April 18. 2024. 11:42

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Serbia, Kosovo leaders expected to endorse EU plan to normalise relations

Serbia and Kosovo are expected to endorse a deal to normalise strained relations as at a high-level meeting in Brussels later on Monday (27 February), despite efforts from Russia to meddle in the process, according to a senior EU official.

The talks between Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti, hosted by EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell and EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue Miroslav Lajčák, come after a months-long hiatus.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 following the 1998-1999 war. Belgrade does not recognise this and considers Kosovo a province. Since then, tensions have simmered, and while both sides committed to an EU-facilitated dialogue process in 2013, little has been made.

“We expect the two leaders to endorse the proposal,” a senior EU official told reporters on Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

While the meetings held in the past few years were mostly about resolving crises and signing agreements, many of which were never implemented, the senior EU official said Monday’s approach would now finally be aimed at normalising relations and could be the “most important meeting so far.”

The north of Kosovo is home to about 50,000 ethnic Serbs, some of which do not recognise Kosovo’s independence. With the support of Belgrade, this has led to flare-ups between the Balkan neighbours, coming to a head in December 2022 with road blockades, border closures, and calls from Serbia to send in the military.

Belgrade and Pristina have previously signalled qualified support for the EU proposal, backed by Germany and France, but voiced reservations about certain aspects.

The updated proposal, received by both parties before the start of an EU-Western Balkan summit in Tirana last December, is said to include mutual recognition of official documents, increased financial aid and other measures to improve people’s lives in both countries.

The text has not been made public, allowing both sides to present an interpretation to their domestic audiences.

Neither of their governments has so far publicly commented on whether the plan would be endorsed on Monday, but both Belgrade and Pristina have previously stated they accepted the EU plan in principle, saying it would be a good base for further negotiations.

While the leaders are not expected to debate the plan itself, Brussels would be open to discussing its implementation, the senior EU official said.

EURACTIV understands the proposal also contains an annexe “with a clear calendar of actions on when and how things have to happen.”

It would also, for the first time, foresee a mechanism that would monitor the implementation, liking it to the EU’s accession process, with the EU regularly reporting to member states about progress made.

De-facto recognition, municipalities

“You have heard, and some of you have written, that this paper is about de facto recognition, and it is about de facto recognition,” the senior EU official told reporters.

Kurti has previously said the plan amounts to de facto recognition of Kosovo by Serbia, while Vucic has insisted this is not the case.

“There is a lot of substance in this (EU) paper which would greatly relax the atmosphere and remove so many of these obstacles,” he added.

EURACTIV understands the EU’s Special Representative Lajčák had also made efforts to reach out to the EU’s non-recognisers, giving them a detailed presentation of the process.

Five EU countries – Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania, Greece–and Russia- have refused to formally recognise Kosovo’s independence.

“There will be a new situation on the ground, and there will be the expectation of a reaction by them – how positive I cannot say, but those countries are following the process carefully,” the senior EU official said.

The most contentious issue in Monday’s talks is expected to be a planned association of Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo, which Pristina fears could create a breakaway region.

Leaders of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority argue such a body would give Belgrade an outsized influence in their country, while Serbs say it is needed to protect their rights.

The concept has also led to protests in Kosovo from citizens who claim Serbs enjoy significant minority rights, including free electricity, Serbian language education, and mandates in local and national government.

Following signing an agreement to establish the association in 2013, Kosovo’s constitutional court ruled that it was incompatible with the nation’s constitution.

Pristina has said it is not opposed to the association if it functioned like an NGO or was not mono-ethnic, and in January, Kurti laid down conditions under which he would accept its creation.

The EU’s diplomatic push behind the plan also has US backing, which has gone as far as to say the association would be created with or without Kurti’s agreement. On the eve of the meeting, US advisor Derek Chollet encouraged both sides to use the opportunity presented to them.

“The United States supports a constructive meeting that affirms the commitment of both sides to the European Union’s proposal,” Chollet wrote on social media.

Asked about the bloc’s general approach to the region, the senior EU official admitted that the slow progress on EU accession of other Western Balkan countries had dampened their enthusiasm for Europe.

But he said fears triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are likely to boost support for the Serbia-Kosovo plan, and a breakthrough could restart the “locomotive” of European integration.

Kosovo, the only EU non-candidate country in the region, officially applied for membership in the bloc in December.

Over the weekend, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni sent a joint letter to Pristina, encouraging progress ahead of the meeting.

“President Macron, Chancellor Scholz and Prime Minister Meloni have expressed their conviction that the conclusion and implementation of the European proposal are of fundamental importance for the general benefit of the citizens of the Republic of Kosovo, for the peace and prosperous development of the region and the progress of the European perspective of the country”, Kurti’s office said in a press release.

‘Russia factor’

According to Brussels, there are attempts by Russia to dissuade Serbia from accepting the plan.

“Russia stepped in and tried to disrupt this work,” a senior EU official said, noting that Moscow’s “hyperactive” ambassador to its traditional ally Serbia had given a series of media interviews with the aim of disrupting a potential agreement.

“He is saying, ‘ This is not the right time to address the Kosovo issue, and it should wait until the New World Order will be established between Russia and the West’,” the senior EU official said.

“I see this as a threat to President Vucic, warning him not to agree to the proposal,” he said.

“I have not noticed this having an impact on the position of President Vucic, but of course, it has had an impact on part of the opposition in Serbia, and we saw some violent demonstrations.”

Belgrade has long performed a delicate balancing act between its aspirations to join the EU and pursue a partnership with NATO on the one hand and its centuries-old ethnic and religious kinship with Russia.

Although it has repeatedly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the United Nations and other international forums, Brussels has criticised Serbia for not formally introducing sanctions against Moscow.