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Imperial partition: Trump’s new order in the Balkans

Note from LeftEast editors: The article is published in cooperation between Counterfire and LeftEast.

The US President is hoping that he can broker a Serbia-Kosovo deal ahead of the November elections, writes Vladimir Unkovski-Korica.

Donald Trump is a man in a hurry. There is an election to fight, and success is in short supply. His domestic record is looking dubious after his poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Unemployment is sky high and US race relations after the police murder of George Floyd compound the picture.

And Trump’s international breakthroughs…well, North Korea’s literal blowing up of the inter-Korean joint liaison office on 16 June suggests that Trump’s diplomatic efforts on the peninsula have fallen short of his bombastic promises in 2018.

Meanwhile, the Trump Peace Plan between Israel and Palestine seems only to have emboldened Netanyahu’s plans to annex the West Bank, which have also come to light in the last week.

Balkan “Peace” Broker

What Trump needs is a big success story. He has turned to Richard Grenell, former acting director of national intelligence and former US ambassador to Germany, to deliver it.

Grenell is the Special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations. And, in recent days, he has provided something of a coup for the US president. Well, several coups, actually.

Grenell was at the centre of an announcement that Washington will host a meeting of the Kosovo and Serbia presidents on 27 June. This may see the end of a feud that has been international news since NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999.

Though in reality a US protectorate, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, which Serbia refuses to recognise.

Now, both countries have signalled the pause of their respective campaigns to gain or deny Kosovo’s recognition in international institutions, until the presidential summit in the White House.

Ethnic partition

Although the official narrative is to downplay hopes of a swift deal that will end the stalemate, and emphasise economic development instead, rumours have been rife for some time that Trump wants to sponsor a deal based on an exchange of territories between Serbia and Kosovo.

Kosovo’s Serb-dominated north would be allowed to join Serbia, and a strip of majority Albanian territory in southern Serbia would go the other way.

This in reality has been Serbia’s hope for some time, and Trump signalled a readiness to listen to Serbia. The EU has been opposed but Kosovo politicians have dutifully gone along with Washington.

Well, most have. Grenell was in fact accused of engineering the removal in March of a democratically elected Prime Minister, Albin Kurti. Kurti takes a hard line on Serbia, which is not what Washington currently wants to hear. So there was another coup, of sorts, for Grenell.

Anyway, Washington has always preferred Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, who gained favour with the US after backing NATO’s bombing of Serbia in the so-called Kosovo War in 1999. Kurti, by contrast, resigned as a political adviser to the KLA at the same time.

Thaci says that ‘Kosovo has no time to waste… we need to move as fast as possible towards the perspective to become part of the organisation of the United Nations, Nato and the EU.’

He will be joined in Washington by Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić. Vučić’s party faces parliamentary elections on 21 June. The challenge is not to win, as much of the opposition is boycotting the elections. Rather, Vučić is fighting for turnout and legitimacy. A prospective deal on Kosovo being announced days before te election by the US is in that sense a coup for Vučić.

It cannot be a surprise that Vučić has openly backed Trump against protests in the US. Nevertheless, he has announced he will also be stopping over in Moscow before his trip to Washington in order to clear any deal with Vladimir Putin. Vučić has to ensure continued Russian backing for Serbia, as Moscow will be worried about losing influence in the country.

Perhaps surprisingly, Putin has said in the past that he will support whatever deal the two sides can live with. After all, would a partition deal in the Balkans not justify the Crimea annexation? So, there may well be support for a partition deal among the Great Powers.

The EU, and Germany especially, may not like it, as it would make the US stronger in the Balkans at their expense, but it is not clear that they would particularly object if presented with a fait accompli.

Pandora’s box

It is still unclear whether there is enough time and momentum behind a partition deal. After all, Trump would not mind terribly if there was a good photo-op, and this all unravelled after the election.

But Trump seems to want it to succeed because it is part of his desire to wean Russia off China, which he sees as America’s primary concern. A problem less for the US to worry about, especially if he continues in the White House for four more years.

In this vision, the Balkans would be more quickly absorbed in the American and European imperialist framework, via Nato and the EU.

But in encouraging such a deal, the US president is not thinking about policy detail. What signal would a partition-deal send in the complex Balkan region as a whole?

Bosnia and Herzegovina is already a de facto ethnically partitioned state since Bill Clinton’s Dayton Accords, and its Serb entity would plausibly wish to secede. Meanwhile, Macedonia is a deeply divided state between its Slav Macedonian and Albanian populations. Would that be a possible target of partition in the long-run?

Where else in the world have partitions gone well? And would a sanctioned partition, even if presented as a one-off solution to a particular problem, not set a precedent for more potential partitions in other countries, opening the way for war?

The left in the Balkans and internationally should therefore oppose Trump’s deal. We should generally oppose the plans of the US, EU and Russia for the region. We must also make clear that the local ruling classes themselves are not part of the solution, but keenly looking for sponsors among the Great Powers, much as they have done through history.

Instead, our fight is for an order constructed by the working peoples of the region themselves, based on mutual respect and equality, and the ideal of a Balkan Socialist Federation.

By Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is an editor at LeftEast and a member of Marks21 in Serbia and Counterfire in the United Kingdom. He is Lecturer in Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow. His first book was entitled “The Economic Struggle for Power in Tito’s Yugoslavia: From World War II to Non-Alignment” (IB Tauris, 2016).