US senator: Vucic mad as a hornet over the 100% tariff but willing to strike a deal with Kosovo to recognize its independence

Photo: Medium Corporation

Connecticut United States Senator Chris Murphy, who recently visited Pristina and Belgrade, (Ukraine and Germany as well) with Ron Johnson, shared the impressions on his blog post of the Medium Corporation website. In his blog, he talks about custom taxes and their impact on Kosovo, but also what he sees as the readiness of Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic, to push for a recognition agreement with Kosovo once the taxes are abolished.

We publish below the excerpts on Mr. Murphy’s impression from his Serbia and Kosovo trip that were originally posted on Medium Corporation site.

Kosovo

Kosovo is a tiny country — roughly the size of Connecticut but with half the population. So why do I care so much about it? Why would two U.S. Senators choose to come here? Well, as they say, wars start in the Balkans, and the fragile peace between Serbs and Albanians is just that — fragile. So over the past few years, as both Democratic and Republican White Houses have focused on the headline-grabbing hotspots, like Syria and Afghanistan, both Johnson and I have taken an interest in trying to engage in diplomacy to continue to heal the wounds of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and 2000s.

But I also care about the Balkans because the region matters to Connecticut. Our state is home to tens of thousands of (mostly Albanian) immigrants from this part of the world, and many successful Albanian-Americans in our state support schools and non-profit organizations in places like Pristina. My constituents want me to be a force for peace in the Balkans, and I’ve listened to them.

It’s helpful that Pristina is one of my favorite cities in the world. Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe, and the streets are full of energy and vibrancy. I got in earlier than expected and took a walk down the main pedestrian walkway. I was intrigued by a stand selling something called “schtlab” which looked like fried corn. I bought an ear for 50 cents, and took one bite before figuring out exactly why schtlab hasn’t caught on as a Kosovar export (imagine a really chewy, slightly burned, mostly raw corn cob…not great).

I am told, as I walk through the market, that the recent 100% tariff that Kosovo recently imposed on imports from Serbia, has caused locals to buy more goods from these local market stands. Our embassy tells us that while this may be true, economic data says that the tariff, likely partly inspired by Trump’s fascination with trade wars, has badly hurt the nation’s fragile economy.

The next day, Johnson arrived, just in time for us to meet with Kosovo’s President, Hashim Thaci, and in a separate meeting, a collection of leaders in Parliament. Right away, Kosovo’s leaders complained to us about how the breach between the U.S. and Europe was affecting their security. The central issue in both Serbia and Kosovo is the negotiations for Serbia to finally recognize the independence of their young neighboring country (Serbia still considers Kosovo part of its own territory, even if its leaders know they eventually have to recognize Kosovo’s independence in order to enter the EU). To get that recognition deal involves a complex negotiation, and those negotiations are currently on hold because Serbia suspended talks until Kosovo suspends the controversial tariff. The leaders tell us that these days, the United States and Europe come to Pristina and give them different advice on how to break the impasse — they don’t know who to listen to. More fallout from the disastrous Trump foreign policy.

After these meetings, we speed off to the airport, where a small military plane awaits to bring us to Kyiv. Johnson and I couldn’t be more different — he’s twenty years older, a staunch social and fiscal conservative. He can be curt and to-the-point, a result of his decades in private business before entering politics later in life. And so people in Washington are always surprised to find out that we are good friends and regular partners on foreign policy projects. On the plane, Johnson makes an impassioned plea to me to work with him a new comprehensive immigration reform proposal. I do my best to try to explain the wisdom of Republicans finally relenting on background check legislation. By the time we land, it’s not clear how much progress either of us has made, but it’s this kind of space to have real dialogue that is missing in Washington.

Serbia

The last stop on our trip is a very brief one — a few hours in Belgrade, Serbia to meet with President Aleksandar Vucic, the young leader of Serbia who both Johnson and I have gotten to know well over the years. We both believe that he is willing to strike a deal with Kosovo to recognize their independence, but right now, he is mad as a hornet over the 100% tariff. We both press him to get back to the negotiating table as soon as possible, and he says that as soon as the tariff is lifted, he is ready to talk again.

Our meeting with Vucic is important, because the Trump Administration gives little attention to the still simmering conflicts in the Balkans. Our visits to places like Belgrade and Pristina are the highest-level American delegations these countries are likely to receive during Trump’s tenure. And especially in a place like Serbia, which also has strong relations with Russia, it’s important for Americans to keep showing up so that we keep our relationship alive.

We depart Belgrade after a very well attended press conference with Vucic, where we all reaffirm the importance of the U.S.-Serbia relationship, and after a connecting flight to Frankfurt, Johnson gets on a flight to Chicago and I get on a flight to Washington. I have to be back in Washington by Friday night because Saturday morning I get on another early plane to Puerto Rico to survey the pace of recovery from Hurricane Maria.

It never stops.

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