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EU, US display differences over Serbia-Kosovo negotiation

Sylejman Kllokoqi
Associated Press

Pristina, Kosovo – Kosovo’s president on Tuesday hailed the United States for its leadership role in negotiations to normalize ties with its former wartime foe Serbia. But differences emerged between the Trump administration’s envoy and European officials on who should lead the talks.

U.S. envoy Richard Grenell has invited officials from Kosovo and Serbia to meet at the White House on June 27 in hopes of boosting their talks after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The invitation came as the new European Union envoy for the negotiations, Miroslav Lajcak, arrived in Kosovo on Tuesday.

Grenell oversaw an agreement in February under which Kosovo and Serbia vowed to reopen road and rail links to boost economic cooperation before resolving their longtime animosity.

In this file photo dated Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, Slovakia's Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak adjusts his headphones during a press conference in Bucharest, Romania.

“If either side is unsatisfied with the June 27 discussions then they will go back to the status quo after they leave Washington,” Grenell tweeted. “We must first make progress on growing the economies.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if Europe and the United States are coordinating efforts toward urging Serbia and Kosovo to reach a deal. The EU and the U.S. have formally the same goal of resolving one of the last hotspots in Europe after a bloody 1998-1999 war and a NATO intervention to stop a bloody Serb crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists.

EU spokesman Peter Stano said the bloc has been facilitating the dialogue from the start in 2011 and would continue to keep that leading role.

“Whatever might be agreed on the sides we’ll feed into the EU-facilitated dialogue because this is the main platform for both Serbia and Kosovo to get closer to their final agreement,” he said.

Lajcak said in Pristina on Tuesday that his focus is on the EU-mediated talks to resume in Brussels very soon.

Lajcak said at a joint news conference with Kosovo President Hashim Thaci that his mandate was very clear “to help achieve a comprehensive legally binding agreement between Kosovo and Serbia that will normalize relations, that will solve all the outstanding issues once and for(backslash)ever, that will be acceptable to the countries of the region and the EU member states.”

“Everything that has been achieved in the dialogue was the result of the very close and joint work of the EU and the U.S. and this is exactly our ambition to continue,” Lajcak said.

Thaci didn’t hide that he favored Washington’s leadership role in the talks.

“Kosovo has always trusted the U.S. and has come out victorious,” Thaci said at a news conference earlier. “This time the U.S. has taken the leadership role, which we welcome.”

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he or the prime minister would be at the Washington summit, insisting that potential recognition of Kosovo by Serbia won’t be on its agenda. Kosovo, on the other hand, insists bilateral recognition of its independence from Serbia can be the only outcome of the dialogue.

Vucic said that while he accepted Grenell’s invitaiton, the visit to the Washington talks aren’t meant to undermine the EU mediation effort.

“It’s important that in the battle of elephants we remain unhurt,” Vucic said, referring to the apparent differences that emerged between the U.S. and German officials over mediation of the talks. “We’re not going to fight with Germany or America.”

Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the U.S., said the Washington summit wasn’t coordinated with the EU and called for a reaction from Berlin, Paris and Brussels.

Kosovo was part of Serbia until an armed uprising by the ethnic Albanian majority population in 1998-1999 triggered a bloody Serb crackdown. This in turn prompted a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia to force its troops out of Kosovo.

Belgrade refuses to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence.

EU-facilitated negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade stalled in November 2018 after Kosovo set a 100% tariff on Serb goods. In April, the tariff was lifted by Kosovo’s previous prime minister, but it was replaced with other measures that irritated Serbia.

Kosovo’s new prime minister, Avdullah Hoti, has lifted all those obstacles, a move which was hailed by Vucic as opening the way to resuming talks.