Wednesday

22nd May 2019

EU to open Serbia talks, as Belgrade warns of instability

  • Mogherini: Serbia 'made very important symbolic but also substantial steps' (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

The EU aims to start Serbia accession talks before the end of the year. But regional instability, and Serbia’s strong ties to Russia, cloud the process.

EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini made the announcement at a meeting of European foreign ministers, under the OSCE banner, in Belgrade on Thursday (3 December).

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“On the 14th of December, we can expect the opening of two chapters - 32 and 35 - for more detailed negotiations … I think that on 14 December we can tick the box ‘done’ and look forward to a more intense cooperation,” she said.

She praised Serbia for “smooth implementation” of EU-brokered accords on normalising Kosovo relations, saying Serbia “made very important symbolic but also substantial steps to contribute to understanding and cooperation in the region.”

She added that, as an Italian, “my nationality makes it quite natural for me to see that the interests of the Western Balkans are the interests of all the Europeans.”

Chapter 32 deals with audit controls on public finances, amid EU concern on high-level corruption in Serbia. Chapter 35 is on “other issues,” which, in Serbia’s case, means Kosovo relations.

The Serb PM, Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist, noted: “We will be coming to Brussels with big expectations and the firm belief that Serbia belongs to Europe.”

But he also warned, in his opening remarks at the OSCE event, that the region remains prone to instability.

“I must express my concern for the stability in the Balkans. Serbia is a stable country, but several crisis situation in the region are enough - in Macedonia, Montenegro, Pristina - for the whole region be set on fire again,” he said.

"The slightest conflict may initiate a chain reaction.”

He also thanked his “American colleagues” for their support, while US secretary of state John Kerry thanked him for “leading Serbia on a very important path to define a new Serbia, and to move as rapidly as possible towards the EU integration, which we completely support.”

Thursday’s EU announcement comes four short years after Serbia handed over its last war crimes fugitives to The Hague, unfreezing EU relations.

The Vucic-Kerry exchange also comes just 15 years after the US bombed Belgrade, in a war which led to Kosovo’s split from Serbia.

The latest poll, in June, said 49 percent of Serbs back EU integration - an all-time high.

Old friends

But for his part, Serb president Tomislav Nikolic, underlined that Serbia’s old alliance with Russia is just as important as its new one with the West.

Referring to Serbia’s refusal to join EU sanctions on Russia, he said: “We will certainly cooperate with Russia more intensively than until now, because we wish to show … that to be in the EU does not mean to be against Russia, and that to be a friend of Russia does not mean to be against the EU.”

“A person has friends around the world, but most often recalls their mother - Serbia is like that too, when it most needs help, it thinks of the Russian Federation,” he added.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Serbia’s decision to send soldiers to take part in Russia’s WWII parade in May, despite EU objections, was “a symbol of the unity of our peoples … We have always been and will always be allies.”

Amid EU and US concern that Russia is trying to restore its influence in the Balkans, he added: “We are ready to step up and expand cooperation, including in the spheres of economy and European security.”

Kerry, on Wednesday, also visited Pristina and appealed for an end to violent protests against the EU-brokered pact on Serbia.

Kosovo unrest

Kosovo’s constitutional court has suspended the key proviso of the pact, the creation of a semi-autonomous entity, called the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM) .

Its government has put the ASM on ice until Serbia dismantles what Kosovo calls “parallel structures” in its Serbian-majority enclaves.

Meanwhile, the Kosovo opposition party, Vetevendosje, has fired tear gas in parliament on multiple occasions and organised rowdy street rallies to oppose the deal.

Kerry said: “Freedom of expression and assembly, including the right to peaceful protest, are fundamental to any democracy. Violence, however, is unacceptable.”

He added: “Kosovo’s parliament should be a place where meaningful debates on public policy are conducted, where people can listen to each other peacefully, no matter how much you object to the idea.”

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