A recent meeting in Washington, attended by US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, encouraged economic normalization between Serbia and Kosovo in the form of a bilateral agreement between Belgrade and Priština. Framed as a historic diplomatic win for Trump, it appeared to make diplomatic progress between Serbia and Kosovo. It pushed for improved relations between Israel and Muslim majority countries, encouraged natural resource diversification away from Russia, and denied China a significant 5G influence in Serbia and Kosovo.
However, the agreement's validity is not without doubt, since both Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti received slightly different versions that did not require a US signature or one from their respective counterparts. Statements delegitimizing the agreement continue to pop up, with a source close to Vučić saying that if Israel recognizes Kosovo as an independent country, Belgrade will not move its embassy to Israel as the US envoy required.
The agreement states that both Belgrade and Priština will receive funding for strategic infrastructure projects and enterprises from US financial institutions through the US International Development Finance Corporation which has a $60 billion lending capacity with a mandate to focus on low- and middle-income countries. The DFC also has the capability to take an equity stake in investments up to 30% in projects.
However, the ‘historic meeting’ in Washington between Serbian and Kosovar representatives could also be a superficial ploy within Trump’s bigger Middle East peace plans, since Israeli interests were strangely included in the Serbian-Kosovo negotiations.
The 5G Issue
The deal, which includes provisions on transport links, improved trade relations, and energy stipulations, also prohibits Serbia and Kosovo from using “5G equipment supplied by untrusted vendors in their communications networks.” This year, the Serbian Minister of Trade, Tourism, and Telecommunications told reporters that Serbia would join China’s digital silk road by implementing 5G technology as soon as this year. Huawei is a significant supplier to Serbia’s state-owned Telekom Serbia, but the new ‘Washington agreement’ would put an end to that relationship if implemented. Oddly enough, when asked whether the agreement would harm Serbia-China relations, Vučić responded with, “where does it say China is a problem?” Nenad Popović, Serbia’s minister for technological development, previously assured that Huawei would stay in Serbia for a long time, especially since Belgrade signed two non-binding agreements with Huawei since 2017 on the development of broadband internet and smart cities. And although Serbian officials and Huawei representatives opened a data storage center in Kragujevac last March, Washington used the recent Serbia-Kosovo agreement to sabotage Serbia’s cooperation with Beijing and Huawei.
Should Serbia implement the terms of the agreement, it would represent a significant diplomatic step toward the US and away from China. Belgrade would need to remove equipment belonging to ‘untrusted vendors’ and reject future Huawei bids. The agreement's 5G clause is strange, given Vučić’s consistent commitment to friendship with China in the past. Belgrade held firm pro-China geopolitical positions over the last six months or so, opening Serbia to Chinese investment and praising Beijing for its crucial help during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other hand, Kosovo is significantly less dependent on Huawei for communication infrastructure and relies mostly on Ericsson and Nokia equipment. Therefore, the 5G clause seems to solely target Serbia’s relationship with China.
Overall, the meeting complicates Serbia’s already complex foreign policy, since Vučić has previously been able to balance relationships with China, the EU, Russia, and the US. However, the US-brokered deal indicates a pro-US position that snubs the EU as a mediator, Russia as an energy supplier, and China as both a foreign investor and friend. Brussels demands that Serbia normalize relations with Kosovo in pursuance of EU membership, while China and Russia, historical Serbian allies, continue to oppose recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Russia and China are currently the only guarantors of the preservation of UN Resolution 1244, which states that Kosovo remains an integral part of Serbia under some degree of autonomy.
The ‘Washington summit’ between Serbia and Kosovo turned most of Vučić’s previous foreign policy positions upside-down. In addition to pressuring Serbia on 5G cooperation with Beijing, the agreement asked that Serbia diminish its natural gas cooperation with Russia to ‘diversify’ its energy imports. It was even more strange that right after the ‘Washington meeting,’ Serbia dropped out of its planned military drill exercises with Russia and Belarus, indicating a new willingness to work with the west.
Israel and Embassy Moves to Jerusalem
The oddly placed Israel-related clauses state that Kosovo normalizes its relationship with Israel and open up an embassy in Jerusalem. Although Serbian diplomacy, even during Yugoslavia, maintained somewhat neutral positions concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the agreement requires Serbia to open a commercial and government office in Jerusalem on Sept. 20 and move its embassy to the city by July 1, 2021. This move will undoubtedly jeopardize Serbia’s relationship with some of its Arab allies.
However, shortly after the meeting, when asked about the embassy move, President Vučić insisted that “we have to talk with Palestinians and with our Arab friends… we have to see if Israel will recognize Kosovo and vice versa, we’ll see if Palestine will recognize Kosovo.” This would be one of Vučić’s several post-meeting statements that seemed to contradict the agreement’s contents.
According to the documents, Kosovo and Israel must mutually recognize each other and establish official diplomatic relations. Kosovo announced that it would move its embassy to Jerusalem. The agreement also asked that Belgrade and Priština both label Hezbollah a terrorist organization, which also has zero to do with Serbia-Kosovo disputes.
While many Serbs decried Vučić for being weak in the Oval Office meeting, some Albanians also perceived the agreement as a loss for Kosovo. Priština will also need to freeze its process of joining international organizations for one year, which many Albanians view as an obstruction to statehood. Serbia also pledged to stop its campaign of encouraging other states to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo. Regardless of these gestures, Serbian nationalists view Vučić’s willingness to negotiate with Hoti under Trump’s watchful eye an act of betrayal that could slowly evolve into explicit recognition of the breakaway region. Despite the apparent need to encourage economic development and prosperity for Serbs and Albanians alike, Vučić and Hoti both appeared subjugated in Washington, with Vučić more embarrassed because he refused to admit the ridiculousness of the entire event.
It is clear that the agreement reached in Washington is not legally binding, but instead represents a diplomatic moment of political signaling. Overall, Trump gained the most by creating a positive diplomatic environment before announcing his more important Middle East agreements. Israel also gained recognition from Kosovo, and perhaps even a Serbian embassy in Jerusalem to join the US and Guatemalan embassies which have already relocated to the Holy City.
Kosovo gained a one-year moratorium on a relatively effective Serbian campaign of encouraging other states to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo, and potential recognition from Israel.
Following the Washington meeting, we see Serbia’s position become even more complicated, as an embassy move to Jerusalem would certainly complicate relations with certain Arab and Muslim states. The clause about energy diversification sends a mixed message to Russia, a historical Slavic, and Christian Orthodox ally. Lastly, 5G clause, although not naming China specifically, could indeed be interpreted as a signal to Beijing. If Serbia continues its close cooperation with China and Huawei, Washington and Trump could interpret it as an unreliable partner in future diplomatic interactions. Serbia also gambled by betting on Trump, who will undoubtedly show gratitude to Belgrade if he wins the election in November.