The significance of the American presidential elections for the citizens of Serbia

The prism of resolving the "Kosovo issue"

Most Serbian citizens are not informed about the main topics of the US elections, let alone about the way of electing the President of the United States. They view these elections, just like the previous ones, mainly through the prism of resolving the Kosovo issue. It is a fact that Democratic candidates, especially in the previous elections when Hillary Clinton ran for office, are automatically linked to the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, when Bill Clinton was president.

The issue of Kosovo is a very sensitive topic for the majority of Serbian citizens and is closely related to their national identity. The perception of the Democratic Party and the American establishment, which are now personified by Biden, is that they are not sympathetic to Serbia or its interests. For that reason, their support, or perhaps their liking, goes to the candidate they perceive as committed to resolving the Kosovo question in a way which will respect the views of Serbia. At the moment, most citizens think that Donald Trump will do so. President Trump presented the recently signed Washington Agreement on normalisation of economic relations between Belgrade and Priština as a great international success and personal contribution to the reconciliation of the Serbian and Albanian communities. In the absence of concrete progress in substantially normalising the relations between Belgrade and Priština under the auspices and with the mediation of the EU, this agreement was presented to the Serbian public as a step towards attracting the US investment for building capital projects connecting Serbia and Kosovo, which also has an impact on the US image in Serbia and creates public attitudes towards the upcoming US elections, i.e. public support for Trump’s re-election.

On the other hand, there is a popular perception in Serbia of Trump as a “defender of Serbian interests”, someone who is “against the American establishment” embodied in the previous administration which is targeted by domestic populists and nationalists. He is also seen as someone who has a favourable attitude towards the Russian president, which is also a reason why some Serbian citizens have sympathy for Trump. In addition, there is a naïve assumption or an expectation that Trump will provide more support for Serbian interests in the negotiations between Belgrade and Priština compared to Biden. Unfortunately, Trump also enjoys the support of some extreme nationalist groups who believe that he will support “Christian” Serbia rather than Albanians, “Muslims in Kosovo”.

Despite numerous stereotypes and mostly wrong expectations, it will be important for the citizens of Serbia that the future President of the US is ready to cooperate with the European Union who is the main mediator in the dialogue that aims to achieve substantial normalisation of Belgrade and Priština relations. Moreover,  he should support the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of the countries in the region, as well as recognise the strategic interest of the US and EU to jointly contribute towards the economic and social development, democratization, settlement of bilateral disputes and prosperity of Serbia and the Western Balkans.

For the countries of the Western Balkans, the outcome of the American presidential elections will have a special significance. Depending on which candidate wins, the relations between the USA and the EU, whose members all countries of the Western Balkan region want to become, will also depend. The Western Balkans is strategically important for the EU. It is the only remaining region in Europe which, although to a large extent already integrated in the EU economic flows through free trade agreements and gradual regulatory alignment with EU regulations and standards, is still not formally part of it. This leaves the region susceptible to the influence of other foreign rivals and/or partners. At the moment, the interests of Russia, China, Turkey and some Gulf countries are intertwined in a very complex way in the Western Balkans. These actors have various reasons for their presence in the region – from purely political interests of a disruptive nature, through highly economic interests, to romantic dreams of returning to the old days of imperial glory.

The United States has traditionally been the EU’s partner in resolving conflicts in the region. However, during the mandate of President Trump, the EU had to accept the fact that it was left alone to deal with numerous international challenges, including those on the WB. In such circumstances, it is very important for the European future of the Western Balkans whether the White House will host a president committed to international relations based on international rules, multilateralism and transatlantic cooperation, or a president who pragmatically offers quick, unorthodox and unsustainable “solutions” to complex issues that could have a serious impact on the stability and relations of certain countries in the region with the EU.

The stability of the region depends on US-EU cooperation. At the moment, despite official statements addressed to the public, this cooperation often seems forced and insincere. This is not good because, in such a situation, the countries of the region are “lining up” on different sides playing the card of disunity between the USA and the EU. The countries of the Western Balkans are, therefore, very interested in the final outcome of the upcoming presidential elections and have their favourites depending on their own interests. For some, a possible change in the White House will be a desirable return to a time when the principles of American foreign policy were clearly defined and recognizable. For others, it will be a defeat of the possibility to solve the remaining open issues in the region in a pragmatic way through a transactional approach to international relations.