How A Trump Diplomat Helped To Bring Down Kosovo's Government

Jun 5, 2020
Originally published on June 5, 2020 7:56 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we have the story of a Trump administration move that apparently helped to topple a pro-American government. The government was that of Kosovo. The administration here was represented by Richard Grenell. He is a former political operative named by the president as U.S. ambassador to Germany and then to head U.S. intelligence temporarily. Grenell resigned this week as ambassador to Germany but remains a special envoy mediating the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo. Joanna Kakissis reports on Grenell's role in a country where the U.S. has a long history.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Twenty-one years ago, the U.S. led NATO into war in the Balkans. The mission - protect the people of Kosovo from ethnic cleansing by the Serbian government that ruled them. Then, in 2008, came this announcement.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) We, the democratically elected leaders of our people, hereby declare Kosovo an independent state.

(APPLAUSE)

KAKISSIS: Today Kosovo, a mainly Muslim ethnic Albanian country, is the most pro-American nation in the world.

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UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Thank you, U.S.A. You are my best friend.

ALBIN KURTI: I always viewed United States of America as the greatest ally.

KAKISSIS: That is Albin Kurti, selected as Kosovo's prime minister in February.

KURTI: The United States of America has been an indispensable partner for us in war and in peace for justice and development and democracy.

KAKISSIS: But now, Kosovo needs more friends and partners. Serbia still claims Kosovo as its own, and Serbia's allies are blocking Kosovo from entering the U.N. and the EU. Enter diplomat Richard Grenell.

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RICHARD GRENELL: President Trump has been singularly focused on trying to solve this problem by not looking backward, by not just having the same old political stalemate and arguments.

KAKISSIS: Grenell, speaking to reporters in Kosovo earlier this year, promised a quick deal would bring economic benefits.

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GRENELL: We're going to push the leaders in Kosovo and in Serbia to say, look at the people; start moving forward with jobs.

KAKISSIS: That pitch appealed to Albin Kurti. Kosovo's unemployment rate is 26%. But Kurti says he got nervous when Grenell started talking about how to seal the deal.

KURTI: It is the first time now that we have an American envoy. He has the same identical stance with Serbia.

KAKISSIS: Kurti says Grenell squeezed Kosovo for concessions, pressing the Kosovars to unconditionally drop tariffs on Serbian goods and consider land swaps with Serbia. Grenell has denied discussing land swaps, but neither he nor the State Department would comment further to NPR. Kurti says Grenell wanted a quick foreign policy win for President Trump. And when Kurti blocked that win, the U.S. froze Kosovo's development aid. Grenell also retweeted a call to consider withdrawing U.S. peacekeepers from Kosovo.

MOLLY MONTGOMERY: Grenell put extraordinary pressure on the government of Kosovo.

KAKISSIS: That's Molly Montgomery, a former U.S. diplomat who served in the Balkans. Grenell, she says...

MONTGOMERY: Seems to have given up the United States' traditional role as Kosovo's main champion.

KAKISSIS: In response, Kosovo's Parliament voted to remove Kurti, which angered many of Kosovo's citizens who had voted for Kurti because of his anti-corruption platform.

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KAKISSIS: They took to their balconies to bang pots and pans, protesting the political turmoil in the middle of a pandemic. Kurti calls his ouster a parliamentary coup d'etat supported by Grenell. Analyst Agon Maliqi says many in Kosovo have reservations about how this administration treats its allies. But...

AGON MALIQI: The global context is changing. China and Russia are even more powerful. So a bit of a push from the U.S. is very welcome.

KAKISSIS: And the new prime minister has promised a deal with Serbia. As for the former prime minister Albin Kurti, he insists he has not lost faith in the U.S.

KURTI: "America First," we still do say that.

KAKISSIS: Even when it hurts. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.