President Donald Trump selected the US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, as his administration's special envoy between Serbia and Kosovo, the White House announced Thursday.
The surprise appointment symbolizes Washington's renewed focus on solving the decades-long conflict between the Balkan neighbors, sources from diplomatic circles told DW. Grenell's appointment, which will run parallel to his position as German ambassador, follows that of the US State Department's Matthew Palmer as the US Special Representative to the Western Balkans last month.
Analysts, however, contend that the controversial ambassador, who'll retain his post in Berlin while negotiating the Balkan conflict, could further strain relations between Berlin and Washington and diminish western powers' ability to broker peace with one common voice.
Grenell's short tenure as ambassador to Germany is dotted with controversies that have made him a contentious figure in Berlin — from chastising German business interests in Iran just hours after his appointment to telling right-wing website Breitbart about his desire to "empower other conservatives throughout Europe.”
Read more: Opinion: Richard Grenell — Donald Trump's agitator in Berlin
"What this man is doing is unheard of in international diplomacy,” Martin Schulz, a previous candidate for German chancellor, told the German Press Agency (DPA) at the time. "If a German ambassador were to say in Washington that he is there to boost the Democrats, he would have been kicked out immediately."
Before his move to Berlin, however, Grenell was the longest-serving US spokesman to the United Nations. This experience makes him more than qualified to mediate competing interests that have long cast shadows on any peace deal between Serbia and Kosovo, a high-level Balkan diplomat told DW under the condition of anonymity.
Moreover, Grenell's proximity to both Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel's government in Berlin opens a direct line of communication between the Balkans, Washington and Europe, the diplomat added.
That could expedite the minting of a transatlantic consensus on how to solve the conflict, and thus the integration of both Kosovo and Serbia into NATO, the UN and the EU, Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi said Friday via social media. "We are more confident now in the process of the dialogue,” he wrote.
Kosovo and Serbia remain at diplomatic loggerheads 20 years since the NATO bombing of Serbia at the end of the Yugoslav Wars in 1999.
The ethnic violence at the heart of the conflict between the two Balkan neighbors has all but subsided. But Serbia still hasn't recognized Kosovo's statehood almost 12 years since it declared its sovereignty, which remains the primary stipulation for Serbia's bid to join the EU. Meanwhile, the two routinely block one another's foreign-policy initiatives in international forums.
Last summer, however, the respective leaders of Kosovo and Serbia had a controversial idea for ending the stalemate: Kosovo would cede control of an ethnic-Serb province in the country's north in exchange for Serbia's Presevo Valley, an ethnically Albanian region, as well as Serbia's recognition of its statehood.
Read more: Opinion: Serbia-Kosovo land swap will open Pandora's box
The Trump administration signaled it was open to the deal, while the German government and other EU members vehemently rejected it, reigniting tensions between Serbs and Kosovars and putting negotiations on ice once again.
"We do not want to open this Pandora's box, and I can only advise everyone not to open this discussion again,” Michael Roth, Germany's State Minister for Europe, recently told DW. "This is a failed concept from the 19th and early 20th Centuries.”
Chancellor Merkel's government insists that Grenell's appointment holds no bearing on Germany's cooperation with Washington to seek rapprochement between Serbia and Kosovo, her official spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, told reporters on Friday.
But with Germany seen as the key actor at the negotiating table, Grenell's appointment is a sign that the US wants to appeal directly to Berlin to quash differences in their plans for the region, James Ker-Lindsay, a visiting professor of conflict, peace and security in southeast Europe at the London School of Economics, told DW.
An olive branch between power brokers in the negotiations is badly needed, especially as Kosovarstake to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament. "It's about keeping an open agenda, which is something the two sides can agree on,” he added.
But the fact that Grenell is so reviled in political circles in Berlin begs the question: Is Grenell really the right person to do this?
"To persuade Berlin, he's maybe not the best person for many reasons,” said Ker-Lindsay. "His appointment is very confusing on many levels.”