President Trump’s big Balkan deal

6 September 2020

5:26 AM

6 September 2020

5:26 AM

President Trump has presided over a notable deal between Kosovo and Serbia. It’s interesting in more ways than one. For starters, the deal is very, very Trump. It’s about the economy, stupid. The deal-maker-in-chief, Richard Grenell, former acting director of National Intelligence, has, as he said, flipped the script. The deal has put economic development ahead of political issues in Kosovo and Serbia. That, you may recall, was more or less the late John Hume’s prescription for peacemaking in Northern Ireland… if you focus on developing the economy and creating jobs, it makes the political issues an awful lot more manageable. And in the case of the dysfunctional economies of Kosovo and Serbia, it’s the right way round. President Trump was right to say his deal is a ‘major breakthrough’.

The countries’ respective leaders, Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s Avdullah Hoti, were plainly in the position of supplicants in this whole thing, but, you know, they’ve got substantial benefits from putting the politics, the recognition-of-Kosovo business, on hold for a year. The way is clear for credit agencies, investors and banks, particularly from the US, to invest in the region. There’s going to be a US International Development Finance Corporation based in Belgrade: we’re talking about a whole lot of investment.

Then there’s the substantive infrastructure projects… a rail link between Pristina and Nis and a motorway similarly linking the two countries. It’s not quite the reconstruction of Yugoslavia, but physical links make an awful lot of difference on the ground. There’s backing to for a mini Balkan Schengen area including Kosovo and Serbia.

What’s interesting is that it was quite difficult to get journalists at the White House briefing to actually focus on the fact that the Trump administration had pulled off something positive in an area where there wasn’t much in the way of progress under his predecessor. Mr Grenell was exasperated about the palpable want of interest in the substance of the deal during the press briefing that followed its signing. ‘You [press] might be too young to understand what this issue is about, maybe the older journalists should step up and say “this is a big deal, this is a big issue”,’ he said. ‘It’s substantive, maybe it’s too complicated of an issue for you all.’

Mr Grenell was right there. It is big and it is complicated. But, lest we forget the actual Kosovo conflict 21 years ago, there’s to be new impetus in the effort to account for the thousands of missing people from both sides of the conflict. Horrible, but important. There’s also recognition of the position of the Orthodox churches in Kosovo.

But the deal is, at its heart, a whopping great stars-and-stripes Trojan horse being dragged into the Balkans. To begin with, this deal obviously underscores the reality that the US is at least as big a player as the EU in the region. As Aleksandar Vucic said acidly (and correctly), he was plainly negotiating, not with Kosovo, but with the US. (BTW, Mr Vucic’s face was an absolute picture when he looked at the actual text of what he signed.)

And in return, the two sides have had to go along with all the familiar priorities of the administration: Israel, Iran, China. The first politician on the President’s desktop video link was Benjamin Netanjahu who congratulate both sides and received a cordial invitation to visit Pristina. And you know what? Both Serbia and Kosovo (which Mr Trump repeatedly described as a ‘Muslim-majority’ country) will be establishing their embassies, not in Tel Aviv, but in Jerusalem. Did I mention that Jared Kushner was very much involved in this deal and gracefully presented it?

You don’t have to dig deep in the small print to find the other Trump fixations. Serbs and Kosovars have to designate and treat Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. (Actually, Islamists in Kosovo look to Turkey and Saudi Arabia rather than Iran, but still.)  Then the deal commits the two countries to repudiate 5G equipment supplied by ‘untrusted vendors’ and, where it exists, to extirpate it. That doesn’t mention China but it doesn’t need to. The US will be providing the equipment to monitor passenger movements in and out of the two countries; you can see where that’s going.

And then, quelle surprise! ‘Both parties will work with the 69 countries that criminalize homosexuality to push for decriminalization.’ Mr Grenell is often described as the most prominent openly gay individual in the Trump administration. And what do you know, Kosovo and Serbia, where gay rights are not an obvious priority for most people, are now signed up to the whole gay rights agenda. That’s D. Trump for you. Versatile.

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