Serbia, Kosovo deal possible this year, U.S. envoy says

Updated: Mar 16, 2023, 14:06 GMT+00:00

BELGRADE (Reuters) - An agreement over the normalisation of ties between Serbia and Kosovo this year is "entirely" possible, a U.S. envoy said on Thursday.

Kosovo marks 15 years of independence from Serbia

BELGRADE (Reuters) -An agreement over the normalisation of ties between Serbia and Kosovo this year is “entirely” possible, a U.S. envoy said on Thursday.

Serbia President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti are set to meet in North Macedonia’s lake resort of Ohrid on Saturday under European Union auspices to discuss ways of implementing a Western-backed agreement to normalise relations.

“I would like to see the agreement this calendar year. I think this is entirely possible,” Gabriel Escobar, the senior U.S. diplomat for the Western Balkans, told reporters in Belgrade after meeting Vucic.

On Feb. 28, the two leaders agreed in Brussels that “no further discussions” were needed on the deal between the former wartime foes but that more talks were needed about its implementation.

Speaking in Tirana, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he was hoping that Serbia and Kosovo “will come with a constructive approach.”

“I insist not on the agreement itself … but on the implementation modalities and timelines,” Borrell said after meeting Albania Prime Minister Edi Rama.

Escobar said the two parties should focus on the normalisation of relations and not on mutual recognition, something Kosovo has long demanded.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, almost a decade after war brought an end to Serbian rule. Serbia still regards Kosovo as its southern province.

Under the new agreement, Serbia would stop short of recognising Kosovo as an independent state but would agree to recognise official documents such as passports, diplomas and licence plates, and would not block Kosovo’s membership in any international organisation.

In Tirana, Rama described the proposal as “the best thing that can happen” to Kosovo and Serbia.

“I want to believe … that neither side will allow themselves not to embrace the document and its implementation program,” he said.

Serbia has so far relied on its ally Russia, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, and other countries that do not recognise Kosovo, including five EU members, to prevent it from joining the United Nations.

Escobar also said Kosovo – whose population is mainly ethnic Albanian – would have to ensure a level of self-management for its Serb community as stipulated by a 2013 EU-sponsored agreement in Brussels and is the main demand of Belgrade.

“The fact is that the association (of Serb communities) appears in the Brussels Agreement, it is part of the conclusions of the European Council and it is part of the U.S. policy,” he said.

Leaders of Kosovo’s ethnic-Albanian majority have long argued that such a body would give Belgrade an outsize influence in their country while Serbs say it is needed to protect their rights.

Escobar said the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo would bolster economic opportunities and EU integration not only for the two countries but also for the rest of the Western Balkans, comprising Montenegro, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Albania.

(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic and Fatos Bytyci in Pristina; Editing by Daria Sito Sucic, Angus MacSwan and Mark Porter)

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