The prospect of White House talks between Serbian President Vučić and Kosovo President Thaçi, independent of a parallel EU effort, further underlines the poor state of transatlantic relations and risks a catastrophic result, all likely as part of President Trump's pursuit of a Rose Garden spectacle, argues Molly Montgomery. This post was originally published by the Atlantic Council.
The announcement of White House talks between two parties to a longstanding international dispute would typically be cause for celebration, particularly given the expectation that, if all goes as planned, such talks are usually followed by a Rose Garden ceremony sealing some sort of deal between the parties. The announcement this week that the White House will host Serbian President Aleskandar Vučić and Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi at the White House on June 27, however, has caused trepidation among many Western Balkans watchers, and rightfully so.
The reasons for skepticism of the planned talks are many. The talks usurp the longstanding EU-facilitated Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, which the EU intends to restart in the near future under the leadership of its new envoy for the region, former Slovakia Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák. That Washington and Brussels may soon be conducting parallel negotiations exemplifies the sad state of US-EU relations and the complete lack of transatlantic coordination, which has been a necessary ingredient for progress in the Western Balkans since the 1990s.
Worse yet, there appears to be little coordination between U.S. Special Envoy Richard Grenell, former U.S. ambassador to Germany, and U.S. experts on or in the region. This has given rise to fears among many in Washington and the region that the Trump administration’s primary goal is the public spectacle of a Rose Garden ceremony, rather than a workable agreement that achieves normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia without inflaming tensions elsewhere in the region.
The rumored discussions of land swaps as part of such a deal (which Grenell continues to deny), only add to these concerns. While the Trump administration and the EU have both flirted with the idea of territorial exchanges at times over the past three years, experts on both sides of the Atlantic fear the precedent such an agreement would set in a region where nationalists regularly demand secession or union with ethnic brethren. Even if Pandora’s box could be closed, the implementation of such an agreement would almost certainly result in de facto ethnic cleansing, heightened tensions, and the potential for renewed violence. There is little evidence of any planning by the Trump administration on these complicated—yet crucial—implementation questions.
Perhaps to lower expectations, Grenell has promised that the parties will first discuss economic questions. If this is the case, with any luck there may be a positive outcome to the summit after all—a Balkan version of Chinese promises to buy more soybeans, the Rose Garden spectacle Trump and Grenell so desperately seek, and no lasting harm to the region’s stability. My fingers are crossed.
AAPI Heritage Month: Safeguarding Asian American inclusion and belonging
President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.