Serbia and Kosovo in high-stakes EU-mediated talks
OHRID, North Macedonia — Western officials are hoping for progress this weekend in EU-mediated talks between the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo, in a fresh bid to ease decades of tension between wartime Balkan foes and to resolve one of Europe’s oldest disputes.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti are due to meet in the North Macedonia resort of Ohrid on Saturday. They tentatively agreed last month on the formulation of an 11-point EU plan to normalize relations after the 1998-99 neighbors’ war and Kosovo’s declaration of independence from vis-a-vis Serbia in 2008.
Both countries hope to one day join the European Union and have been told they need to mend their relationship first.
Resolving the dispute has become more important as war rages in Ukraine and fears mount that Russia could try to sow instability in the volatile Balkans where it holds historic influence.
“Now is the time for the leaders of Kosovo, Serbia and the entire Western Balkans to show courage and share responsibility for the success of the region’s EU accession process”, said said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who is chairing Saturday’s meeting.
He said the talks will focus on how to implement the EU plan which calls on the two countries to maintain good neighborly relations and recognize each other’s official documents and national symbols. If implemented, it would prevent Belgrade from blocking Kosovo’s attempts to seek membership in the UN and other international organizations.
The tentative agreement, drafted by France and Germany and backed by the United States, does not explicitly call for mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia.
“We will focus our discussion on the implementation annex of the recent EU agreement which will result in the deep normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia,” Borrell wrote in a blog post. “The two together will lead, in essence, to the normalization of the lives of the inhabitants of the region and will open the respective paths of Kosovo and Serbia towards EU membership.”
Despite tentatively accepting the EU plan agreed last month, populist Serbian President Vucic appeared to backtrack on some of his points after pressure from far-right groups who see Kosovo as the birthplace of the Serbian state and Orthodox religion.
Vucic said on Thursday he “won’t sign anything” at the Ohrid meeting and earlier pledged never to recognize Kosovo or allow it to join the UN.
On the other hand, Kurti said that the implementation of what has already been agreed should be the focus of the Ohrid talks.
“I’m an optimist, but it’s not up to me whether this will succeed or not,” Kurti said. “I offered to sign the European proposal (at the last meeting in Brussels) but the other party was not ready and refused.”
Thousands of far-right Serbian supporters, chanting “Betrayal, betrayal”, marched through downtown Belgrade on Friday night to demand that Vucic reject the latest EU plan. They carried a large banner reading “No to surrender” and called for the resignation of the Serbian president if he signs the plan.
Kosovo is a former Serbian province with a majority Albanian population. The 1998-99 war broke out when separatist ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbian rule, and Belgrade responded with brutal repression. About 13,000 people died, mostly ethnic Albanians. In 1999, a NATO military intervention forced Serbia to withdraw from the territory. Kosovo declared its independence in 2008.
Since then, tensions have simmered. The independence of Kosovo is recognized by many Western countries, but is fought by Belgrade with the support of Russia and China. EU-brokered talks have made little progress in recent years.
Serbia has maintained close ties with its traditional Slavic ally Russia despite the war in Ukraine, in part because of Moscow’s opposition to Kosovo’s independence and a possible veto over its membership of the UN to the Security Council.
AP writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.