As Sudan’s transition to democracy collapses and its U.S.-brokered normalization process with Israel is thrown into even greater doubt, there remains another American-mediated political process that has partially stalled out: The Washington Agreement – documents signed separately by Serbia and its former province, Kosovo, which indirectly involve Israel.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but the government in Belgrade still considers it to be a part of Serbia. Pushed by the administration of then-U.S. President Donald Trump, the agreements have largely foundered since current President Joe Biden took office.
“There’s no leadership in this negotiation process. For over a decade, there’s been a slow-motion process facilitated by the European Union without a clear mandate for the implementation and timeline,” said Alush Gashi, an adviser to former Kosovan prime minister Avdullah Hoti and a former member of parliament.
“There’s a strong belief that without direct American engagement, there is no chance for success, especially after Brexit and deep divisions among EU countries,” he continued.
Both Serbia and Kosovo are seeking to be admitted into the EU. “Interestingly, facilitators of dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia are from countries that have not recognized Kosovo, with whom Serbia has diplomatic relations,” Gashi said. “Lately, the Biden administration has brought onstage senior diplomats who are familiar with the region. Let us hope that that may create awareness among EU countries who have not recognized the independence of Kosovo and convince Serbia that Kosovan independence is irreversible.”
While the agreement isn’t recognized as part of the Abraham Accords series, the Trump administration served as the agent for the Washington Agreement between bitter foes Serbia and Kosovo. On Sept. 4, 2020, Kosovo’s then-prime minister, Hoti, and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić signed and separately submitted to Trump declarations identical in wording and content, apart from their respective commitments regarding relations with Israel.
In the end, the U.S. negotiated for itself a grab bag of its own priorities: Both Serbia and Kosovo agreed to exclude China from their 5G telecom infrastructure and to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
And Richard Grenell, the U.S. envoy for Serbia/Kosovo negotiations, said that perhaps the most important provision of all in the deal was that Serbia agreed to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by July 1, 2021, and that Kosovo and Israel would establish diplomatic relations, with a Kosovan embassy to be planted in the Israeli capital as well.
On February 1, Kosovo and Israel formally established diplomatic relations, and six weeks later Kosovo opened its embassy in Jerusalem with little accompanying fanfare. Although Kosovo is by its constitution a secular state, Israel welcomed Kosovo as the first Muslim-majority nation to establish an embassy in Jerusalem.
While, overall, the EU welcomed the Washington Agreement, it criticized the provisions on establishing embassies in Jerusalem as diverging from the EU’s position. Turkey and other Muslim countries also criticized this decision.
But Israel’s recognition of Kosovo gave Vučić cover to hold off indefinitely on moving Serbia’s embassy to Jerusalem, a notion he was clearly uncomfortable with at the time the Washington Agreement was signed.
“We are very happy with Kosovo’s recognition of Israel and its embassy placement in Jerusalem, and normalization-related efforts with Pristina are happening constantly,” said Lior Haiat, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry. “Our ties with Belgrade go back decades and, while we’d love to have their embassy in Jerusalem, [the lack of the embassy transfer] hasn’t dampened our relationship at all. They have their interests and we understand.” But the embassy issue seems to be among the least consequential setbacks to the agreements.
Weeks ago, leaders and advocacy organizations from Albanian American, Bosnian American, and Montenegrin American communities wrote an open letter to the U.S. Senate and House committees on foreign relations, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. The signatories called on the U.S. to commit to a stronger presence in the Western Balkans region amid “growing militancy of the government of Serbia,” expressing alarm about what they called Belgrade’s growing aggression toward Kosovo, but also increasingly toward Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro.
The signatories said the “most alarming scenes” took place in Kosovo in late September when Vučić deployed tanks, combat aircraft, and armored vehicles close to the border after Serbia reneged on a license plate agreement that the EU negotiated with Serbia and Kosovo almost a decade ago.
The EU and U.S. got involved in the matter, and the EU was ridiculed in some diplomatic circles when high-level officials released celebratory messages that a working group had been established to deal with the license plate issue, symbolizing how low the bar had been set for diplomatic advancements. Under the EU- and U.S.-brokered deal, NATO soldiers are guarding crossing points to a Serb enclave in northern Kosovo, and local officials are to put stickers on car plates to cover up national insignia until a better solution is found over the next six months by a special, EU-chaired working group.
The deal was “fair,” Vučić said, though he added: “I would like … to find more lasting solutions that would not include recognition of Kosovo.”
The U.S., meanwhile, has mostly deferred to the EU in handling negotiations, though Gabriel Escobar, a senior American official dealing with the Western Balkans, was credited with helping to defuse the problem.
Just this week, Kosovo’s sports minister threatened retaliation and called on event organizers in Serbia to be punished after three boxers from Kosovo were twice denied entry to attend the men’s amateur world championships in Belgrade, first for wearing Kosovo’s national symbols, then again without the symbols.
“The Washington commitments outline steps to help economic normalization between Kosovo and Serbia. The need for full normalization has no expiration date,” a State Department spokesperson said.
“We hope that our partners will act in good faith and continue to honor the commitments made in Washington. Our support continues to Kosovo, Serbia, and other aspirants in the Western Balkans region to advance the necessary political and economic reforms required to realize their goals of EU membership,” the spokesperson added.
The U.S. played a key role in securing Kosovo’s sovereignty and implementing the Dayton Peace Agreement to end the three-and-a-half-year-long Bosnian War in December 1995. This time, though, it seems there are only talks about continuing to talk about what needs to be talked about.
“There is very modest progress on the implementation of agreements of the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. Dialogue has served as the management of distrust between the two countries,” lamented Gashi.
“The good news is that the Biden administration has reaffirmed the USA’s clear position on the dialogue, while the European Union is keeping its vague position on dialogue,” he said.
Essentially, though, there appears to be little pressure on the Serbian government for full recognition of Kosovo, and many experts argue that Belgrade essentially holds veto power over Kosovo’s EU integration. Kosovo is recognized by over 100 countries, including 22 EU members. But five EU member-states – Slovakia, Romania, Greece, Cyprus, and Spain – continue to block Kosovo’s accession, with their collective position being that they will recognize Kosovo only after a full normalization agreement is reached between Belgrade and Pristina.
“The dialogue will succeed when the EU will join the USA in its position on Kosovo,” said Gashi.
The article was written by Mike Wagenheim and reprinted with permission from The Media Line.