ZUBIN POTOK, Kosovo – Ljiljana Trifonovic, an ethnic Serb who lives in a waterfront hamlet in northern Kosovo, has never cared about American politicians – “they’re all against us,” she said – but she has Donald J. Trump given a shine when he was at the White House.
“He’s a little crazy like us and has the same hair color as me,” said Ms. Trifonovic, 58, and patted her orange-blonde mane.
Nevertheless, it was a big surprise at the end of last year when suddenly a huge banner appeared next to the reservoir in front of their house, declaring the water as “Trump Lake”. Another large banner was walking down the street on a bridge at the same time, announcing that it would now be called “Trump Bridge”.
“We already have our own name for the lake. Why Trump? “Asked Ms. Trifonovic, confused and annoyed by the abrupt renaming of the first thing she sees every morning when she looks out the window.
But it is not that simple. The artificial lake, created in the early 1970s by a large hydropower project, when Kosovo was still part of Yugoslavia, has not one but two names: one from Serbs – Gazivoda – and another – Ujman – from the ethnic Albanians, who now dominate Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
Most things in Kosovo have two names and that’s usually not a big deal. Seldom intermingling and deeply suspicious, the two communities simply use what they want.
But what to call the nearly five square mile reservoir that extends into Serbia but is mostly in Kosovo became an issue late last year when officials from both countries became embroiled in an unorthodox diplomatic urge by the Trump administration to to heal the poisonous divide between the two communities.
Efforts, led by Mr. Trump’s ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell, left the Foreign Ministry and also the European Union out of action, both of which had worked for years with little success to get Serbia to accept the existence of Kosovo as an independent state. Divided by ethnicity, language and history, the majority Albanian population of Kosovo and its Serb minority disagree on almost everything, particularly on the status of the country they share.
Hoping that mutual economic interests could help break down stubborn political barriers, Mr Grenell, appointed by the White House as a special envoy in charge of attempting to negotiate a Kosovo deal, suggested sending in experts from the Department of Energy, to consider the modernization of the aged hydropower plant at the reservoir, which would potentially benefit both sides.
“The name of the lake in Kosovo and Serbia was a serious sticking point,” Grenell wrote on Twitter in September as he tried to broker a deal he hoped would put Mr. Trump’s cap in the US diplomatic pen would add weeks before the November elections.
In a joke, Mr. Grenell suggested that calling him “Trump Lake” might be helpful. But then the joke got serious. The then Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti sent a tweet in which he said “Amb. Grenell’s proposal to rename Lake Ujman Lake Trump. “
Officials in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, who wanted to please Mr. Trump, whom they believed was more personable than previous American presidents, also welcomed the idea.
Then, to almost everyone’s dismay, the banners appeared.
Perhaps the most pro-American country in the world, Kosovo already has a Bill Clinton Boulevard and a statue of the former Democratic President who led a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in the late 1990s, as well as a Hillary boutique and a highway named after the deceased Son of President Biden, Beau, an army officer who helped train Kosovar judges after the 1988-89 war.
So it would have been reasonable to assume that honoring Mr. Trump would not frill too many feathers.
Ethnic Albanians are so grateful to the United States for saving them from Serbian rampage in the 1990s that “almost anything America proposes is accepted, no matter how stupid,” said Valdete Idrizi, a member of the Kosovo Parliament from the northern city of Mitrovica. “Without the USA we would not have a Kosovo state.”
But Mr. Grenell’s proposed name change for the artificial lake proved too far for even the most ardent pro-Americans who never really liked the idea of Trump Lake and were downright hostile to it now that they no longer need it distant bridge worry about being nice with the former president.
“Of course we won’t change the name. The lake has a name, ”said Vjosa Osmani, the American-trained current President of Kosovo and an expert on international law, in an interview in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, last week. “It was very uncomfortable to hear people joke about it. This is a question of sovereignty. “
However, the proposed name change achieved a uniquely elusive goal in this part of the world: it brought together ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo. Almost everyone finds the idea ridiculous.
“The lake has a name and it is not and never will be Trump,” said the 31-year-old son of Ms. Trifonovic, Milan. “How would you Americans feel if one of your lakes suddenly became Milosevic Lake?” he asked, referring to Serbia’s former autocratic leader Slobodan Milosevic. “The whole thing is crazy.”
It is a mystery who put up the professionally printed canvas banners that disappeared after a few days.
Ethnic Albanian leaders declined any responsibility, as did President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, who claimed in September that they were a local initiative by ethnic Serbs living near the lake because “Kosovar Serbs presented the President of the United States Donald Trump love”.
This took the local Serbs by surprise, including the mayor of Zubin Potok, a gloomy Serbian town in Kosovo near the lake. The mayor, who refused to be interviewed, told a local journalist he knew nothing about the banners renaming the lake and bridge until she called him.
In a smoky cafe in the city’s cultural hub, customers giggled and choked on their espressos last week when asked about Trump Lake. The bartender, who only gave his first name Peter, said a better name would be “Melania Lake”, as the former first lady, a native of Slovenia, another former Yugoslav area, is at least a Slav and, unlike Mr Trump, probably knows where is Kosovo.
Dejan Nedeljkovic, a political activist in the region who, unlike many Serbs in Kosovo, is extremely critical of the Belgrade leadership, said he first saw the banners on television and was certain that Mr Vucic, Serbia’s increasingly authoritarian president, she had “because he wanted to show that he was a friend of Trump and wanted to flatter him as a master of diplomacy.”
“It is utter idiocy that they came up with this idea,” added Nedeljkovic.
But Mr Trump, delighted to be hailed as a peacemaker, wallowed in the idea that he alone could have pacified the Balkans, and told a campaign rally in Nebraska days before the US elections that “they have been fighting for 400 years.” thanks to his efforts they hug and kiss now. “
Serbia has a tight grip on the ethnic relatives living in Kosovo, where Serbian enclaves, especially in the north, rarely recognize the government in Pristina and instead take instructions from Belgrade, which controls a separate health service, school system and media apparatus for the Serbs living there Kosovo.
The bucking of the Belgrade Line can be dangerous. Oliver Ivanovic, an independent Kosovar Serb politician in Mitrovica, less than an hour’s drive from the reservoir, was murdered by unknown armed men in 2018. Rada Trajkovic, a hospital worker and politician in a Serbian enclave near Pristina who criticized Belgrade’s heavy hand, recently went into hiding fearing for her safety. She said dissenting Serbs are facing “terrible pressure”.
Mr Trifonovic, whose house is now deep in the snow and overlooks the reservoir, showed pictures of himself playing with friends in the lake in summer when the water, shimmering in the sun, takes on the colors of the Mediterranean.
When he said that Serbia’s President seemed to like the idea of Trump Lake, he quickly dropped his previous hostility towards the name change. “He’s the president. If he wants to call it Trump Lake, we’ll call it that, ”Trifonovic said. “But in my heart it will stay as it always was.”