trade surpluses not only with Kosovo but also with Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia, and is the third biggest foreign investor in Bosnia and Montenegro. The Serbian dinar rules in northern Kosovo and Republika Srpska. This context, alongside the recent election victory of a pro-Serbia coalition in Montenegro which aims to revive the lapsed federation with Serbia, and continual threats by Republika Srspka to secede from Bosnia, highlights the potential for Mini-Schengen to become a vehicle for the hegemony of Serbian capital throughout the southern Balkans. 

One clause 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.” 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. But the power infrastructure is owned by a Serbian company, and it is situated within the ethnically Serb province of Zubin Potok 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 its sovereign territory comes on top of a situation which most Kosovar politicians consider too “shared” already.

According to Vetevendosje, by agreeing to this point, Hoti “has allowed Serbia to intervene in Kosovo’s energy sovereignty, security, production and market.” 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.

The original agreement included the ‘Republic of Kosovo’ but upon Serbian objections, the two entities became simply ‘Serbia (Belgrade)’ and ‘Kosovo (Pristina)’ in the agreement, highlighting Kosovo’s limited status, but this is simply the status quo. While certain aspects could be considered political concessions, these are minor. The “protection of religious sites and implementation of judicial decisions pertaining to the Serbian orthodox Church” is relevant to Serbia (and highly justified), but only refers to long-term existing agreements. Kosovo also agreed to suspend its campaign to gain recognition, but only for a year.

These economic agreements – 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, within a US-funded, Serbia-dominated, south Balkan mini-Schengen zone – clearly have the potential to entrench Serbia’s regional domination, arguably thereby reducing an internationally unrecognised Kosovo’s effective status. This reality, rather than any explicit political concessions, appear to be what induced Serbia to sign.

Some background: The EU negotiates Serb autonomy in Kosovo

Nevertheless, while this scenario portends a comprehensive US-financed boon for Serbia, it is a retreat from the US-facilitated discussion on ‘border correction’, i.e. formal partition, on the agenda the last few years. This has disappeared in this agreement, but has never been given a burial; do Serbian leaders perhaps believe that this economic hegemony may enable them to push the partition scenario again later? 

To put this question in context, we will turn to these background developments. 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 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 Broz Tito. In 1999, Milosevic had attempted to physically “cleanse” the province of Albanians while NATO rained down bombs to “protect” the Albanians – protection which plainly didn’t happen. Unfortunately, violent national oppression has a tendency to beget the same; in the autonomous Kosovo emerging from the war, led by hardened Albanian nationalists, ruling in chaotic post-war conditions, with a million Albanian refugees returning to destroyed homes, Kosovar Serbs now found themselves the new oppressed. Unlike multi-ethnic Bosnian society, which Serbian nationalism had destroyed, Kosovo had only ever been a Serbian colony, and now the tables were turned.

Therefore, the ZSO, giving Kosovar Serbs the autonomous rights in Kosovo that Kosovar Albanians once had in Serbia, would seem an appropriate step forward.

However, Kosovo has not implemented this agreement. Whichever Kosovar Albanian parties are in opposition at any time find it a convenient nationalist target; and since Serbia says it will never recognise Kosovo anyway, Kosovar leaders do not feel obliged to move in that direction without a bargain. 

The ZSO would be of great benefit to smaller Serb communities scattered around Kosovo. However, Serb-populated northern Kosovo – the four provinces of Zubin Potok, Leposevac, Zvecan and northern Mitrovica – has remained effectively independent, and linked directly to Serbia, since 1999. The Serbian elite therefore has no more interest in the ZSO than the Albanian elite, as it is more interested in keeping the north, with its economic resources, than the ZSO which, if implemented, would reduce its argument for non-recognition.

Because Kosovo did not implement the agreement, Serbia went on a campaign to convince countries that had recognised Kosovo to withdraw recognition, which some 15 countries did This in turn 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

The US and the EU put pressure Kosovo to scrap its 100 percent tariffs. But while the EU sees the solution as returning to the ZSO framework, in 2018 the Trump administration adopted a new tack. Led by Trump’s Balkan envoy Richard Grenell, the US got to work with a pair of ambitious 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 was rejected by most EU leaders; any ethnic-based border changes pose the question of the Albanian minority in Macedonia, 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 Trump, pushing this expedient and iconoclastic solution was an attempt to add another “peace agreement” – like that between Israel and the UAE – to its resume. It also meant gaining a special US foothold in the EU’s backyard. 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’. 

For example, while then National Security Advisor John Bolton may have merely sounded pragmatic when he explained that “the United States would support” any adjustments to territory agreed on by “the parties themselves,” in reality he has long condemned US governments for their alleged “anti-Serbian policy since the break-up of Yugoslavia.” In 2007, Bolton issued a declaration with several other US leaders opposing recognition of Kosovo. Grenell claims that Bolton was his inspiration for pursuing this course. Meanwhile, other voices on the hard-right and Christian-right among Trump’s support base are heavily committed to an anti-Albanian position. Grenell, who was spokesman for Bolton when he served as UN Ambassador under president Bush, declared the US would “empower” right-wing forces in Europe  upon arriving as new US Ambassador to Germany in 2018.

For Vucic, enthusiasm for this partition proposal is a no-brainer. The proposal is for an exchange of territory of similar size, both approximately 1000 square kilometres. However, for Serbia, 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. 

In Kosovo, only Thaci and his PDK, then part of the governing coalition, supported the proposal. All other parties – whether in opposition (Vetevendosje, and the Democratic League of Kosovo – LDK – the old party of Kosovo civil opposition leader Ibrahim Rugova), or part of the governing coalition (the AAK, which also arose from the old KLA, and whose leader, Ramush Haradinaj, was Thaci’s prime minister) – opposed this partitionist scenario.

While Thaci assumed this would lead to Serbian recognition of Kosovo and end 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.

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 north would abandon the majority of Serbs, living in smaller, more vulnerable enclaves surrounded by the Albanian majority elsewhere Kosovo, and they would lose northern Mitrovica as the major Serb cultural and educational centre inside Kosovo. 

Therefore, many Kosovar Serb leaders oppose partition; Rada Trajkovic, president of Kosovo’s Serbian National Council, proposes instead “the Cyprus model,” meaning the UN’s 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 Serb autonomy, less than full partition – would 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 partition drive received a set-back with the shock election victory of Vetevendosje in October 2019. Noting its furious 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 the end of Serbian rule among a radical wing of Kosovar civil society, led by former political prisoner Albin Kurti, advisor to historic Kosovar Albanian leader Adem Demaci. Radically opposed to any Serbian-state interference in Kosovo, Vetevendosje also opposed the entire structure of UN and EU institutions ruling Kosovo and denying it independence over the next decade. 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 the Kosovar political elite, 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 its representatives.

Despite this, 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 continued to push partition from presidency.

From its inception, the Vetevendosje-led government was confronted by a US-orchestrated campaign involving both its LDK partner and the opposition PDK. Vetevendosje declared 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 holier-than-thou campaign by parties inside and outside of government demanding the tariffs be scrapped immediately! 

The US government froze $50 million in development aid to Kosovo because of Kurti’s refusal to immediately and unconditionally lift the tariffs, while the US threatened to withdraw its peacekeeping forces from Kosovo. Meanwhile, Vucic dropped into Washington in 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. This stance was explicitly supported by Grenell. Other Republicans and Trump cronies joined the assault.

The LDK moved a no-confidence motion against Vetevendosje in late March 2020, and all the other parties supported the move. In the face of this US-inspired soft coup against the elected government, angry Pristina residents, unable to publicly protest due to the Covid-19 lockdown, banged pots and pans from their balconies in protest. Kurti 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, 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 1999 war – timing fortuitous to the EU. New prime minister Avdullah Hoti of the LDK took Thaci’s place in negotiations. 

While the parties were united against the radical Vetevendosje on one side, the LDK, AAK and other parties also opposed Thaci’s partitionist agenda on the other. Thus the new LDK-AAK coalition government had no interest in furthering the partition deal, and its absence in the Trump-Vucic-Hoti agreement may represent the death of these scenarios. 

The fact that Vucic is pleased with the deal, however, may indicate that he believes the continuous political instability in Kosovo, combined with Serbian economic hegemony, may lead to future political concessions. But even if this does not eventuate, it is not difficult to understand the advantages Serbia sees in this agreement for its regional economic position. 

Israel and ‘Muslim’ Kosovo

Returning to the question of Israel, clearly Netanyahu agreed to recognise Kosovo to give his ally, Trump, a propaganda victory for his upcoming election, allowing him to push the dishonest discourse of another ‘Muslim’ state recognising Israel. 

The reasons Israel had long rejected recognising Kosovo were twofold. The first was due to its alliance with Serbia, and their huge economic relationship – Israeli companies have invested more than a billion euros in Serbia. The second was the fear of it setting a precedent for recognition of Palestine. This raises the questions of whether Serbia has given Israel the go-ahead, and whether Israel no longer fears the precedent.

Vucic denies giving any go-ahead, and Serbia has indicated that while Israel may have some form of “diplomatic relations” with Kosovo, if it recognises Kosovo as an independent state Serbia will not move its embassy to Jerusalem. Yet 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 may turn out to be significant.

Alternatively, if there actually were a cryptic nod from Serbia to help stitch the deal together, and if Serbia believes the agreement will allow for its regional hegemony to effectively control a weak, unofficially dismembered, Kosovo, then that kind of precedent for Israel/Palestine would also be acceptable to Israel. It is worth recalling that Serbia recognised Palestine in 2011 (ironically at the same UN vote where the Bosnian Serb republic blocked Bosnia’s recognition), but this had no effect on the blooming Israeli-Serbian relationship in the decade since. If Israel can handle an ally recognising a dismembered, dominated semi-state, perhaps Serbia can as well.

Trump’s framing of Israel’s belated recognition of Kosovo as another “Muslim-majority” country recognising Israel, which will lead to “more Islamic and Arab nations” doing so and to peace in the “Middle East,” is absurd on multiple levels, and did Kosovo no favours. Kosovo is in Europe, is not Arabic, and while the majority of Albanians are Muslim and a minority Catholic (with an Orthodox Serb minority), it is not an “Islamic” nation, but is rather intensely secular and western-oriented. 

Since Serbia dishonestly framed its repression of Kosovar Albanians as fighting “Islamic terrorism,” this Islamic framing by Trump is seen as rationalising Serbian discourse. Further, Kosovar Albanians understand the effect of such framing in the West, which they therefore resent, especially with the EU being “led mainly by conservative parties … that see “Christian values” at the core of European identity” and where public opinion is “influenced by right-wing, anti-Muslim, rhetoric.”

Consequently, Kosovar Albanian leaders bend the stick excessively in the opposite direction, following a ‘French-style’ secularism virtually hostile to the majority religion, even while constructing an enormous new Catholic cathedral in Pristina, and erecting statues to (Catholic) Mother Theresa all over Kosovo, believing this is the road to Europe.

Mother Theresa’s statues can compete only with those of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, as Kosovo’s leaders see the US as their saviour in 1999. Kosovo is the number one most pro-American country on Earth. Far from ‘Muslim’ Kosovo finally deciding to recognise Israel, Kosovo has long craved recognition by Israel, because Israel is the closest US ally in the Middle East. It is nothing to do with Israel as such; if the US supported Palestine, Kosovo’s leaders would love Palestine.

Thus, despite Israel’s steadfast refusal to recognise Kosovo till now, we get the spectacle of Hashim Thaci in 2007 declaring “I love Israel. What a great country … I met so many great leaders when I was there – Netanyahu, Sharon — I really admire them.” It is an extraordinary case of cognitive dissonance – and political cringe – for Thaci to call Sharon, who cheered on Milosevic’s version of al-Nakbah in Kosovo in 1999 – a “great leader.” It also demonstrates an intense lack of awareness of solidarity among the oppressed (or former oppressed), but bourgeois nationalist leaders the world over rarely care about such inconvenient issues.

Path to the EU or to Trump?

One explanation for the absurdity of the summit may be that Serbian and Kosovar leaders aim to get what they can from an idiosyncratic Trump administration while it lasts,  realising they may not have to do any of what they committed to if Trump is voted out shortly. 

In particular, placing their embassies in Jerusalem makes little sense from the perspective of both countries’ aim of joining the European Union, because the EU does not recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Serbia became a full EU candidate in 2013, while Kosovo signed its pre-candidacy Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) in 2016. Kosovo’s candidacy is blocked by the refusal of five EU member states to recognise Kosovo, and the EU has told both countries that membership is dependent on them working out their dispute.

Shortly after the White House meeting, the European Commission spokesman, Peter Stano, stressed that “there is no EU member state with an embassy in Jerusalem. … 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 risk their EU accession plans? One possibility is that the frozen nature of the accession process has led both to show the EU that they have other options. But this means neither is likely to be in Jerusalem if the EU manages to break the deadlock; and if Trump is voted out of office, a Biden administration would be unlikely to pressure European countries into conflict with the EU over Jerusalem. 

Serbia’s proposed move is for July 2021, allowing time to see which way the wind blows; as for Kosovo-Israel mutual recognition, so far this mostly consists of tweets. Meanwhile, the EU is moving forward with its next round of Serbia-Kosovo negotiations. 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 contradictory moves and statements by Serbian and Kosovar leaders, the possibilities arising from this agreement range from a significant shake-up of regional geopolitics to a hiccup within the ongoing status quo.

Let the masses eat nationalist poison

As the emergent bourgeois leaders throughout the region manoeuvre between the US, the EU, Russia and smaller powerful players such as Israel or Turkey, to get the best deal for their own nation in a highly unequal world order, they have concurrently been attempting to bridge their long-term ‘national’ issues in order to stabilise the wider region for economic “growth.” Alongside the Serbia-Kosovo issue, we have the recent Greece-Macedonia accords, and the ongoing wrangling inside Bosnia, involving both Serbia and Croatia

Of course, this “growth” feeds the bourgeoisie far more than the working classes. Even before Covid-19 hit, the Balkan region has long featured very high unemployment rates relative to 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 to Kosovo’s rate of 25 percent. Kosovo’s situation is the most dramatic, with the lowest per capita GDP in Europe after Moldova, and some 17 percent of the population living below the poverty line. However, Serbia’s relative success, such as being hailed in 2019 as the world champion of foreign investment, hides deep problems with precisely this 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 under challenge. Dangerously, in the Bosnian and Macedonian cases, a tendency to bridge the ethnic divide was a prominent feature of the mass movements. 

If we go back to 1987-88 when 2000 strikes involving workers of all Yugoslav nations posed a united challenge the Yugoslav regime’s IMF-pushed austerity, the virulent nationalism of Milosevic and Tudjman was the answer put up by the ruling classes to divert, divide and break the movement – with the results now history. This choice of resorting to their decades-long game of feeding the masses with the circus of nationalism will not be given up lightly given this combination of huge inequalities with tendencies towards multi-ethnic mass revolt.

 

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