Wednesday

14th Apr 2021

Kosovo to restart EU/US-led Serbia talks

  • The EU's five Kosovo non-recognisers have not budged on their positions in the past 12 years (Photo: Marco Fieber)

Restarting talks on Serbia relations will be the new Kosovo prime minister's top priority, he said, but will the EU or the US lead the process?

"The priority [of the new government] will be taking the responsibility to move forward on the dialogue [with Serbia] in cooperation with the EU and the USA, but not allowing change of territory or territorial exchange," Avdullah Hoti, the new leader, said after MPs voted him into office on Wednesday (3 June).

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  • Kosovo's new prime minister Avdullah Hoti studied economics at Staffordshire University in the UK (Photo: mf.rks-gov.net)

Fighting the pandemic, which has caused 1,142 infections in Kosovo, and its economic effects were also important, he added.

Hoti, a 44-year old former finance minister from the centrist LDK party, won power by 61 votes against 24, out of 120 in parliament.

He will lead a coalition of five parties and independent MPs, with the nationalist Vetëvendosje! and centre-right PDK parties in opposition, in a sign of the fragility of Kosovo politics.

Hoti's LDK used to be in coalition with the Vetëvendosje! party of outgoing prime minister Albin Kurti.

But their partnership collapsed in March under US pressure, after Kurti imposed non-tariff penalties on Serbian imports that were not documented with Kosovo's constitutional name, spoiling EU and US efforts to mediate a peace accord.

Kurti did not go quietly - Vetëvendosje!, which started out as a protest movement, boycotted Wednesday's vote and its activists tried to storm parliament.

But both he and his anti-Serbian trade policy are now gone, with Hoti also promising to bin that.

Kosovo started EU-mediated talks on normalising relations with Serbia in 2011 after breaking away in a brutal conflict in 1999, with US military help, and declaring independence in 2008.

The EU talks broke down in November 2018 over Kurti's trade stunts and never restarted.

A US special presidential envoy, Richard Grenell, then got involved, inviting Kosovo and Serbia's heads of state for negotiations in Washington instead of Brussels.

The US has also signalled support for a land-swap deal between Serbia and Kosovo, which Germany believes could enflame ethnic tensions in the Western Balkans and which Hoti, the new prime minister, has now ruled out, "not allowing change of territory or territorial exchange".

The EU recently created its own Kosovo-Serbia special envoy and installed former Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajčák in the post.

Meanwhile, Grenell, who was also US ambassador to Germany, has left Europe and the state department to pursue "other activities", his spokesman said, as US president Donald Trump began his re-election campaign

But Grenell has held on to his Kosovo-Serbia envoy hat.

Both the EU and the US welcomed Hoti's victory on Wednesday.

"The EU-facilitated dialogue [led by Lajčák] is the only way to turn Kosovo's European future into a reality for its citizens," the EU's top foreign policy and enlargement officials, Josep Borrell and Olivér Várhelyi, said.

Grenell was also "looking forward to cooperating with the new government and continuing dialogue with Serbia," his spokesman, Dick Custin, said.

And that left open the question of whether the EU, the US, or both in parallel, will try to bring home a peace deal.

But transatlantic cooperation is not what it used to be under pre-Trump administrations.

And when asked by EUobserver whether Grenell and Lajčák, who was appointed on 3 April, had even spoken to each other on the dossier, the EU foreign service did not answer, but issued a boiler-plate statement instead.

"The new EUSR [EU special representative, Lajčák] is constantly in touch with all relevant partners to listen to their perspectives, expectations, and concerns in order to prepare the grounds, so that the dialogue can resume without delay," Borrell's service said.

Ball in Thaçi's court

The Western muddle on who does what in the Balkans comes amid Russian and Chinese efforts to compete for influence in the region.

Meanwhile, the man who would represent Kosovo, its president, Hashim Thaçi, in the EU-mediated talks, if they restarted, might not play ball.

Thaçi, who, in any case, risks going on trial on old war-crime allegations in an EU-sponsored tribunal in The Hague, has said he would not work either with Lajčák or with Borrell (a former Spanish foreign minister), because Slovakia and Spain are two of the five EU countries (with Cyprus, Greece, and Romania), who never recognised Kosovo's sovereignty.

"In front of us we will have two negotiators from countries that do not recognise Kosovo's independence," Thaçi said of Lajčák and Borrell on 26 May.

He would talk to the French or German leaders, Thaçi said, but "there is no inclination on my part to participate in a negotiation process that is led by Lajčák," Kosovo's head of state added.

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