A deal billed as a breakthrough shows signs of fraying one week on, with neither Kosovo or Serbia closer to a final agreement.
Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti had said he would only go to Washington on the basis of achieving mutual recognition with Serbia.
Having failed that, he instead came back to Kosovo having recognised Israel and committing to moving his country’s embassy to Jerusalem.
Now, a source close to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has said that if Israel recognises Kosovo as an independent country, Belgrade will not move its embassy to Israel.
The bizarre outcome of the summit, orchestrated by the Trump administration, had many wondering what Kosovo had achieved from the summit?
“The agreement gives Serbia rights and only obligations to Kosovo,” says Albanian historian and political analyst, Dr Daut Dauti.
“Serbia now has rights in the territory of Kosovo: the right over the Ujmani dam and lake, overseeing properties of monasteries, the passage right through the territory of Kosovo,” added Dauti speaking to TRT World.
According to the Washington agreements which were signed last week, Kosovo has agreed to “sharing” its Ujmani lake, of which 9.2 square kilometres is in Kosovo, and less than 2.7 square kilometres in Serbia. The lake is a key source of energy for a nearby dam and a crucial supplier of Kosovo’s drinking water.
On paper at least, that is a win for Serbian diplomacy, a prize it has long sought. Kosovo is now also obligated, per the agreement, to look at the feasibility of allowing Serbia to link its railway to a deep-sea-port in the Adriatic sea which would likely mean Albania.
With Serbia gaining these “rights,” says Dauti, “Kosovo’ sovereignty has been limited in favour of Serbia.”
After the 1998-99 war, which saw Belgrade engaging in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
While it refuses to accept the territorial separation, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo argue that Belgrade has forfeited any right to rule Kosovo.
Albin Kurti, the country's recently toppled prime minister and the leader of Kosovo's largest party, says Kosovo is bargaining away hard-earned independence.
“We are not bound by the commitments of Kosovo's illegitimate PM,” said Kurti, pressing on that the deal goes “against the people’s will, democratic order & violates Kosovo's constitution and laws."
In October of 2019, Kurti’s Self Determination party won the elections by saying it would ensure the country remains a sovereign territory, negotiating with Serbia as equals.
His coalition government, however, was toppled earlier this year in controversial circumstances.
Many, including Kurti, now feel that the Washington agreement does not have a democratic mandate from the people of Kosovo and could in fact result in Serbia having undue economic and political influence.
Expanding Serbian influence?
In the second half of 2019, the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, and the PM of North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, agreed to create a “Mini Schengen” zone emulating the larger European Union (EU).
While these countries wait to get into the EU, within this “Mini Schengen”, they would implement a framework of free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour.
Despite having largely failed to take off, the Washington deal gave that idea an additional boost, one that would see Kosovo being accepted into the zone. But here again, Dauti sees Kosovo being potentially disadvantaged.
“Serbia will expand its economic power,” he says, adding that internationally, the deal also further rehabilitates the country.
Even the development money promised, which would see motorways and railways being built to connect the two countries, would “benefit Serbia which is the only production power” in the Balkans says Dauti adding that “roads will serve Serbia to export its goods and the mini Shengen will kill the weak economies of Albania and Kosovo.”
In a bid to create a level playing field, Kosovo engaged in a high level political gambit by slapping 100 percent tariffs in 2018 on Serbian goods entering the country, much to the chagrin of the US and the EU.
Two years and two political leaders - who refused to lift the tariffs - later, the current Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti has been more amenable to US pressure.
The Washington negotiations, argues Vuk Vuksanovic, an associate at the London School of Economics foreign policy think tank, offered significant benefits to Belgrade who was “not under pressure to recognise Kosovo formally.”
“[Belgrade] scored economically and politically,” says Vuksanovic speaking to TRT World.
In addition to a stake of the Ujani dam, “its mini-Schengen initiative will be strengthened with Kosovo joining it” added Vuksanovic.
Serbia, however, may face some economic costs as it potentially becomes sucked into a geo-political tussle between China and the US over 5G provisions and Huawei.
While the Washington agreement commits both sides to remove 5G equipment “supplied by untrusted vendors”, Serbia’s exposure to Huawei could run into hundreds of millions of dollars and the same may not be the case for Kosovo.
According to Dr Shyqyri Haxha, the former head of state owned Kosovo Telecom, and now a researcher in 5G networks at Royal Holloway in London, Kosovo communication infrastructure is mostly exposed to Ericsson and Nokia.
The discussion also reveals how easily America has been able to push its domestic political and geopolitical concerns onto the parties.
American politics trumps EU
“The Washington agreement in regards to the 5G network is mostly about US interests in the region,” said Haxha to TRT World.
In an effort to further bolster the agreement, in lieu of resolving substantial issues between Kosovo and Serbia, the Trump administration added further conditions including designating Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.
Similarly, the recognition of Israel by Kosovo has been interpreted as part of Trump’s electoral efforts to appeal to his base.
The commitment by Serbia and Kosovo to move their embassies to Jerusalem again seemed to be part of an effort to boost the lacklustre impact of the deal, in particular as Israel was not part of the agreement.
“The commitments made by Kosovo and Serbia are more in the function of American geopolitical, geostrategic and economic interests, respectively of the Trump administration,” said Belgzim Kamberi from from the “Musine Kokalari” Institute of Social Policy in Kosovo.
Some in Kosovo denounced its recogintion of Israeli occupied territories, in particular East Jerusalem, calling it "politically idiotic, morally unjust, socially disgraceful."
Despite attempts by the Trump administration to frame the deal as a breakthrough, Kamberi speaking to TRT World suggested that the deal did not unlock the negotiation impasse.
Closer to home, Belgrade and Pristina will look to frame the deal as a breakthrough of sorts and in the process, showing that they are more willing to follow the US’s lead in the negotiations.
Even as both countries seek EU membership, a “frustrated” Brussels has had little say in the process, argues Vuksanovic.
“While Kosovo always cared more about the US than the EU, Serbia is now focusing on the US and Trump to replace Germany and Merkel as Vucic’s primary sponsor in the West,” added Vuksanovic.
The Washington agreement showed that as much as the EU would like to take over the Kosovo file, its ability to induce the differing political sides into the negotiating table is far from certain.