President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, and Prime Minister of Kosovo, Avdullah Hoti, signed separate agreements with the United States on “economic normalization” on September 4, 2020. Trump was not only able to persuade the two to reach the deal, but also used the opportunity to include some additional demands from both sides to play his Middle Eastern “Deal of the Century” game, resulting in Israel being the greatest beneficiary of the so-called Washington agreement.
According to point 16 of the agreement, Belgrade has committed to open a trade office in Jerusalem in September 2020 and to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by July 2021. According to the same article, Kosovo and Israel have agreed to mutual recognition.
By moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Serbia would become one of only three countries with embassies in that city, after the US and Guatemala. Moreover, it would become the first European country to take this controversial step.
The Serbia-Kosovo dispute remains one of the last sources of instability in Europe and by dealing with the Balkan hotspot, Trump aimed to score another foreign political victory before the US presidential election, presenting himself as one of the most successful peacemakers of today, even being nominated for the Nobel Prize for his role in the UAE-Israel and Kosovo-Serbia deals.
Serbs view Kosovo as their national heartland and refuse to recognize Kosovo as an independent state.
Serbs view Kosovo as their national heartland and refuse to recognize Kosovo as an independent state after the province, predominantly inhabited by ethnic Albanians, declared unilateral independence from Serbia in 2008 with strong Western support. Kosovo had been part of Serbia/Yugoslavia until 1999 and the outbreak of war between Serbia and Kosovo rebels, which ended after the US-led NATO intervention that Serbs see as an act of aggression on their country. The conflict claimed more than 10,000 lives and left more than one million homeless.
The post-war status of Kosovo is the subject of disagreement between Serbia and Western powers that openly supported Kosovo’s secession. The dispute is also a source of controversy and contested views among international lawyers. As of September 2020, roughly half of the UN member states still do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state, including five EU states, despite enormous pressure from the US and other Western states. The current status of the province is regulated by UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1244*.
Since Serbia for the last 20 years insisted on full compliance with international law and with UNSC Resolution 1244 in its dispute with Kosovo, it is rather strange that Serbia decided to ignore the very same norms regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict.
In a telephone interview, Vuk Jeremić, Serbia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs and President of the Serbian opposition People’s Party, told Inside Arabia that Serbia’s commitment to move its embassy represents a very clear violation of UNSC Resolution 478, which annuls the de facto Israeli annexation of Jerusalem.
“This is the very first time in the history of both Yugoslav and Serbian diplomacies since 1945 that Serbia decided to flagrantly violate the UNSC Resolution.”
“This is the very first time in the history of both Yugoslav and Serbian diplomacies since 1945 that Serbia decided to flagrantly violate the UNSC Resolution that is a binding document for every member state of the UN,“ Jeremic continued. “This puts Serbia in a very uncomfortable position, especially regarding its national priority—the issue of Kosovo. The Serbian stance on Kosovo is founded on the insistence that the entire international community must respect and comply with UNSC Resolution 1244,” Jeremić further explained.
However, according to Boško Jakšić, a prominent Serbian political commentator, Serbia has not always been consistent in its insistence on respecting international law. Serbia avoided condemning the annexation of Crimea, even though that was the same kind of separatism Belgrade is talking about in the case of Kosovo.
“It sounds cynical when Serbia officially supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine [Kyiv hasn’t recognized Kosovo] and at the same time accepts the policy of double standards because it fears Russia, its main backer. The same distorted logic is adopted in the case of Israel,” Jakšić told Inside Arabia.
Marko Savković, Program Director at Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence and Belgrade Security Forum, explained that since Serbia and Kosovo signed two different documents not with each other, but with the United States, Serbia perhaps tried to avoid negative implications of breaking its own principles.
Ivan Zlatić, member of the Presidency of the Party of the Radical Left in Serbia, believes that “President Vučić is clearly betting on the interest of countries that have not recognized Kosovo to protect international law and themselves from imperial autocracy, regardless of the unethical and contradictory behavior of Serbia.”
The European Union warned Serbia and Kosovo that their decision to move their embassies to Jerusalem could undermine their EU membership prospects.
Nevertheless, Serbian commitments may have far-reaching consequences for the country. Shortly after the meeting in Washington, the European Union warned Serbia and Kosovo that their decision to move their embassies to Jerusalem could undermine their EU membership prospects, as their move is not aligned with the EU’s common position on Jerusalem.
The European Union stays committed to the two-state solution for Palestine and Israel, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of the two states.
According to Savković, this will be an obstacle for Serbia, but not a major one. There are other more pressing issues, even from the standpoint of the EU and European Commission, he noted, such as (insufficient) progress achieved in “key chapters” of the negotiation process, including “rule of law fundamentals” and solving its dispute with Kosovo. During the rule of current President Vučić, Serbia has been drifting toward authoritarianism.
Furthermore, Serbia’s alignment with the EU’s foreign policy is already problematic as it has not supported resolutions targeting actions of Russia and China, even on some issues that have little strategic relevance for Belgrade (i.e. Venezuela), Savković added.
“Serbia’s compatibility with the EU foreign policy in 2012 was as high as 90 percent and dropped to 60 percent this year.”
“Serbia’s compatibility with the EU foreign policy in 2012 was as high as 90 percent and dropped to 60 percent this year,” Jakšić noted.
He also observes that the agreement looks more like some kind of Middle East deal rather than a document addressing the key problem of the West Balkans. This is especially true considering the issue of embassy relocation or the provision where signatories committed to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization. “It was purely Trump’s agenda and the question remains what Serbia got by distancing itself from most of the international community,” Jakšić wondered.
However, Nina Markovic Khaze, Visiting Fellow at the Center for European Studies at the Australian National University, said that Vučić agred on the basis of a new US investment drive in Serbia. “It was a diplomatic gamble that he was ready to take in the name of signing the agreement with Washington and to receive economic commitments from Washington soon afterwards, with tangible investment proposals,” she told Inside Arabia.
Nevertheless, in Zlatić’s opinion, skepticism prevails among EU members about further EU expansion and this mood will not change in the foreseeable future. He said that the Serbian authorities know that their decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem is not a real problem for Brussels, but a rather convenient excuse for stalling “the European path” of Serbia.
The Washington agreement also reflects the ill feelings between Washington and Brussels concerning the Kosovo issue as well as the Middle East, even as the EU showed its traditional impotency and inefficiency.
Speaking to Inside Arabia, Milena Repajić, member of the Presidency of the Party of the Radical Left in Serbia, said that the Washington agreement was a serious step in moving Belgrade-Prishtina negotiations from Brussels to DC, something the Trump administration has been trying to do since 2016. Vučić seems to have put all his eggs in the Trump basket, compromising relations with the EU, and also with China and Russia. That is, according to Repajić, the reason behind the EU protestations, while moving the Serbian embassy to Jerusalem is merely a smokescreen.
“The Washington agreement was a serious step in moving Belgrade-Prishtina negotiations from Brussels to DC.”
While Trump presented Serbia’s move as a done deal, the Serbian President’s media advisor, Suzana Vasiljevic, said it was “not a definite decision” and much will depend on “how Israel will behave when their relations with Kosovo is in question,” she added.
Recognizing independent Kosovo was something that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu owed to Trump, and any talk about not making a “definite decision” is nonsense, according to Jakšić. “President Vučić is not President Trump, who can ignore America’s obligations concerning a nuclear treaty with Iran. Belgrade has to follow suit and the damage is done,” he added.
As for Jeremić, “going to Washington and signing some kind of deal related to Kosovo, which at the end of a day has very little to do with Kosovo but instead has a lot to do with Trump’s foreign policy priorities, is a very drastic move and it will prove to be very controversial in the . . . change in the White House.” He also described Vučić’s decision as a gamble, since choosing a side in the American election is always a dubious thing to do when representing a small country.
Indeed, Vučić put all of its bets on Trump, in what was clearly a short-sighted move. Now, the Serbian President can only hope that with the Biden-Harris victory he can strategically get out of the deal and present it as his diplomatic success, according to Repajić. This is a double-edged sword, she added, since the agreement itself was a very risky act that was supposed to help Trump’s chances for re-election, allowing Trump to seemingly resolve a long-standing conflict in the Balkans and to get a European country to move its embassy to Israel. It took Vučić a long time to get into Trump’s good graces, especially since he supported Hillary Clinton just weeks before the election in 2016. In supporting Trump this time, he might have made the same mistake again, she noted, in light of Biden winning the US presidential election.
However, Jeremić thinks that with Biden’s win, there won’t be much follow-up to the Washington agreement, particularly elements related to the relocation of the Serbian embassy to Jerusalem. This was basically Trump and Netanyahu’s diplomatic breakthrough. Therefore, he doesn’t think that relocation of the Serbian embassy will materialize any time soon and there is a good chance that this episode will simply die away.
Florian Bieber, Director of the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria, also seriously doubts that the Biden administration will care much about this agreement, which does not reflect conventional US foreign policy. While the US might not move its embassy back to Tel Aviv, Bieber thinks that it will certainly not support the aggressive policies of Netanyahu, who has aligned himself closely with Trump. He also thinks “there would be no reason for Serbia to move the embassy to Jerusalem.”
Serbia’s decision to move its embassy, along with other commitments signed, may have serious consequences for relations with the rest of the Arab (Muslim) world.
Finally, Serbia’s decision to move its embassy, along with other commitments signed, may have serious consequences for relations with the rest of the Arab (Muslim) world, as well as with other Serbian traditional allies such as Russia and China.
For Zlatić, this is by far the worst aspect of the Washington agreement. While Socialist Yugoslavia developed good political and economic relations with Arab countries, through the Non-Aligned Movement and its anti-colonial foreign policy stance, it is a real miracle that Serbia maintained relatively good relations with the Arab world during and after the 1990s, despite its hardcore nationalist, anti-Muslim agenda. However, with the decision to move the Serbian embassy to Jerusalem and to declare Hezbollah terrorist organization, he fears that Serbia may severely spoil its relations with many Arab/Muslim countries.
It is also getting increasingly difficult for Vučić to maintain good relations with both the US and the EU on one hand, and Russia and China on the other, Repajić observed. She explained that Article 9 directly targets China, as it obligates the signatories to remove 5G equipment from their mobile networks provided by what was termed “untrusted vendors” and to prohibit such vendors from bidding in the future. This is largely seen as a move aimed against Huawei and could significantly compromise Serbia’s relationship with China.
However, as several Arab countries have normalized relations with Israel despite its most anti-Palestinian government in power, Bieber believes that the cost for Serbia will be negligible. As for Nina Marković, while Serbia’s commitments can negatively impact the country’s relationships with the Muslim world, some of those links are based on strategic interest and not values-based, and as such, the impact could be limited.
Bieber thinks that “Serbia under Vucic has been juggling between different global powers, so his closer alignment with the US will be temporary and he will turn back to Russia and China with other gestures soon enough.” Still, the scars of the Washington agreement may last much longer. The agreement is a clear message to sleepy bureaucrats in the West that populist right-wing leaders like Vučić, Trump, and Netanyahu, may easily take the initiative if left unchallenged, and make similar deals that could have far-reaching consequences for the entire international community.
* Although after 2008, the UN transferred its duties to the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) which is still operating under UNSC Resolution 1244.