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10th Dec 2016

Interview

Kosovo: EU meeting is 'de facto recognition' by Serbia

Kosovo's foreign minister has said that a meeting between the Presidents of Kosovo and Serbia is "de facto recognition" by Serbia of Kosovo's independence.

Serbian chief Tomislav Nikolic, an outspoken nationalist, Kosovo head Atifete Jahjaga, a former police commander, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will in Brussels on Wednesday (6 January) eat dinner and talk, in the words of an EU agenda note, about "normalisation of relations."

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The event marks the first time the two sides have met at the top level since Kosovo declared independence in 2008.

There is plenty which is not normal.

For one, Serbia and five EU countries (Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain) do not recognise Kosovo or Jahjaga's "President" status. For two, Kosovo says Serbia keeps armed militias in a Serb enclave in north Kosovo and wants to split Kosovo in two.

At the same time, the EU-mediated talks have already seen Serb and Kosovo Prime Ministers meet in Brussels five times.

Their next meeting, on 22 February, is to discuss dismantling the north Kosovo militias and the two sides are to shortly post diplomatic "liaison officers" to each other's capitals.

"I think both representatives [Nikolic and Jahjaga ] are meeting as representatives of two sovereign states," Kosovo's foreign minister, Enver Hoxhaj, told EUobserver in an interview on Tuesday.

"I think the meeting is nothing else than the de facto recognition of the independence of Kosovo by Serbia," he added.

Hoxhaj spoke after returning to Europe from a tour of African and Asian states in his job to drum up de jure international recognition.

He already has 98 UN members in the bag. Last year he added 13 to the total and hopes to get another 20 this year.

He believes the Nikolic-Jahjaga event will spur the five EU non-recognisers and Russia, Serbia's ally in the UN Security Council, to gradually change their approach.

When things fall into place in what Hoxhaj calls an "irreversible process," Kosovo plans to apply for full UN membership.

"If Indonesia and East Timor were able to come to a peaceful settlement after 24 years of warfare in this troubled part of Asia, I don't see why Kosovo and Serbia, as two nations in the heart of Europe, who both aspire to jion the European Union, cannot do the same," Hoxhaj said.

It is doubtful if Nikolic will give the same appraisal as the Kosovo minister of Wednesday's EU meeting, however.

A former member of the government of Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia's late, ultranationalist wartime leader, Nikolic has, since coming into office last May, twice denied that the Serb murder of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 was genocide. He has also said the town of Vukovar in Croatia belongs to Serbia.

Hoxhaj noted that Nikolic has a "difficult legacy" and that some of his statements feed the kind of "ethnic nationalism" which caused the wars.

But for the Kosovo minister, the feeling among average Serb people is more important than the words of its political elite.

He noted that polster firm Politika put Kosovo as issue number eight for Serb voters last year, behind concerns such as economic growth. He also noted that 80 percent of ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo already accept Pristina's rule.

In terms of deeper reconciliation, the process still has a way to go.

When asked by EUobserver if Kosovo also committed crimes during the war, Hoxhaj said there were Kosovar "victims" but that the source of the conflict was Milosevic's attempt to stamp Serb hegemony on the region.

He pointed out that even Dragoljub Ojdanic, Serbia's wartime military commander, on 29 January accepted a guilty verdict by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague and voiced "regret" for causing "suffering."

"This shows Serbia has really started the process of coming to terms with its past ... It's a very good sign that Serbia has started to change," the Kosovo minister said.

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