Richard Grenell’s insight into moving the Western Balkans forward and closer to the US is indispensable. Former Special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Talks, Grenell played a key part in enabling the 2020 Serbia-Kosovo Economic Normalization Agreement in Washington, DC.
“By focusing on job creation and economic growth, the two countries were able to reach a major breakthrough,” Trump said at the official ceremony in the Oval Office at the time, in the presence of his cabinet members, Serbian President Vucic, and Kosovo’s PM Avdullah Hoti.
Very little historical relevance about this political process has been placed in the American history books, though. As we sit down for an interview, more than a year after the agreement was finalized, Grenell tells me that he is writing a book about the subject, among other things, and shares yet unknown details.
“I think everybody knows the history pretty well, but what, shockingly, many Americans don’t realize is that progress has been made over the past 20 years. We really are in a fundamentally different point, a different relationship between the US and Kosovo and the US and Serbia, the US and Albania, the US and Balkan countries in general. It’s important to not get stuck in the past, but to allow, I would say, not only reconciliation, but also a reevaluation of what’s happening.”
According to Richard Grenell, that was the foundation of Trump and Grenell’s approach to the matter, which he would call the “Kosovo-Serbia stalemate in many ways.”
The collective memory of the violent past between the people of a former Yugoslavia, the country that overnight has disappeared in the bloody fratricidal war, is still omnipresent. During the 90s, the foreign correspondents were ready to record the messages of anyone who was ready to talk on the record, for one reason or another. The interviews were conducted by BBC, CNN, the AP, and the Voice of America, alike. The arbitrary conclusions from which big political agreements have arrived, washed down with whiskey and pork roasts, commemorated by a group picture featuring the rulers of the free world ticked off the “to-do” box on the foreign affairs agenda but did not resolve much. They did not help the communities heal, and, based on what is going on these days in the Middle East, it is a clear sign that no lessons have been learned.
“The NGO types in Washington, DC, and all of the think-tankers who think they’re really smart, and all of the State Department people have been working on this issue for 20 years. In Washington, DC, that means they’re an expert,” said Grenell. “But in the rest of America, if they’ve failed, they’ve failed to make progress. So why are we gonna keep doing the same thing for 20 years? I have to say that it’s really shameful how so much money and attention is given to the think tanks in Washington, DC, who exist to write papers and to talk about issues, but very few experts have actually ever done anything on the issues,” Grenell expressed his frustration.
“There’s a big difference,” he continued, “between thinking and talking about an issue and then actually experiencing it through diplomacy.” The Former Special Presidential Envoy believes that, “There’s no other issue better than the Balkans and Kosovo-Serbia issue to highlight just the madness of the Washington, DC, think-tank NGO community, which is completely out of touch and living 20 years ago.”
When Grenell stepped in to see if there was something that he could do to move the Western Balkans forward, the Trump administration was pretty clear that, economically, there was a whole bunch that needed to be done. “If we were going to just schedule meetings, first of all, scheduling a meeting is not progress, right? Having a meeting a week from Tuesday is not progress. That’s a tactic. A tactic of trying to solve problems is scheduling meetings. But in Washington, DC, scheduling a meeting or Brussels scheduling the meeting, somehow was viewed as progress, and I never viewed it that way,” he expanded on his thought process.
“I expected people to come together and speak because that meant that you cared about the issue and you cared about the problems. But then once you got to the table, I wasn’t going to applaud you for coming to the table. I was going to say to you I expect you to look forward and to not linger on the past,” Grenell was firm. “Too many people want to sit around and talk about political words and statements, and we would negotiate on verbs and nouns. That, to me, it’s mindless, and, to the American people and to the people of the Balkans and people outside of capitals,” he said, “It’s stupid. It’s a waste of time.”
What Grenell was able to observe in talking to both parties involved in the Serbia-Kosovo Economic Normalization Agreement negotiations is “that there was the desire to create jobs for young people and to move forward and that we had to do that outside of any political conversations. So I just came in, and we really focused on opening up the borders to commerce.”
One of the most novel and groundbreaking parts of the Serbia-Kosovo agreement was that, throughout 2021, the US administration was able to freeze on the recognition and derecognition campaigns over territorial conflict and instead focus on job growth and job creation.
Grenell went on, “One thing that I was very proud and we worked very long and hard on and accomplished an agreement, but we still haven’t been able to implement it largely because of COVID, but now, because of the Biden administration not moving forward, is the historic flights between Pristina and Belgrade,” Grenell shared, his frustration apparent.
“The business community wants this. They’re asking. This is what they need in order to move forward with creating jobs and opening up new industries. That needs to be the priority. I really implore all sides to recognize that there is a solution there. And it’s just going to take leadership to push through and not let minor issues become major issues.”
Recently, Grenell stated that he believes Secretary Blinken won’t deliver on the Western Balkans and Serbia-Kosovo issue. I wanted to know – Why does he think that?
“The reason why I think that Blinken is going to be unable to deliver is that he’s already demonstrated that he’s picked a side. He doesn’t have credibility with both sides,” Grenell shared. “I’m somebody that has been applauded and criticized by both sides [Serbs and Albanians]. I’m very comfortable with the progress that we’ve made. I have supporters and detractors on both sides of the issues, and I find that to be a very comfortable place.”
That indeed is true. Grenell rolls with the punches and is not afraid to push back against his critics. During Grenell’s recent tour of the Western Balkans region, President Trump issued a statement acknowledging Grenell’s role in brokering the Serbia-Kosovo Economic Normalization Agreement, and he said that he thought not only that the agreement should be upheld, but also that the people should not be abandoned and cast aside so easily.
“The one thing that I’ll say is that is the reaction to President Trump’s statement when I went to push forward on the economic agreement was the exact typical baloney stupid arguments of Washington, DC,” Grenell was blunt. “People need to understand what they were attacking. President Trump used the language to call me, basically, just a Former Envoy and Ambassador. Both of those titles are absolutely true. Those are what I was. He was referring to me by the two titles. And yet, there was this collective stupidity of Washington, DC types who were like, ‘he created the title of Envoy Ambassador.’ No. He was actually doing, just quickly in shorthand, calling me what both of my titles were,” said Grenell. He went on, “What if he would have said, Acting Director, Envoy Ambassador? I mean, this is the silly game of Washington. You’ll notice that no one of real substance attacked what I said, which is, ‘Let’s move forward on those economic agreements.’ They couldn’t attack the substance they had to attack the titles because the game of Washington is that you just play these political games and you attack. You don’t ever try to move the issue forward.”
Grenell paused for a moment to give me the scoop on the latest political developments. “But let me be clear on one thing,” insisted Grenell. “The Biden administration deserves credit,” he said.
“Somebody within the Biden administration decided after they’ve read the four economic agreements to say, ‘These are good. And they move us forward. And this should be part of the US policy that the Biden administration pushes forward.‘ They totally have embraced these economic agreements because somebody looked at it and said, ‘These are good.’ Now, most of the people in the Biden administration, including the anonymous press person at the White House, missed the moment to push forward on the issue and instead immediately attacked President Trump,” Grenell noted, revealing an underlying fracture in the political landscape of today.
“This is the kind of silliness that the American people reject and think is typical Washington, DC, talk. But the reality is that I was there, pushing forward the Biden administration policy and the Trump administration policy because both administrations believe economic agreements are good.”
At the time of Grenell’s impromptu press conference at the Merdare border crossing, many rushed to Twitter to attack his travel to Tirana, Pristina, and Belgrade. “You had this cadre of crazies in Washington, DC, who immediately said, ‘Ah, it’s a violation of–’”
“—The Logan Act,” I interjected.
“Yeah, Logan,” Grenell affirmed. “Because, you know, I was over there. And I was like, ‘Listen, dumbass. Why would you say that when I’m pushing Biden’s policy?’ These people, they speak first, and they think later. And it’s – it’s mindless,” said Grenell. “The reality is we made a lot of progress because we ignored all this politics stuff. We did that — and this is an important point—we did that because both sides asked us to. At the time, both sides were saying we gotta stop this mindless political stuff, and can we just, kind of, make progress? And I think the Americans are the best partner to do that, to kind of look forward and say, ‘Hey, how do we create jobs? How do we bring a better solution?’”
Grenell reminded me that this was one of the things he repeatedly said to both sides during the Serbia-Kosovo Economic Normalization negotiations.
”There is a perceived conflict from the outside,” Grenell shared his perspective. “But business in Europe and businesses in America – We haven’t been able to reconcile and tell people that, military conflict and subsequent dialogue and fighting, all of that is over, and we need to move forward on, kind of, growing the economies,” he said. “The Serbian economy is booming,” he went on.
Sharing for the first time the inner-workings of the Serbia-Kosovo Agreement negotiations, Grenell said, “I felt like one of the difficult discussion points of the agreement, and I will say this, difficult for the Serbian side and less so for Kosovo side, but one of the points that I felt strongly about and, therefore, we had a lot of pushing from my side and a lot of discussion that was not always pleasant for both sides, was about diversifying energy, as it was important for America. Because remember, 100% of Serbian energy comes from Russia. And we felt like it was important to grow and diversify. After all, that is the US policy for Europe, to have the Europeans diversify their energy. And we just think this is a good principle for everybody, including the United States,” he said.
“We should not have an over reliance on one country or one form of energy. It’s just not safe. You should have different forms of energy. We always call it the all-of-the-above strategy, a little bit of renewable, a little bit of traditional energy, and have it come from different regions and different countries, and not rely on just one. That was a big point, that discussion point,” Grenell shared. “I felt like President Vucic ultimately was very courageous to recognize that and to move forward,” he said of the Serbian president.
Grenell revealed that during the negotiations there were some points “that were more difficult for the Kosovo side. And then, there were some points that were difficult for both sides.” The key component, according to Grenell, was that the US “listened and adjusted some of the language and pushed hard to concentrate on economics.”
The one rule Grenell had for both sides was that he was never going to ask Serbs and Kosovo Albanians to do something political but “only ask them to do things that move us forward in a way that we create jobs for young people and we create a better economy for the region.’ So related to money in jobs and growing the economy, that I was going to push hard. I was going to steer clear of political rhetoric because I felt like we’ve been trying political rhetoric for 20 years and really haven’t made a lot of progress.”
This year marks 140 years of Serbia-US diplomatic relations. Recently, Grenell attended a diplomatic dinner hosted by the Serbian Ambassador Marko Djuric for the members of Congress. Is Grenell satisfied with the current state of affairs in the context of deepening bilateral relations?
“I am never fully satisfied. I always want to raise the bar to do more,” he said. “I think that Serbia should continue to move down the path of diversifying their energy, moving away from Russia and China.” He added, “We want to be a closer partner with Serbia. We recognize that if we’re going to ask the Serbs to diversify their sources of energy, that we should be prepared to also move forward and help, and Europe should too. It’s not just about America, but it’s about different regions,” he clarified. “Again, what we believe the Serbian government should do is diversify their energy. We’re not asking that to come from the United States, solely. We’re not asking for it to come from any one country or any one source. We think the best way to move forward is to diversify and I think that the Serbs have said that is their goal, but we still need to make more progress. We’re not there yet.”
Last year, DFC opened its headquarters in Belgrade, but since Biden came into office, there has not been much done. I asked Grenell, “What is the future of DFC in Belgrade?”
“That’s very frustrating, and we talked about that during this dinner,” said Grenell. “The opening of the DFC office in Serbia was historic, was needed, and was something that American politicians of all partisanship should support because it was something that would help coordinate these economic agreements and to move away from Russia and China. It’s how the United States has a closer relationship with the region and, for some reason, the Biden team has not followed up and continued that policy, and it’s shameful. It’s not helping America. They’re missing an opportunity. And I hope that people at the State Department will realize that at some point.”
Now that he has visited Pristina and Belgrade for extended stays, Grenell came back totally convinced that, “the people and the politicians all are hungry for economic normalization.” The region is still struggling with brain-drain, and many young people want to emigrate in search for better opportunities. “People are frustrated with not being able to grow businesses and to expand their economy. And they want to see their communities create bigger, better-paying jobs which would allow families to grow and people to stay in the region. And so the hunger is still there. And I think the expectation was the normalization agreement. The normalization agreements created an expectation to make progress. And I really wish that the US government would push harder on this progress because the people are hungry for it, and I think it could be well received. I think it’d be a really good policy for the United States.”
The First Lady Melania Trump grew up in the former Yugoslavia before coming to the United States, but, to this day, she could never be heard speaking on the issue of the Serbia-Kosovo Agreement. Did Melania ever share with Grenell if she thought that this agreement was good, given her personal connection to the region? Grenell responded with exclusive news.
“The only thing I’ll say is that Melania Trump is one of the biggest supporters of the economic agreements,” said Grenell.
At some point, reality set in, and, in hindsight, even the staunch Trump critics these days acknowledge the impact of these Republican policies. Yet, at large, foreign policy successes of Republicans have never been easily accepted. I wanted to know why that is the case, so I asked.
“That’s a complicated question. You’re asking why don’t people embrace the successes of the Republicans more. You know, these are complicated answers – The media and the system and everything. But I will say that Ronald Reagan taught Republicans how to appeal to working class, normal people, working class voters, and we lost after he left office, we really lost our way. There were several Republican administrations that really didn’t fight for the working class people, and Donald Trump did. He brought that back, and I think people understand that Donald Trump wasn’t fighting for Wall Street or the wealthy people. He was fighting for everyday Americans, and we Republicans need to remember that. They need to keep that as their mantra. Otherwise, they’ll never win again.”
As the end of 2021 marks the completion of Biden’s first year in office at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW and the holiday season is upon us, Grenell has a cautionary message for Americans.
“Stop voting for radical policies that cause chaos at the border and the economy at the gas pump. When you vote for politicians that have terrible ideas and radical ideas, like opening up the border or shutting down the supply of energy, you can’t complain later that we have problems with illegal immigrants or problems with high gas prices – You voted for policies that create chaos,” said Grenell, shifting responsibility back to the citizens of America with the power to vote.
Politics aside, one thing is certain: No matter the party from which it is born, a policy like the Serbia-Kosovo Economic Normalization Agreement is a good one. If Washington could ease up on the partisanship and look at what’s actually good for the US and the people of the Western Balkans, the American beacon of hope can continue to shine the light of the Founding Fathers onto Serbia and Kosovo, and throughout the rest of the world.
This and every holiday season, Americans would benefit from the reminder that, despite our disagreements on how we are going to get there, we aspire to similar goals which seek to liberate the human spirit and provide each individual with the opportunity to live freely and prosper. The Serbia-Kosovo Agreement was not just for Christmas.