Both Presidents received a letter, it was relatively modest in scope. Because of the date, it was December 14, 2018, it could have easily contained a unique Christmas or New Year’s greeting, adorned with the unmistakable signature of the US President Donald Trump. However, the letters that were sent to the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and the President of Kosovo, Hashim Thaçi, did not contain neither greetings nor polite wishes of good health and success.
The letters were mainly a reminder of the unfinished work and the unfulfilled promises of the two addressees. The letters contained a special message, informing the two presidents that the available time for the fulfillment of the agreement is expiring. The American President wrote this in a sophisticated diplomatic language, of course, expressing his delight at being able to host the Serbian and Kosovar Presidents in the White House, on the occasion of the joint celebration of the historic agreement between Belgrade and Pristina. He added that this opportunity cannot be missed because it is important for the peace, security and economic growth of the entire region.
It was only a matter of days before the letters received a follow-up. Namely, the decision of the US administration to appoint a potential mediator in adopting a final agreement. They opted for a new Richard Holbrooke, who was an active participant in the peace agreement that ended the Yugoslav wars during Bill Clinton’s presidency. The information came up recently, at the beginning of February 2019, that the American diplomat Philip Reeker would come back to the region. This happened only a day or two after President Thaçi gave a lecture in the US capital, in which he stated that even Moscow could support the deal between Belgrade and Pristina. Thaçi described his last meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to confirm his thesis. Their talk marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War in Paris. At the time, Thaçi asked Putin what the reaction of Russia would be if Serbia and Kosovo reached an agreement. Putin supposedly answered that he would support it. Thaçi assessed Putin’s statement as an important change in the Russian position. Back in June 2017, after meeting Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović and Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, Thaçi said he could only hope that the Russian position would change, since Kosovo is a hostage of the Russian veto in the UN Security Council. In June last year, the Russian ambassador in Belgrade, Alexander Čepurin, expressed his opinion as well, namely, that his country would not oppose the idea of a new demarcation between Serbia and Kosovo. This meant that northern Kosovo, with the majority Serbian population, would become part of the state of Serbia, while the Serbian municipalities in the Preševo Valley, with the majority Albanian population, would become part of Kosovo.
This all happened, however, at a time when only a few believed that a historic agreement could be reached between the Prime Ministers of Macedonia and Greece, Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras. The agreement on the new name of Macedonia would lead to the processes for Northern Macedonia’s full membership in NATO and EU. Thus, it seemed as though the agreement between Belgrade and Pristina could simply be delayed as well. However, Tsipras and Zaev succeeded in reaching the deal. They showed that the countries in the region need leaders who respect the agreements and who are able to deliver. The achieved Macedonia-Greece agreement also meant that the key remaining issue in the Balkans is the complete normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. The negotiation time was running out, it was time to reach an agreement. Thaçi’s optimism at Washington’s lecture therefore did not seem exaggerated. However, a tiny detail was off.
In June 2017, on the day that Vučić celebrated his presidential inauguration, two people among the guests knew the exact reason why they came to Belgrade. The first was a US envoy, diplomat Hoyt Brian Yee and the second was Nikolai Petrushev, President Putin’s confidant. I met Hoyt years ago in Zagreb while I never met Petrushev. The latter replaced Putin as the head of the Russian intelligence service FSB in 1999, when Putin began his statesmanship career. Petrushev knows what a definitive agreement between Belgrade and Pristina would mean: the end of Russian influence in the Balkans. The Montenegrin authorities described Petrushev as an influential player in the attempt to carry out a coup and to remove President Milo Djukanovic. Petrushev estimates that the enlargement of NATO in the Balkans is against the agreement between Russia and the US from the end of the 1980s. Therefore, supporting the final agreement on relations between Serbia and Kosovo would mean the Russian geostrategic departure from the Balkans. The only remaining issues between the countries of the region would thus be Croatia’s undefined state borders with Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. However, the borders are not the only thing at stake here. There is a big issue concerning gas deposits in the Adriatic Sea, especially in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which further undermines Russian gas interests in the region. In light of this, Thaçi’s talk with Putin in Paris and the Russian agreeableness regarding the Belgrade-Pristina agreement become more interesting.
A confirmation of this came a few days ago, with the unusual performance of the Serbian Minister Nenad Popović. He was Vice Prime Minister in the Government of Vojislav Koštunica. Popović is a political master and rich enough that he does not have to carry out the operational ministerial work. On one February morning this year in Belgrade, I watched the first television news and I listened carefully. Popović accused the Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić, who does not hide his inclination towards the Russian role in the region, that he is promoting an unconstitutional idea of the demarcation in Kosovo. Popović said that this is constitutional treason and that Dačić, who was in all Serbian governments from Slobodan Milošević’s time until now, should reconsider his presence in the current ministerial cabinet.
It is said that Popović is the only politician in Serbia who has direct connections with the Russian authorities. Popović said that Serbia has only one option. He insisted that the whole of Kosovo, until the last centimeter, is part of Serbia. Adding, a little later, that this is the only position that President Putin supports.
Now we can understand Trump’s December letter to the two Presidents of state as the setting of a timeline in which a comprehensive agreement between Belgrade and Pristina should be reached. While sending Philip Reeker to the region, should be interpreted as a tool to carry it out. The invitations to the celebration of this event will be impossible to decline.