By Jacob Leichter
On September 4, 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump brokered talks between Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti at the White House, which culminated in an economic normalization agreement between the two Balkan nations. This deal is especially promising, in that it signals a potential resolution to the bitter conflict that has plagued both countries for over two decades. For a bit of background, in February 1998, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), comprised of Kosovar Albanians, sparked a rebellion to liberate Kosovo from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the remnant of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and what is now Serbia and Montenegro. The bloody war lasted until June 1999, when The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), who entered the war to back the KLA, signed accords with Yugoslavia and ceded control of Kosovo to the United Nations. Bouts of violent anti-Serb campaigns erupted sporadically between then and February 2008, when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. As of September 2020, 98 countries recognize an independent Kosovo, the United States among them.
However, Kosovo has been unsuccessful in its numerous attempts to enter international groups, like the United Nations, due to the efforts of Serbia and her allies, Russia and China. Part of the agreement between the two nations this month was a promise of yearlong cessation: Kosovo would stop trying to normalize diplomacy, while Serbia would stop advocating against normalization. Despite what could be viewed as an impasse in the forming of a positive relationship between the two states, the other elements of the economic normalization agreement are of great benefit to the economies and citizens of Serbia and Kosovo. Most important are the transnational elements, namely the reopening of the Merdare Common Crossing Point, the recognition of each country’s diplomas and certifications, and Serbia’s admittance of Kosovo into the proposed “Mini-Schengen” region in the Western Balkans. This enables an easier flow of travelers, workers, students, and trade between the two. The agreement also offers comfort as both countries agreed to a joint effort to locate and identify the remains of unidentified bodies, and to implement solutions for refugees and displaced persons, two lasting wounds from the war that ended just over 20 years ago.
An added, albeit surprise, element to the talks between Serbia and Kosovo was their relationship with Israel. Though diplomacy between Israel and Serbia is nothing new, this is a big step for Kosovo and Israel. Serbia, when it was still referred to as Yugoslavia, was the second European power to recognize the fledgling Israel in 1948, and the two established ties shortly thereafter. However, with the onset of the Six-Day War in 1967, Serbia severed all connection to the Jewish State. In 1992, internationally isolated amid the Yugoslav Wars, Serbia looked for any allies and reestablished diplomacy with Israel. The two have enjoyed a bond since then — especially economically and in tourism. Serbia agreed, as part of the September 4 discussions, to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Kosovo, unlike Serbia, has had quite a different relationship to Israel. Kosovan President Hashim Thaçi has continuously touted his country’s admiration of the Middle Eastern nation, even proclaiming that “Kosovo is a friend of Israel” before declaring independence in 2008. Over the years, the Kosovan government has displayed flags of Israel in the president’s office and boasted about their love of the Jewish people and Israel as a model nation. Israel, on the other hand, remained firm in their indecision regarding the acknowledgement of Kosovo as a legitimate country, largely due to concerns that the Palestinians would try emulating Kosovo by engaging in a bloody war for independence. However, this no longer seems to be a concern, as both Kosovo and Israel recognize each other’s legitimacy. Kosovo will be the first Muslim-majority nation to open an embassy in Jerusalem. This makes Serbia and Kosovo the third and fourth countries to defy the internationally accepted practice of establishing embassies in Tel Aviv, following Guatemala and the United States, both of whom moved their facilities to Jerusalem in May 2018. The move, and any associated international partnerships, mark an improvement between Israel and her allies in the Balkans.
While this economic normalization agreement between Kosovo and Serbia is far from complete amity for the previously hostile nations. It does help their citizens and open new doorways for stronger ties in the future, though that will remain to be seen. The Israel element also signals the forging of both new and improved diplomatic relations with Jerusalem, which may lead to interesting developments for the Middle Eastern and Balkan states going forward.