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Has the Trump administration ended Clinton's less-than-splendid Balkan War?

Austin Bay on

On Sept. 4, the Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic signed an agreement committing the two Balkan states to reach a mutually beneficial and permanent economic and trade normalization deal. The Trump administration brokered the agreement and hosted the signing ceremony in Washington.

No, it's not a peace treaty between Serbia and Kosovo; it's an agreement to reach a deal. But the positive small step that makes possible larger steps is proving to be a trademark Donald Trump diplomatic and peace-making technique. Trump emphasizes economic progress that diminishes the negative effects of divisive ethnic, religious and cultural differences, and neuters destructive historical grievances as the harmful excuses for hate they are. Trump sees economic development that everyone can see sets the stage for the resolution of seemingly permanent political disputes. Like last month's United Arab Emirates and Israel agreement to diplomatically recognize each other and openly display their extensive commercial ties, the Serb-Kosovar agreement makes a dramatic international statement about how leaders see the future.

The commitment confirms Hoti's and Vucic's personal intent to end an ugly and complex little war. Hoti and Vucic both used the Washington media spotlight to emphasize that point. Instead of hostile confrontation, their goal is to attract investment, create jobs and do so in peace.

Here's a capsule of complexities that in some way Hoti and Vucic seek to address, finesse or bury as bad history no one should repeat.

Kosovo was a semi-autonomous province within the Serb Republic, which was one of six republics comprising the federation of Yugoslavia. The Kosovar separatist movement that began in the early 1980s had a Muslim-versus-Orthodox Christian component. Kosovar radicals wanted the province to become a separate Yugoslav republic. Serbs saw the rise of Greater Albania, an old fear among Balkan Slavs. In retrospect, the Kosovo separatist movement demonstrated Yugoslavia's instability. During the 1990 War of Yugoslavian Dissolution, the six republics became separate states. U.N. peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans failed to prevent massacres such as Bosnia's Srebrenica genocide. Serbia held on to Kosovo, regarding it as the cradle of its civilization, seized by Ottoman Turks in 1389. Balkanites have long memories.

In 1998, armed rebellion erupted in Kosovo. Charges of genocide (ethnic cleansing) by Serb security forces in Kosovo moved then-President Bill Clinton's administration to intervene. NATO is a defensive alliance, but in 1999, NATO air forces bombed Serbia, and ground forces invaded Kosovo to end the violence. Clinton punted on Kosovo's "final status" -- left it "yet to be determined" and deployed peacekeepers. Russia contended NATO had established a "separatist precedent" for spinning statelets from sovereign nations.

Kosovar Albanians thought independence was inevitable. In 2008, they declared it unilaterally. Compounded complexities: In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia to halt alleged ethnic atrocity. In 2014, Russia invoked the Kosovo precedent when it attacked Crimea. There were no genocides in Georgia or Crimea, but truth matters not in Kremlin propaganda. Big difference: NATO didn't invade to change borders on its own behalf. Russia did.

 

Cynics may argue no Balkan war is ever over. Given Balkan history, the cynics have a case. "Stop the killing" works as a feel-good political soundbite. However, it doesn't really cut it as a decisive military objective. Yes, the NATO-sponsored invasion ended ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, but despite peacekeeping troops, violence continued to plague the region.

Hoti and Vucic say that's over. However, they remain at odds on a fundamental issue: mutual recognition. The Foreign Policy journal asked Hoti to address this apparent impasse. Hoti acknowledged Serbia continues to play the "Moscow card" but took a broader view: "I believe that the only solution for the whole region, including Serbia, is EU (European Union) integration."

"I firmly believe," Hoti continued, "that by engaging in a dialogue on economic cooperation and starting large-scale projects, I think we would strengthen the economy, and cooperation between the two countries. I see this as a complementary, supportive action toward the final agreement."

Hoti and Vucic are betting jobs for young people will bury terrible history -- in a dust-bin library.

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