Viral video of 'confused' Serbian president is not what it seems

Belgrade wants to open Jerusalem embassy, be ‘most pro-Israel country in Europe’ • Does not rule out Israel-Kosovo ties as long as they’re below country-level

Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic (Left) is seen at the Oval Office alongside US President Donald Trump and  Kosovo's Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti on September 4, 2020. (photo credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)
Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic (Left) is seen at the Oval Office alongside US President Donald Trump and Kosovo's Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti on September 4, 2020.
(photo credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)
The video went viral immediately after the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo signed their agreements with the US in the Oval Office last week.
US President Donald Trump says: “Serbia is committed to opening a commercial office in Jerusalem this month and moving its embassy in July. That’s fantastic! That’s a very big thing – we appreciate it very much.”
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić starts paging through the agreement on the table before him, looks off to his side, and then pushes his hair to the side, in what appears to be an expression of discomfort.
Many interpreted that reaction to mean that Vučić didn’t know he was supposed to be moving the embassy to Jerusalem and had been blindsided by Trump.
Vučić’s reaction was actually to the July date Trump mentioned for the embassy opening, which seemed far off, considering that Serbia plans to open its trade office this month.
Sources close to Vučić pointed out on Thursday that the Serbian president had already announced at the AIPAC Policy Conference in March that his country would open a trade office in Jerusalem, and the intention had been to take a first step toward opening an embassy in Israel’s capital.
“The idea that [Vučić] wasn’t aware doesn’t conform to the facts,” a source said.
In fact, a team led by Serbia Chamber of Commerce President Marko Čadež – the target of Vučić’s sideways glance in the video – was in Israel this week to open that trade office, meeting with real estate agents in Jerusalem on Thursday to find the right location.
The inclusion of Israel in the Serbia-Kosovo talks was not as disconnected as many commentators interpreted it to be, in that a Jerusalem embassy was an existing policy of Serbia that also conformed to an American foreign policy objective of recent years – in addition to it helping Trump appeal to his base ahead of the November presidential election.
AS FOR SERBIA’S foreign policy objective of eventually joining the EU, Čadež does not see an embassy in Jerusalem as an obstacle.
“We’re looking to the future,” Čadež said. “After the UAE [normalization] agreement, things will change. More countries in the Gulf/Middle East will follow – and after Serbia moves its embassy to Jerusalem, other countries in Europe will become more open to a new approach.”
Vučić even plans to call some of his allies in Europe to encourage them to follow suit. Serbian sources would not name which countries, but Vučić is notably close with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, both of whom have also led their countries to strong partnerships with Israel.
But of course, there is a catch: Serbia does not want Israel to recognize Kosovo as an independent country.
Vučić plans to clarify to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu what exactly that means in a phone call scheduled for Friday.
Domestically, Vučić would have difficulty explaining to voters how he is taking the step of being the first European country to open an embassy in Jerusalem, making it “the most pro-Israel country in Europe,” while Israel does something Serbia considers unacceptable: recognizing Kosovo as a country.
The Serbian sources explained that, as far as they’re concerned, Israel can have diplomatic relations with Kosovo “below a certain threshold.”
In other words, the situation could be similar to Israel and Taiwan, where there is an Israeli consulate and other diplomatic and business ties, but not an embassy and no official recognition of their independence.
If Israel recognizes Kosovo, Serbia may still open an embassy in Jerusalem, but the ties with Belgrade will be significantly downgraded.
AS FOR the goals of the Serbian trade office set to open in Jerusalem in the coming weeks, Daniel P. Vajdich, president of the Washington-based Yorktown Solutions advisory firm working with the Serbian Chamber of Commerce, said technology and innovation are “pillars of the strategic partnership between Serbia and Israel motivating the move to Jerusalem.”  Other key areas include security and commercial ties.
Čadež explained that after an economic crisis in 2012, Belgrade recovered partly by shifting focus to encouraging entrepreneurship and technological know-how.
Israelis and Serbs both used “disruption to our advantage,” Čadež said. After a generation of Serbs grew up experiencing political instability and wars, and Israelis having a mandatory draft and experiencing wars and terror attacks, people in both societies are less risk-averse when it comes to business, he said.
“We had a boom in R&D and start-ups in Serbia, and we are where Israel was in 2012,” Čadež said. “We are looking for joint Israeli-Serb start-ups.”
Čadež also said Israel’s newly open ties with the UAE could be an opportunity for Israel-Serbia relations, because the Emirates is heavily invested in Serbian real estate and food production, among other areas.
Vajdich and Čadež also credited the Trump administration and US Special Envoy for Serbia-Kosovo negotiations Richard Grenell for focusing on “economic normalization” between the sides, something that past US administrations had not done.
The Trump administration tried a similar focus in bringing Israel and the Palestinians together, offering tens of billions of dollars of investment in the Palestinian economy as part of its peace plan and organizing a major economic-focused conference in Bahrain last year, to little success.
But that approach has played out differently with Serbia and Kosovo, which Čadež pointed out have constant business ties, because “businesses look for common interests.”
“It’s good for talks. They’re more relaxed,” than when negotiations are focused on matters of principle and history, Čadež said.