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Pushing for Serbia-Kosovo peace deal, US roils allies

Kosovo flags flew by an American flag in Kosovo in 2018, a year before the US sent a new envoy to the region.
Kosovo flags flew by an American flag in Kosovo in 2018, a year before the US sent a new envoy to the region.Andrew Testa/New York Times

BERLIN — Last October, with the Balkans unsettled and the old tethers of American diplomacy coming apart, the Trump administration dispatched a new envoy to try to solve one of Europe’s longest-running territorial disputes: the two-decade standoff between Serbia and Kosovo.

The move was unconventional. The State Department already had a special envoy to the region, and President Trump’s new emissary, Richard Grenell, was also ambassador to Germany, where his brash style and embrace of right-wing figures broke with diplomatic norms.

Before long, Grenell offended and alienated European diplomats who had worked hard on Kosovo for years. They accused him of ignoring their own, more evolved peace initiatives, of undermining democracy in Kosovo, and of turning a blind eye to budding authoritarianism in Serbia, a Russian ally.

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“I’m doubtful that in this way you can really resolve a situation like Kosovo, the way it’s being tried by Grenell,” said Wolfgang Petritsch, a former European Union envoy to Kosovo.

The appointment has been “very detrimental to the solution of the Kosovo issue,” he added. “With Grenell, it’s only been confusion.”

Early this year, Trump named Grenell acting director of national intelligence, though Grenell lacked expertise in intelligence and had a reputation as a partisan warrior, taking on what is supposed to be a nonpartisan job.

That stint, like the one in Berlin, has come and gone, but Grenell is still hoping to deliver a diplomatic victory in the Balkans before the November election for a president short on such achievements.

Last week, days before a much-disputed Serbian election on Sunday, Grenell announced on Twitter a surprise meeting between the Kosovar president, Hashim Thaci, and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, at the White House on June 27.

Grenell said he intended the meeting as a trust-building exercise, limited for now to trade issues, that could provide a platform for peace talks later in the year. His defenders, both Democrats and Republicans, credit him with pushing the two sides closer to a deal.

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Critics worry that a visit to the White House rewards two men whose opponents accuse them of undermining democratic institutions, and that the strategy simply won’t work.

Formerly part of Serbia, Kosovo won autonomy following a NATO bombing campaign in 1999 that aimed to protect Kosovo’s largely Muslim population from ethnic cleansing. But Serbia has never recognized Kosovo’s sovereignty.

Until recently, Republican and Democratic administrations were similarly steadfast in guaranteeing Kosovo’s security, and worked closely with European allies to do so.

But under Trump, collaboration with European partners has evaporated.

Grenell has tried to resolve the dispute by asking little of Vucic, a Russian ally, while heightening pressure on Kosovo and widening its domestic fissures.

“We’ve forgotten who our client is,” said David L. Phillips, a Balkans expert and State Department adviser during the Kosovo war. “It’s not Serbia, but Kosovo, a country we have helped birth, steward, and protect.”

Serbia’s backsliding on democracy is evidenced by Sunday’s parliamentary elections, which Vucic’s party is expected to win by a landslide because most opposition parties have boycotted the vote to protest Vucic’s autocratic policies.

The Trump administration hopes a victory will give Vucic breathing space to address the tensions with Kosovo.