News 24 Jan 17

Kosovo, Serbia Presidents Meet to Ease Tensions

The two Presidents and Prime Ministers are to meet in Brussels after growing tensions put on hold the implementation of key Belgrade-Pristina agreements.

Maja Zivanovic, Die Morina
Belgrade, Pristina
Prime ministers Vucic and Mustafa with High EU Representative Federica Mogherini in Bussels in October | Photo: Beta.

The Presidents and Prime Ministers of Serbia and Kosovo are due to meet in Brussels on Tuesday at the highest-level meeting since EU-led talks on “normalizing” relations between Serbia and its former province started in 2011.

The talks will unite Prime Ministers Isa Mustafa of Kosovo and Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia and Presidents Hashim Thaci and Tomislav Nikolic.

The handshake issue

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic met Kosovo's former president, Atifete Jahjaga, in Brussels in 2013, but expressed disapproval of Serbian officials shaking hands with Hashim Thaci, who he called “a man facing serious accusations”.

After the former Serbian president Boris Tadic shook hands with Thaci in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik in 2012, Nikolic said it was Tadic’s personal mistake.

“I would have recommended to him not to shake hands with a man who is under serious charges,” Nikolic said, adding that he would never shake hands with Thaci until it was determined beyond doubt whether or not he had committed crimes against Serbs.

European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told Serbia’s Tanjug news agency that worrying developments had reinforced the need for fresh commitment and engagement from both sides.

Kocijancic added that while “the first interlocutors” in the high-level summit would be Vucic and Thaci, both sides were bringing their own delegations to Brussels.

“Both sides have dedicated themselves to dialogue and we expect that such commitment continues, including the implementation of agreed agreements,” Kocijancic said.

The meeting comes after months of escalating tension, which began in December when Kosovo Serbs began building a concrete wall near the bridge that divides the town of Mitrovica into Albanian and Serbian sectors.

Kosovo Albanian officials condemned its construction. The wall is still intact, however, and the planned re-opening of the bridge to ensure free movement between the two zones, scheduled for January 20, has now been postponed.

The arrest in France on a Serbian war crimes warrant of Kosovo Liberation Army commander and former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in January meanwhile sparked more protests by Kosovo Albanians who accused Serbia of conducting a vendetta.

Tensions between Pristina and Belgrade soared even further on January 14 when Serbia sent a train painted in the colours of the Serbian flag and bearing the words “Kosovo is Serbian” in 21 languages from Belgrade to the northern, Serb-run part of the town of Mitrovica.

The Serbian authorities stopped the train in Raska, southern Serbia, just before the Kosovo border, after which Serbian Prime Minister Vucic dramatically accused the Kosovo government of trying to blow up the railway line.

Kosovo dismissed the charges but the affair has created a good deal of ill feeling.]

While the EU said the meeting was intended to “underline the need for increased commitment and engagement by the two sides”, ahead of the trip to Brussels officials from both Belgrade and Pristina issued statements that failed to clarify whether the dialogue would get far.

Ahead of the meeting in Brussels, Serbia’s Vucic that he had lost confidence in Pristina and, because of that, resumption of dialogue would be difficult.

He added that he expected clear messages from the EU about the use of weapons, referring to Serbia’s claims that Kosovo authorities planned to attack the special train.

“I want to ask EU officials not to support bringing weapons and tools where they do not belong, and everything else, other topics, will happen some other time,” Vucic said on Monday.

Kosovo President Thaci was calmer on Monday, saying that “the time has come to open the latest chapter in the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia”, but adding that only issues concerning the normalization of relations could be negotiated.

“As for internal issues, each state is autonomous and has its own sovereignty,” Thaci said.

He accused Serbia of provoking Kosovo with the arrest Haradinaj, the wall in Mitrovica and the train, adding that it all made discussions on normalization of relations crucial.

“The best possible solution definitely would be recognition of Kosovo by Serbia,” he said.  “This would mean concluding this important dialogue process, initially on technical issues and then a phase of advanced dialogue … that would eventually bring about recognition of Kosovo by Serbia.”

 Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, which Belgrade has vowed never to recognize. 

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