Albin Kurti became prime minister of Kosovo in February by promising jobs and justice. A former activist who was often arrested at anti-corruption protests and once set off tear gas in parliament, he is described by friends and foes alike as a cross between Che Guevara and Bernie Sanders.
But there’s one view he shares with all politicians in Kosovo: He loves the United States.
“I always viewed the United States of America as the greatest ally,” Kurti, 45, tells NPR, “an indispensable partner for us in war and in peace, for justice and development and democracy.”
This year, though, unprecedented tensions arose between Washington and Kosovo, which is widely acknowledged as the most pro-American country in the world. The strains emerged over U.S. efforts to find a quick solution to Kosovo’s long-troubled relationship with neighboring Serbia, of which it used to be part. After only weeks in office, Kurti’s government was toppled, and this week a new prime minister was named — something Kurti calls a “parliamentary coup d’etat” engineered by political rivals and supported by a U.S. envoy.
The U.S. helped create Kosovo, whose population is Muslim-majority and mostly ethnic Albanian, as an independent nation. When the U.S. led NATO into war in the Balkans in the 1990s, one of its missions was to protect the people of Kosovo from ethnic cleansing. In 2008, when Kosovo declared independence, the U.S. was one of the first countries to recognize it, opening an embassy in the capital Pristina.
But Serbia still claims Kosovo as its own. Serbia’s allies, including Russia, have blocked Kosovo from joining the United Nations. Some European Union countries — including allies of Serbia or those wanting to avoid encouraging separatists at home — are also blocking Kosovo from joining the EU. Serbia tried to block Kosovo from joining Interpol, and in response, Kosovo imposed 100% customs duties on Serbian goods.
Kosovar political analyst Agon Maliqi sees the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo sapping both countries’ economies and democracies and leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by Russia and China.
“You have these malign actors using regions like the Balkans for proxy battles by abusing nationalist sentiments,” he says. “So why not do something big that resolves this thing once and for all?”
Enter Richard Grenell, appointed by President Trump last fall, while Grenell was serving as U.S. Ambassador to Germany, as special presidential envoy for Serbia and Kosovo peace negotiations.
“President Trump has been singularly focused on trying to solve this problem by not looking backwards, by not just having the same old political stalemate and arguments,” Grenell told reporters in Kosovo in January.
Petrit Selimi, a former Kosovo foreign minister who now runs the U.S.-funded Millennium Foundation, welcomed Grenell’s appointment as a “very positive” sign that the U.S. had re-engaged with the Balkans after “dropping the ball during the last decade.” He said there was hope for an “intensive diplomatic effort to close painful chapters between Kosovo and Serbia.”
Grenell — who resigned this week as U.S. Ambassador to Germany but remains Serbia-Kosovo envoy — has urged a quick deal that would bring economic benefits.
“What I am trying to do is just look at all of the issues that have been stuck on the table that have economic impact and we are just going to a wrestle them through,” he said in January. “We’re going to push both the government and the leaders in Kosovo and Serbia to say, ‘look at the people, start moving forward with jobs.'”
Grenell’s pitch initially appealed to Kurti, who leads Kosovo’s leftist Self-Determination Movement party. Kosovo’s unemployment rate is 26%. But Kurti objected to the way Grenell went about it.
“In the past, American envoys, be they from State Department or from the White House, they were meeting us halfway, they were mediators,” he says. “It is the first time now that we have an American envoy, he has the same identical stance with Serbia.”
According to Kurti and diplomats involved in the negotiations, Grenell largely bypassed the European Union, which has traditionally led Kosovo-Serbia negotiations, and pressed Kosovo to unconditionally drop its tariffs on Serbian goods.
Kurti refused to do so. In response, the U.S. froze $50 million in development aid to Kosovo. Grenell retweeted a call by Georgia Republican Sen. David Perdue saying, “If Kosovo is not fully committed to peace, then the U.S. should reconsider its presence there.” Some 600 U.S. peacekeeping troops are stationed in the country.
“It appears Grenell put extraordinary pressure on the government of Kosovo,” says Molly Montgomery, a former U.S. diplomat in the Balkans and now a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. “And he also seems to have given up the United States’ traditional role as Kosovo’s main champion.”
Kurti also claims Grenell and Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci are pushing land swaps with Serbia, which would likely involve population exchanges — a potentially explosive move in countries that made up the former Yugoslavia, torn apart by war and ethnic violence in the 1990s.
“The implementation could result in de facto ethnic cleansing,” warns Montgomery. “We would potentially see renewed ethnic violence between Serbs and Kosovars, as well as movement toward secession in other parts of the Western Balkans.”
In an April tweet, Grenell denied discussing land swaps. Neither he nor the State Department would elaborate further to NPR. A spokesperson for Grenell, Dick R. Custin, said Grenell was “unavailable for comment.”
Kurti suggests Grenell is trying to rush a Kosovo-Serbia deal to clinch a quick foreign policy win for President Trump in an election year.
“Obviously, [Grenell] gives priority to the speed of reaching an agreement rather than to its content and consequences,” he says. “And with this rush, he can cause more problems than offer solutions.”
Others worry the longer things drag on, the more difficult it will be to reach an agreement.
“I’m not not saying that Kosovo has now to do whatever U.S. tells it to do and that we should swallow some extremely bitter pills,” Maliqi says, “but a deal sooner rather than later is in our strategic interest.”
Serbs, meanwhile, see Grenell as a “new opening for Serbian-American relations,” says Milan Igrutinovic, an international relations scholar at the Institute of European Studies in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital. The Serbian government, he says, now feels it can manage a deal that “is more than the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, something that can be presented as an equitable, reasonable, productive deal, a non-defeat, to the Serbs.”
As the coronavirus pandemic was spreading in March, Kurti’s government lost a no-confidence vote in Kosovo’s parliament. Kosovo’s citizens protested the political turmoil by banging pots and pans from home, where they were in quarantine.
“People here were very, very keen to see Albin Kurti as prime minister,” says Teuta Arifaj, a news editor at Kohavision television. “For many, he is the only hope for this country.”
On June 3, the parliament voted to install a new prime minister, Avdullah Hoti, an economics professor from the center-right Democratic League of Kosovo. Hoti told parliament that he would push for a “final deal” with Serbia but does not support changing Kosovo’s borders. Grenell has welcomed Hoti’s appointment.
As for Kurti, he questions whether Grenell can negotiate a sustainable deal between Kosovo and Serbia, but still considers the U.S. Kosovo’s best friend. Just a few days after the vote to oust him, he tweeted support for the U.S. — “a beacon of hope for millions” — as it battles COVID-19, with a photo of a Kosovo government building draped by the American flag.
“America First,” he says. “We still do say that.”