And there were certainly things to be picked up.
The end of the Kosovo war in 1999, and the subsequent recognition of Kosovo as an independent country by the United States and most — but not all — of the European Union countries in 2008, left a lot of critical issues for the future of the country and the region hanging in the air.
It was left to the E.U. to try to sort out all the myriad small and large issues that derived from this. Years of protracted and painful talks resulted in an agreement in Brussels in 2013 that sorted out numerous highly controversial issues and indicated a road ahead for some of the remaining ones.
The Brussels Agreement was a result not only of the efforts of the then-E.U. high representative, Catherine Ashton, but also of close cooperation with and support of the United States. The lesson had been learned that solid progress in the Balkans comes only when the E.U. and the United States — and, preferably, also Russia — move together.
But since then, little has happened.
The Balkans was downgraded as a priority in Brussels, and Washington nearly completely lost interest. And when it was obvious that there was a risk of tensions building up again, some people in both places got themselves into a rather desperate mood — and started to consider a highly dangerous game of ethnic separation by the shifting of borders.
With new leadership in Brussels, the Balkans is back on the agenda. A highly experienced new envoy, former Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajcak, has been appointed by the E.U. to restart the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, with a full normalization of relations as the ultimate aim.
A full normalization will not come easily or quickly. But within the framework of the gradual integration of the region into the E.U., it simply has to happen — later probably more likely than sooner. The process is the key — it makes the normalization necessary, and it also creates the needed incentive for it.
Yet when Grenell issued his invitations to the White House meetings, it was done without even informing the E.U. of the move. Indeed, poking the Europeans in the eye seems to be rather high up on his list of priorities.
But now everything has become much more complicated.
The region faces a combination of too much political stability in Serbia and the prospect of profound instability in Kosovo. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic should in theory have no problem recognizing Kosovo after an election win made easier by the boycott of the opposition, plus total regime control of all key media. But he will certainly demand a heavy price: a slice of Kosovo territory or fast-track entry into the E.U. — or possibly even both.
Perhaps it was in belated recognition of the very complicated political scene that Grenell suddenly said that the White House would only be advising on economic issues, and generously left all the thorny political issues to the E.U. later on.
But even that now looks very uncertain after the surprise indictment of Kosovo President Hashim Thaci on a very broad range of war-crimes charges by a special prosecutor appointed by the United States and the E.U.
This will bring profound turmoil and uncertainty to the politics of Kosovo. If the indictments are confirmed, those indicted will have to go to The Hague and face trial, and if they don’t, the Kosovo authorities will be under obligation to arrest them and transfer them there.
This will be most testing time for the politics of the young state, and it will need international support in order to stick to the rule of law and international obligations.
As things stand, there is certainly no “greatest deal ever” between Serbia and Kosovo coming in the Rose Garden. Instead, it will be necessary to return to the drawing board of Balkan diplomacy, and for Washington and Brussels to work constructively together within the framework of the less spectacular but more substantive E.U.-facilitated dialogue.
That’s the only way forward. We should have learned that Balkan diplomacy is not for showmanship or shortcuts.