Trump’s Serbia-Kosovo Deal ‘Middle-Easternizes’ the Balkans

Kosovo has paid a price for the agreement brokered by the US President in which it has been reclassified as a ‘Muslim state’.

The recent “agreement” signed – on separate papers and not with identical contents – by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti under the supervision of Donald Trump strengthens the role of both US and, perhaps for the first time, Israel, in the Balkans.

By the letter of these two separate “agreements”, Serbia consented to move its embassy to Jerusalem, becoming the first European country to do so.

Kosovo has in turn received international recognition by Israel, which is a significant diplomatic victory after a wave of 15 de-recognitions of its independence in the last few years.

But its embassy will also now be in Jerusalem. President Trump and his associates have presented it as the first majority-Muslim country to be represented in Jerusalem.

Trump needed to present Serbia as a European, and Kosovo as a Muslim country, to make the point that the agreement signed in the last months of his term in office is “historical”.

However, there are potentially important implications of such labelling, especially for Kosovo.

Like Albania and Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo has until now avoided being labelled a “Muslim state”.

The only three European countries with Muslim majorities know that in a Europe led mainly by conservative parties and with ideologies that see “Christian values” at the core of European identity, such a label can create problems.

Public opinion in EU member states is increasingly influenced by right-wing, anti-Muslim, rhetoric, and is also increasingly sceptical of further enlargement of the EU.

In 1993, in the midst of the 1992-5 war in Bosnia, Bosnian Muslims changed the name of their nation to Bosniaks, precisely in order to improve their international image and avoid stigmatization.

Albanians from Kosovo in 1998, as the conflict in Kosovo hotted up with Serbia, fully allied themselves with the West, and especially with US. Since then, they have also been determined to be recognised as a Western, pro-American and European nation, not as a Muslim state. Neither in Albania nor in Kosovo do Albanians base their identity on religion.

By re-introducing the “Muslim label” into the political discourse and by bringing Israel, and indeed Hezbollah into the equation, President Trump is Middle-Easternising the Balkans.

For most Americans, the Balkans is an old story of which they know next to nothing. The Middle East is something else. It influences election results.

The Middle-Easternisation of the Balkans in the new American political discourse does not help Muslims in the Balkans. Even more potentially damaging for their interests is that Trump has opened up an avenue for the re-interpretation of the 1990s in the Balkans.

In the presidential campaign, Trump is likely to remind his Democratic rival Joe Biden of the latter’s support for President Bill Clinton’s war against Serbia over Kosovo. In the new frame that he has created, by calling Kosovo a Muslim country, and by Middle-Easternizing the problem, one should not be surprised if he accuses the Clinton administration of having been on the side of the Muslims, hoping this accusation will bring him votes.

Trump needed this agreement for one more reason: to present himself as peace-maker. Indeed, in his four years in office, he has not started a war. But he may now use the Kosovo agreement to accuse the Democrats of having started wars in the past, in Kosovo in 1999, and perhaps also in Bosnia in 1994-5, and in both cases in favour of Muslim nations.

He already said that the economic agreement between Kosovo and Serbia is an (at least partial) resolution to a problem that emerged 21 years ago. Kosovo does not want to hear this. For Kosovo Albanians, 1999 was a solution to the problem, not a problem that needs further solving.

The new Trump rhetoric may strengthen Serbia’s position in the Balkans in other ways. It offers Serbia a chance to de-stigmatize its own image. For Serbia it is important not only to be treated as “factor of stability” in the Balkans, but also to challenge the old narrative of the 1990s, in which Serbs were marked out as the main villains.

No less important is the expectation that the agreement might help the Serbian cause in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Belgrade is increasingly linking the issue of the status of Kosovo with the status of the mainly Serbian entity in Bosnia, Republika Srpska. The Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik recalled that in his statement just prior to President Vučić’s trip to Washington.

So far, Washington has been the main sponsor and friend of the Bosniaks, just as it was of the Kosovo Albanians. Serbia, and in particular the Bosnian Serbs, hope this will change. To test the waters, Dodik has proposed that Bosnia follow Serbia in its moving its embassy to Jerusalem. The Bosniaks are unlikely to agree.

The question will then be of a response – both by US and Israel. By moving its embassy to Jerusalem by July 2021, Serbia will have done a very big favour not only to the US but also to Israel, which has already developed close links with Serbia but also some with the Republika Srpska.

Even if Trump loses the elections in November, Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to stay as Israeli leader, and Biden is unlikely to ignore an agreement that is so favourable for Israel.

Trump might go, but Israel is to stay. This is the key to understanding Serbian support for the inclusion of Israel into an agreement that seemingly had not much to do with the Middle East.

If Bosnia and Herzegovina, due to the Bosniaks, does not follow suit, it might risk losing American support.

For all these reasons, the American presidential elections will be closely followed by all sides in the Balkans.

Serbia supports Trump. Bosnia and Croatia – whose leadership is now exclusively oriented towards the EU, not Israel or the US – hope he loses. Either way, the agreement signed in Washington might prove more important for the Balkans than it seems to many at first sight.

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