The United States and Kosovo are continuing to engage in an unusual public spat, after the staunch U.S. ally’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, resisted calls to take steps that the West says are necessary to de-escalate ethnic tensions in the country’s north.
Tensions flared last week as ethnic Albanian mayors entered municipal buildings with the backing of police, despite having won with only 3.5 percent of the vote in local elections that ethnic Serbs boycotted.
U.S. Special Envoy for the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar and EU Special Envoy Miroslav Lajcak visited Kosovo and Serbia this week, where they asked the leaders of the two countries to de-escalate, hold quick new elections in northern Kosovo and resume their dialogue.
It’s unclear if they will be able to persuade the two sides. Escobar has called Kurti inflexible and uncooperative, and Kurti complained that Washington and Brussels are biased in favor of Serbia.
What’s at stake is a deal between Kosovo and Serbia aimed at normalizing relations, but so far no concrete steps have been taken.
On Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill was blunt in an interview with VOA’s Serbian Service, saying Washington has a problem with Kurti. “He’s not willing to comply, and I think we have some very fundamental issues with him on whether we can count on him as a partner,” he said.
Kurti fired back, complaining in an interview with The Associated Press of bias against his country from the United States and the European Union and tolerance of what he calls Serbia’s authoritarian regime. “Behaving well with an autocrat doesn’t make him behave better. On the contrary,” he told AP.
Hill confirmed a view that many who have followed the Western Balkans and U.S. engagement with Kosovo share these days. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a deep division, really … what we have going right now between Pristina and Washington,” he said.
US approach debated
While analysts agree that the situation is dangerous, they have different opinions on the United States’ open criticism of Kurti.
Luke Coffey, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, said the biggest concern for him has been the way the Biden administration has handled the situation, calling Escobar’s approach “almost reckless.”
“I understand this desire to put pressure on both sides by the U.S. government, but it seems like right now the pressure is disproportionately on Kosovo. … And I think this is unhealthy,” he told VOA Albanian in an interview.
But Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the criticism is justified. “He [Kurti] has taken actions of late that I deem to be needlessly provocative, including … using armed guards to seat ethnic Albanian mayors that were elected with less than 4 percent of the vote. These are not helpful maneuvers,” he told VOA Albanian.
Kupchan said the United States and the EU still need to maintain an even-handed approach, considering that “Serbia has been a difficult player on these issues from the very beginning, that Serbia likely advised Serbs in the north not to participate in the recent elections.”
“So, whereas I do think that the criticism of Kurti is justified, the pressure needs to stay on both Pristina and Belgrade if we’re going to see progress toward normalization and implementation of the agreements, including some form of Serb self-management in Kosovo,” he said.
The U.S. and the EU have asked Serbia to withdraw troops that it sent to the border with Kosovo and to urge protesters to be calm.
But observers notice that there has not been a calling out of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, like there has been with Kurti.
Coffey said the West is trying to appease Serbia, and Vucic is trying to have it both ways.
“He wants to pretend like he is going to get closer to the West and be a productive member of the Euro-Atlantic community, but all the while he is very cozy with Moscow, very cozy with the Kremlin. And Serbia, under his leadership, remains Russia’s main foothold in the Balkans,” he said, adding that this undermines U.S. interests in the region.
When visiting Pristina, special envoy Escobar made sure to distinguish in his remarks between sharp disagreements with the Kosovo government and the overall relationship with the country as a whole. Kupchan said the unique relationship between Kosovo and the United States has not changed.
“By making public statements of this sort, I think the United States is, as I said, trying to create a situation in which there is political public pressure on Kurti to take a different line, and in which I think the United States is also sending a message to Serbs, to Serbia, to the Serbian government, that it is an even-handed player,” he said.
The tensions over local elections are just the latest in a long list of disagreements between Kosovo and Serbia over what each country needs to do to make progress toward normalizing ties, a process spearheaded by the EU with strong support from the U.S.
Kupchan said Western leaders’ frustration stems from the fact that they thought normalization was within reach, and the parties don’t seem to be taking advantage of the opportunity.
“This is, in my mind, the best opportunity that we’ve seen really in a very long time, perhaps even since the initial independence of Kosovo in 2008,” he said.
The issue of self-management of Serbs in northern Kosovo is essentially the Achilles’ heel in this process.
Visiting the region, Escobar repeated that Kosovo needs to establish an Association of Serb Municipalities if it wants to move closer to Euro-Atlantic institutions. Kosovo officials have resisted, talking about more autonomy for Serbs but stopping short of committing to a concrete plan.
“That seems to be the key sticking point here. It is also, in my mind, the key that would lead to a breakthrough in which the Serb majority that lives north of the river would feel that they have a voice in the institutions, the governance of Kosovo, and that they may then be more comfortable integrating into the country,” Kupchan said.
He added that the question is not whether Kosovo has a right to be frustrated, considering that “Belgrade has been sustaining parallel structures and has been manipulating the population inside Kosovo.”
In his view, the main question facing Kosovo is, “What is the best course for the government to take to get to a satisfactory, stable, durable peace in which Serbia forms a normal relationship with Kosovo, and ultimately all the countries of the world, including Serbia, recognize Kosovo as an independent and sovereign state?”
Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence that it declared in 2008, and that came almost a decade after U.S.-led NATO forces intervened to stop ethnic cleansing by the Serbian regime at the time.