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Could Trump Spark a New Balkan Ethnic War?

As the coronavirus racks the globe, White House lackeys and lobbyists are converging on the former Yugoslavia and reopening old wounds.

Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images

As it struggles to manage the coronavirus crisis, the White House has begun casting around for policy victories that could fortify President Trump’s reelection chances. It has set its sights on a corner of the world that hasn’t topped American news cycles in some two decades—and which, if Trump has his way, may yet break down into the kind of nationalistic bloodshed that defined the region in the 1990s.

Earlier this month, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić—an ultranationalist former propaganda minister in Slobodan Milošević’s regime—swung through Washington, where he glad-handed with several of the leading sleazy figures in Trump’s orbit. Vučić’s Instagram feed showed the Serbian strongman meeting with Richard Grenell, the troll-cum-diplomat acting as Trump’s director of national intelligence, ambassador to Germany, and official envoy for Serbia-Kosovo dialogue. Also present to receive Vučić was Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose government portfolio ranges from Middle East planning to the U.S.-Mexico border, despite the fact that government officials deemed Kushner a security risk.

Vučić’s photo feed shows him grinning awkwardly at the camera, towering over Grenell, Kushner, and national security adviser Robert O’Brien. Following their meeting, Vučić claimed that Grenell—and, by extension, the United States—had backed his Serbian pressure campaign against neighboring Kosovo, which the Belgrade government still treats as a breakaway Serbian province rather than a fellow nation-state.

The nations’ latest spat centers on a trade war launched in November 2018, when the Kosovar government placed a 100 percent tariff on all Serbian imports. But trade disputes are just the latest manifestation of a bloody, decades-long feud between Serbia and Kosovo, which declared its independence in 2008. Kosovo is recognized by the U.S. and dozens of other countries around the world, but Serbia has attempted to throttle the nascent nation-state, stifling its dreams of self-determination.

For years, Belgrade’s effort seemed largely quixotic: Since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, successive American administrations have supported Kosovo’s sovereignty and backed their rhetoric with American military sorties. In 1999, Kosovo’s status nearly sparked the first post–Cold War hard-power conflict between the U.S. and Russia, which continues to view Serbia as a close ally. U.S. military forces have remained stationed in Kosovo since then as part of a broader NATO-led peacekeeping force. This American support for Kosovar independence has long remained a bipartisan endeavor.

That may all be changing now: The emerging Republican consensus seems to be that Kosovo is on its own—and on the hook for all the help the U.S. has given it since the days of Milošević. “Our position is quite clear: the tariffs must be completely dropped,” Grenell tweeted after receiving Vučić at the White House, adding that Kosovo was “making a serious mistake” in not unilaterally removing the tariffs.  

Administration allies took Grenell’s ball and ran with it. “For over two decades, U.S. forces have helped keep the peace between Kosovo & Serbia. Now, with historic progress in sight, Kosovo must do its part & abolish all duties imposed on Serbia,” Georgia Senator David Perdue announced on Twitter, just after Vučić’s Washington visit. “If Kosovo is not fully committed to peace, then the US should reconsider its presence there.” The following morning, Donald Trump Jr.—in the first comment that he, or probably any presidential son, has ever issued on Kosovo—retweeted Perdue’s message with one of his own. “There are 650 US troops in Kosovo,” Trump Jr. wrote of the long-standing peacekeeping force. “Time to bring them home.”

Why did Trump Jr. suddenly feel emboldened this month to tweet his thoughts on security in the Balkans to the world? More important, why is the Trump administration sending signals that America’s role as the guarantor of Kosovar independence is suddenly up for grabs?

One of the obvious answers centers on the kind of swamp Trump pledged to drain—but which, under this most corrupt of presidents, has instead flooded Washington. “We’ve seen the very alarming deterioration in quality of American foreign policy, and the very obvious concerns that it’s been deeply personalized by the Trump family, which has really in a big way become a pay-to-play machine,” Jasmin Mujanović, an assistant political science professor at Elon University and author of a recent book examining political dynamics in the Western Balkans, told me. “From the Balkan end of things, there were a number of political actors in the region who were really excited by Trump’s election—maybe no one more than Belgrade and its proxies.”

Indeed, few groups have insinuated themselves as closely with the Trump lobbying machine over the past two years as Serbia and its allies. In 2018, Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski unexpectedly popped up in Belgrade, where he reportedly tried to set up lobbying links with Vučić—an anti-democratic leader who has cemented his role as Serbia’s autocrat for years to come. According to the agenda for Lewandowski’s meeting in Belgrade, another former Trump aide, George Gigicos, also joined him. (The lobbying firm linked to Lewandowski, Turnberry Solutions LLC, conveniently shared its name with one of Trump’s Scottish golf courses.)

Also in 2018, pro-Serb separatists in Republika Srpska, a majority-Serb ethnic region in Bosnia and Herzegovina, picked up a pair of Trump campaign officials to assist in efforts to crack up the country and glom onto Serbia proper. It didn’t matter that multiple Republika Srpska officials had already been sanctioned by the U.S. for corruption and efforts to splinter the Bosnian state. One of those former Trump campaign operatives turned lobbyists, Mike Rubino, even completed the pay-to-play circle last year, after the White House got him hired at the Department of Health and Human Services. (He quit four months later, accusing his boss of being a “never Trumper”; last October, news broke that Rubino had attended a springtime lunch with representatives of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, shortly before the phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy that snowballed into a presidential impeachment.) 

The lobbying contacts also help make sense of Grenell’s appointment last October as the official U.S. envoy for Serbian-Kosovar relations. Though he had already been U.S. ambassador to Germany for more than a year, Grenell had no Balkan experience before Trump gave him the second hat to wear. Grenell does, however, have significant experience in spinning massively corrupt post-Soviet political figures for American audiences—so much so that he may have violated the Department of Justice’s Foreign Agents Registration Act while acting as an unregistered foreign agent.

All of this—the lobbying links, the glad-handing, the easy access to all things Trump—has led the U.S. to begin suddenly leaning on Kosovo, and especially Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti, to make unilateral concessions to Belgrade. The new fealty toward Serbia, as one regional analyst wrote, is “very, very, very bad news.” It’s also, as Edward P. Joseph noted in Foreign Policy, an “unprecedented move against perhaps the most pro-U.S. country on the globe.” And if Kurti doesn’t accede to Serbian wishes, as Trump Jr. suggested, the U.S. may pull up stakes completely—and allow Vučić much freer rein to do as he pleases in the Balkans, just two decades after Milošević illustrated what damage the flames of nationalism can wreak when fanned.

The Trump administration’s willingness to carry Vučić’s water is also helped along by the White House’s clear desire for a foreign policy win, no matter the cost. “The benefit of getting a deal on Kosovo is that not many Americans know a whole hell of a lot about Kosovo, and it’s not been on anyone’s radar for very long, so it lends itself to all kinds of spin from the White House,” Mujanović said. Ending a long-standing overseas military deployment, if a relatively small one, and declaring the weaker beneficiaries of U.S. security must now fend for themselves: It could certainly be spun, however myopically, as a win for the mythical “Donald the dove” narrative. “Fundamentally, the Trump White House just believes it will be a foreign policy victory, so it can shore up its credibility as a foreign policy actor,” Mujanović added.

It’s a playbook we’ve seen before. As in Syria and Ukraine, whatever the reasons, Trump has long deferred to the Russian point of view, and wanted to let Moscow take charge rather than challenge it with U.S. presence or operations. In giving Vučić, who remains cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a wide writ—and in turning a blind eye to the efforts of pro-Russian forces in the region—Trump continues a trend that’s threatened U.S. interests elsewhere, even while he claims to be shoring up stability across the world.

And that, experts say, is a disastrously poor gamble in the Kosovo-Serbia stalemate. The U.S. force in Kosovo “is the lone anchor of stability in the region,” retired Gen. Ben Hodges, who commanded the U.S. Army in Europe from 2014 to 2017, tweeted in response to Trump Jr.’s withdrawal threat. “Pulling them out now, before agreements have been implemented, would be like pulling all your starters in the middle of a comeback in the 4th quarter, just before you take the lead.”

The agreements that would have to be implemented involve Serbian-Kosovar land disputes, a spark that would almost certainly light a much larger fuse—one that the region, only a generation removed from the Yugoslav collapse, can ill afford. Any partitioning “risks forced population exchange and even violence,” Shaun Byrnes, a former American diplomat who served in Kosovo at the height of Milošević’s irredentist campaign, wrote earlier this month. “Worse, it could revive dreams of radical nationalists elsewhere in the Balkans.” Those radical nationalists already view Trump’s administration as an ally in their dream to redraw the post–Cold War borders, and Trump’s coterie seems happy to oblige—no matter the cost to the people of the Balkan peninsula or to America’s legacy. Either way, the lobbyists get paid.