Grenell talks Serbia-Kosovo: people should stop "lingering on the past"

Senior Fellow at the Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS) Richard Grenell has been known for working closely with President Trump in pushing a “peace through strength” approach in Europe. His work as Ambassador to Germany and as Special Envoy for Kosovo-Serbia, along with his social media presence, has come under fire particularly at Carnegie Mellon since his appointment as Senior Fellow in July 2020. Students have petitioned for his position at the IPS to be rescinded. Recently, students implored the administration to hold Grenell accountable for his actions and behavior after the university hired him.

On Tuesday, Dec. 1, the Center for International Relations and Politics within IPS held a conversation with Grenell as part of its ongoing Policy Forum series. In attendance were many students and faculty from Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, IPS director Kiron Skinner, and other members of the community.

The talk centered on Kosovo-Serbia relations. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 but Serbia recognizes it not as an independent state, but as an autonomous province. Since then, relations between the two have been nonexistent until recent years, where it has become tense and controversial; even on the forum’s Youtube livestream, a user named “The Serbs” wrote in the chat that “kosovo is serbia dear brothers [sic]” and that the “Serbian army saved over 250 American pilot [sic] during the first world war,” imploring fellow viewers to “read about it please.”

The actual conversation with Grenell was nowhere near as charged. In fact, he was very thorough in his answers, occasionally glancing down to check his notes.

The first half of the conversation consisted of introductions and some background from Grenell on diplomacy between Serbia and Kosovo. Grenell shared that since he was very close to President Trump and the Secretary of State, both sides had reached out to him and expressed a desire for “high-level attention” during their negotiations. According to Grenell, both sides discussed future growth and economic development, in particular a frustration that there is not a focus on developing the region.

Grenell was able to secure a team from the State Department and a smaller team consisting of staff working at the embassy in Berlin, some of whom had been stationed in the Balkans before. “We weren’t at that point of creating a political solution,” said Grenell, so the team instead focused on economic growth: getting people jobs, helping people look toward the future and stop "lingering on the past”. Grenell credits the motivation for an emphasis on economic growth to his trip to Kosovo and Serbia after their initial meeting in Berlin. He could not fly directly from Pristina to Belgrade; the airspace had not allowed for commercial flights for the past 20 years.

The negotiations were tough, Grenell shared, since even addressing the two sides was controversial. However, three agreements on air, railway, and motor travel were signed at the Munich Security Conference last winter. This is, he says, a good basis for getting larger agreements like the Economic Normalization Agreement, which needs the US government to “dig deep on funding.”

Some of the economic projects they discussed involved different US departments. The example Grenell provided was a lake mostly in Kosovo, but also in Serbia. The lake was underutilized for energy. Around the lake, there is also room for development. So, they approached the Department of Energy to fund a feasibility study.

Political problems began to creep in, including some related to land ownership. However, since many of the issues were related to EU membership, the US did not get involved. Instead, Grenell’s team reminded the two presidents that Serbia and Kosovo had to implement the projects, which will appeal to the EU, of which Serbia and Kosovo are not yet members.

Grenell emphasized two points before the floor was opened for questions: first, land swaps were never discussed, and second, both sides agreed to diversify their energy sources. The EU believes that diversification of energy, in this case pulling away from Russia, is crucial “to have the freedom that they need politically.” The goal would be to secure a “freedom to make political decisions without having to feel the leverage of energy.” Here, Grenell also noted that a monumental lesson from the ENA was that the best way to reach a consensus was to use simple language.

The question and answer portion started off with Post-Doctoral Fellow Daniel Silverman’s inquiry regarding the greater issues at stake here, and where the Serbia-Kosovo relationship fits in a broader context. After emphasizing that Kosovo and Serbia could be greater allies for the US, Grenell brought the audience's attention to their autonomy. For example, Grenell is “a believer that both Serbia and Kosovo should be able to handle their own court systems,” so he says the rule of law needs to be handled internally, not, for example, outsourced to the Hague. Grenell says this would help political dynamics and save money, noting that the US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on international courts. Accordingly, the US will continue to mentor judges and run bilateral programs in both Serbia and Kosovo to make sure that the two are governing under their own rule of law. Here, Grenell also elaborated that the problem includes a “perceived conflict,” adding that the US should reconsider the placement of the more than 600 troops currently in Kosovo, and move the region away from an “international emergency room situation.”

Silverman also enquired about the economics-first approach; in particular, what forces will sustain an agreement without the US commitments seen in the Middle East. Grenell shared that this required political will from Serbia and Kosovo was intentional; he wanted to respect other countries enough to let them determine what would work, and the US cannot do anything unless the two parties themselves consider the plan to be useful and beneficial. Grenell has also seen that regional leaders drop back and are less driven to contribute when the US tries to be the problem solver. Hence, Grenell believes that having the US government commit to being there for a short time and essentially provide seed money will be more conducive to kickstarting the region and removing the “cycle of dependency on our foreign aid” than would the past focus on political remediations, which Grenell holds did not work — both sides have been very frustrated that the steps to EU membership have been taking too long and are not specific enough. Grenell noted that a lot of business leaders are already interested in being a part of this economic development. According to Grenell, both sides have been eager to make progress across the board.

In response to a question on an article from The New York Times, Grenell asserted that “all reporters are biased.” This bias, he says, is not always negative, but journalists need to be upfront about bringing in their real-world experiences, and consumers need to be responsible in getting their news from more than one source.

An audience member expressed his doubt regarding the Serbian and Kosovar openness to Grenell’s approach. Grenell remarked that they are very eager to have jobs and raise their families in the region they love, instead of moving to, say, Germany or Hungary. This led Grenell’s team to interact with the private sector before ever going to the Presidential Palace. They heard from the business community, for example a car rental company frustrated because their customers couldn’t drive their cars across the border. In essence, political issues were holding back the economy. Their work with the media has also created a vision of bringing companies and jobs to the region, for which he said both sides were “hungry” and grateful.

Grenell was then asked how his role in transatlantic relations would change with the new presidency. While he did not share his expectations for his career, he did remark that a new team would be helpful for the situation. He posits that Washington, D.C. is not very good at having different perspectives; they like to have familiar people who have been there for a long time. However, Grenell believes that people with new perspectives will be more helpful than people with 20 years of experience: “if we had an expert class that knew exactly what to do in the Balkans, we would have solved this 19 years ago.” If the new team decides the time is right to address political issues, he advises the new team to make sure the Europeans are in control. However, the new team will not be able to abandon the economic emphasis since both sides are so excited about it.

The next question asked for Grenell’s insights regarding the state of US diplomacy and the Foreign Service. Grenell recommended his own article, published in The Hill. He said that currently, problems are dealt with by sending in the troops and letting the Department of Defense take care of everything. Rather, he said, we should have the State Department send diplomats with muscle first, and send the troops last. Fewer diplomats should be in European capitals and more in danger zones. The State Department should also do less political reporting and instead, focus on serving the American people through economic development. In that sense, he says, he believes our embassies should be “many chambers of commerce,” and they should be creating jobs for Americans. The economic “cone,” or division, at the embassies should also be expanded.

The next question saw Grenell double down on the economic emphasis. When asked about why they kept the EU separate from these conversations, Grenell revealed that one of his superiors in the State Department, who is in charge of the Balkans, works very closely with the EU, and they have tied in some political issues as well. For example, the ENA achieved a year-long freeze from both sides on derecognition of Kosovo and seeking membership in the EU. This is a big political win, according to Grenell, since this would remove concerns on the longevity and functionality of economic agreements.

The legal status of said agreements was also questioned; one attendee enquired whether foreign companies would take advantage of the new agreements. Grenell noted that the US did not sign the agreements, saying that both sides came to this with a strong political will and clear economic priorities. Grenell then said the US did not fund the projects because that would create an incentive for foreign companies to come in and leave without any long term strategy. Therefore, the US is doing seed money guarantees, which forces the private sector in the region to come in and invest itself. Grenell argued that economic growth would thus be stimulated by Serbia and Kosovo, not the US.

The livestream of the conversation can be found on Youtube here.