Carnegie Mellon University

IPS Senior Fellow Richard Grenell

December 03, 2020

Economic solutions: Senior Fellow Richard Grenell discusses his work on the Serbia-Kosovo agreement

By Bill Brink

Richard Grenell grasped the depths of the economic issues between Serbia and Kosovo early. While planning trips to Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, and Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, the US Ambassador to Germany and his staff found that you couldn’t fly from one to the other. 

“I thought, wow, if we can’t fly, that means there’s a whole bunch of businesses that can’t fly between the two, and commerce is really stuck,” said Grenell, who would become the Presidential Envoy to Kosovo-Serbia and is now a Senior Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy.

The lack of air travel informed Grenell’s approach as he led negotiations that resulted in an agreement to normalize economic relations between the two sides. The agreement, signed in September, intentionally eschewed the politics in the region to focus on commerce and job creation.

“From my perspective, that was exactly the secret sauce, so to speak,” Grenell said Tuesday during a virtual event with the Carnegie Mellon community. “Both sides were longing for something that each other could agree on. I saw some very early signs that we could make progress.”

The Serbia-Kosovo portfolio found Grenell while he was serving in Germany. Both parties approached him separately, knowing that he was close with President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and asked for some high-level attention to discuss their issues. After hosting an initial meeting with both sides in Berlin, Grenell visited both Serbia and Kosovo, but before meeting with their governments, he first met with the private sector.

“The experts for the past twenty years have focused largely on the political issues, and we weren’t at that point of creating a political solution,” Grenell said. “What we were waiting on, and what I think both sides were waiting on, were economic solutions. How do you get people jobs? How do you get people more excited about the future so that they’re not just lingering on the past?”

That past includes enough bad blood to make even economic negotiations difficult. What began in 1989 as non-violent protest by the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo against Serbian president Slobodan Milošević turned violent in the mid-1990s, resulting in a counteroffensive, ethnic cleansing, a refugee crisis, and a NATO bombing campaign. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008.

Grenell and his team negotiated agreements on air transit, railways, and ground transportation. With the help of feasibility studies from the US Department of Energy, they developed proposals for an underdeveloped lake that borders Serbia and Kosovo, and an undeveloped mine. Rather than inject hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, which could lead to dependence on foreign assistance, Grenell wanted the sides to work together to create a solution.

“On this particular issue, I wanted the patient to get up and walk, to try as much as possible after twenty years, because I see the people,” he said. “I see the people hungry for freedom and wanting to have businesses come in, and they’re hungry to work.”

Though Grenell allowed the two sides to bring their ideas to the table, he did push for one of his own. Grenell, who while serving as the acting Director of National Intelligence earlier this year became the first openly gay Cabinet officer, pushed for a pledge to support the decriminalization of homosexuality around the world, a pledge both sides supported.

Eventually, both Serbia and Kosovo would like to join the European Union, and while Grenell believes improved economic relations could grease the skids for political discussion, that issue should remain under the purview of the Europeans.

“They’ve got people that are eager to be a part of Europe, part of the EU, but they are European,” he said. “When you go to Pristina, when you go to Belgrade, it feels like a great big amazing European city.”