David Phillips

By David L. Phillips

The United States and Kosova have enjoyed a special relationship. Liberating and state-building was a bipartisan endeavor. The Clinton administration went to war to prevent ethnic cleansing of Kosova Albanians by Serbia and Bush led Kosova’s coordinated declaration of independence. Today, US-Kosova relations are at their lowest point in years. President Donald J. Trump has betrayed Kosova’s trust in the US, rolling back decades of progress.
Trump and his team have forgotten that Kosova is our ally – not Serbia. Kosova Albanians were victims of genocide, not Serbs. There is no place for moral equivalency when it comes to Kosova and Serbia. Washington’s moral compass is broken.
Richard Grenell, the US Special Envoy for Kosova-Serbia Relations, has given tacit support to dividing Kosova and giving territories north of the Ibar River to Serbia. Grenell is trying to broker a deal between Thaci and Vucic not to help Kosova, but to please his boss.
Someone should explain the Balkans to him. Partition is not only bad policy. It risks renewed conflict. Territorial swaps are opposed by an overwhelming majority of both Kosova Albanians and Serbs in Kosova and Serbia, as well NATO members such as Germany and the United Kingdom.
Moreover, Kosova gains nothing from partition. Serbia cannot deliver UN membership for Kosova, over which Russia has a veto. Nor can it compel five EU countries to reverse their non-recognition of Kosova. Spain has recently shown flexibility, but it remains adamantly opposed to Kosova’s EU membership.
The wisdom of imposing tariffs on Serbia can be debated. The decision, however, must be seen in context. The Kosova government imposed tariffs after Serbia targeted Kosova’s campaign to join INTERPOL and intensified efforts to convince countries that have recognized Kosova to rescind their recognition.
Instead of strong-arming Kosova to unilaterally lift the tariffs, Washington should be pressuring Serbia to recognize Kosova within its current frontiers. Normalizing trade relations would be part of a step-by-step process based on the principle of reciprocity.
Other concessions from Serbia should be required. Serbs who committed crimes during the war should be prosecuted. Many war criminals still hold titles in the Serbian army and government.
Missing persons is another sore spot. I interviewed a mother whose son disappeared in Gjakova. She tearfully showed me an album with photos of her son. There are still thousands of disappeared whose families want to know what happened to their children.
The US should demand that Serbia stop stonewalling 33 agreements reached talks between Kosova and Serbia. Washington’s lack of leadership, ceding mediation to the European Commission, made the process meaningless.
To coerce concessions from Kosova, the US threatened to withdraw US peacekeeping troops. The threat was imprudent, deepening divisions between Kosovars at a time when national unity is needed more than ever. It also turned Kosova Albanians against the US, spoiling one of Washington’s few friendly relations. Not only is supporting Kosova the right thing to do. The US has a strategic interest in Kosova, as a buttress against Russian influence in Southeast Europe.
To its credit, the Trump administration gave a green light to the Kosova Security Force. Allowing Kosova’s army is the only positive step the US has taken in Kosova since Trump took office.
Vetevendosje made mistakes, for sure. But instead of cooperating with Kosova’s democratically elected government, US officials helped collapse the coalition. Faced with the COVID-19 crisis, Kosova needs stability. It was not the time to throw Albin Kurti under the bus.
I had the honor of working with Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke. I can imagine Holbrooke’s horror at Trump’s anti-Albanian bias. Partition represents the realization of Slobodan Milosevic’s project to create ethnically pure states in the Balkans.
Grenell and other US officials working on Kosova are a disgrace.
Ambassador Phil Kosnett addressed a Diaspora audience in March. When asked about US support for Kosova’s territorial integrity, he replied: “Just trust us.”
The trust of Albanians was misplaced; Trump betrayed Kosova. Albanian-Americans are well-organized politically. Every vote counts in November, especially in swing states where the community is well-represented.


Mr. Phillips served as a Senior Adviser to the State Department during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. He is author of Liberating Kosova: Coercive Diplomacy and US Intervention (Harvard’s Kennedy School).