Western officials are hoping for progress on March 18 in EU-mediated talks between Serbia and Kosovo's leaders, in a new attempt to ease decades of tensions between the Balkan wartime foes and solve one of Europe's longest-standing disputes.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti arrived at North Macedonia's lakeside resort of Ohrid for meetings with international envoys and rare head-to-head talks.
They tentatively agreed last month to the wording of an 11-point EU plan to normalise relations following the neighbours' 1998-1999 war and Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.
Both countries hope to join the European Union one day, and have been told they must first mend their relations.
Solving the dispute has become more important as war rages in Ukraine and fears mount that Russia could try to stir instability in the volatile Balkans where it holds historic influence.
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“This is the time for the leaders of Kosovo, Serbia, and of the entire Western Balkans to show courage and to demonstrate shared responsibility for the success of the EU accession process of the region,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who will chair Saturday's meeting.
He said the talks will focus on how to implement the EU plan that calls for the two countries to maintain good neighbourly relations, and recognise each other’s official documents and national symbols. If implemented, it would prevent Belgrade from blocking Kosovo’s attempts to seek membership in the United Nations and other international organisations.
The tentative agreement, drafted by France and Germany and supported by the U.S., doesn’t explicitly call for mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia.
“We will focus our discussion on the Implementation Annex of the recent EU Agreement that will result in the far-reaching normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia,’’ Borrell wrote in a blog ahead of the summit. “Both together will, in essence, result in the normalization of life of people in the region and open Kosovo’s and Serbia’s respective paths towards joining the EU.”
Although tentatively agreeing on the EU plan reached last month, Serbia's populist President Vucic seemed to backtrack on some of its points after pressure from far-right groups which consider Kosovo the cradle of the Serbian state and Orthodox religion.
Mr. Vucic said on Thursday that he “won't sign anything” at the Ohrid meeting and earlier pledged never to recognize Kosovo or allow its U.N. membership.
On the other hand, Mr. Kurti said the implementation of what was already agreed should be the focus of the Ohrid talks.
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“I’m an optimist but it is not up to me whether this will succeed or not,” Mr. Kurti said. “I offered to sign the European proposal (at the last meeting in Brussels) but the other side was not ready and refused.”
Thousands of far-right Serbian supporters, chanting “Treason, Treason," marched in downtown Belgrade on Friday evening demanding that Mr. Vucic reject the latest EU plan. They carried a large banner reading “No to Capitulation” and called for the Serbian President’s resignation if he signs the plan.
Kosovo is a majority ethnic Albanian former Serbian province. The 1998-99 war erupted when separatist ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbia’s rule, and Belgrade responded with a brutal crackdown. About 13,000 people died, mostly ethnic Albanians. In 1999 a NATO military intervention forced Serbia to pull out of the territory. Kosovo declared independence in 2008.
Tensions have simmered ever since. Kosovo's independence is recognized by many Western countries, but is opposed by Belgrade with the backing of Russia and China. EU-brokered talks have made little headway in recent years.
Serbia has maintained close ties to its traditional Slavic ally Russia despite the war in Ukraine, partly because of Moscow’s opposition to Kosovo’s independence and possible veto on its U.N. membership at the Security Council.