Serbia-Kosovo talks back on track
Delegations from Belgrade and Pristina will meet on Tuesday (24 January) in Brussels for another round of talks sponsored by EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini.
This time, the two sides are sending their top people: Serbia will be represented by prime minister Aleksandar Vucic and president Tomislav Nikolic, while Kosovo is sending its counterparts Isa Mustafa and Hashim Thaci.
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Mogherini called the meeting ahead of schedule after a series of incidents which brought Serbia and Kosovo to the brink of armed confrontation.
The crisis jeopardised the normalisation process that has been going on for four years and that has yielded some results, but which has failed to remove the deep mistrust between the Balkan neighbours.
“I don’t trust the Albanians any more,” Vucic told journalists on Monday before departing for the EU capital.
He also accused political leaders from Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority of planning a crackdown against Serbian communities in northern Kosovo.
Tensions flared last week when the opening of a new railway line between Belgrade and Kosovo’s northern town of Mitrovica, an ethnic Serb enclave, saw Serbia send a passenger train painted with nationalist symbols and with the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 different languages.
In Pristina, this was seen not only as a provocation aimed at reiterating Serbia’s claim over Kosovo, but as an act of aggression. It deployed Rosu, a heavily armed police unit, to stop the train from crossing the border.
Vucic claimed that Kosovars were planning to blow up the train on its maiden voyage and to massacre the passengers, some of which were members of his cabinet.
Thaci responded by accusing Serbia of trying to annex the majority-Serb north the same way that Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. In return, Serbian president Nikolic threatened to send troops to protect Kosovar Serbs.
Even though calm has prevailed, at least for the moment, the prospect of a renewed conflict between Serbs and ethnic Albanians started to look real for the first time since 1999.
“I was extremely worried about the situation, which could have easily escalated,” Mogherini said in the aftermath of the train incident last week.
She said she had followed the events closely and had personally stayed in touch with leaders from both sides.
Some believe that the whole affair was never that serious and that it was deliberately blown out of proportion by politicians in Belgrade and Pristina, however.
“Both Belgrade’s provocation and Pristina’s overreaction were nothing but cheap ploys,” Milos Vasic, a Belgrade-based political analyst, told EUobserver.
He said neither side was ready to start a new war or to challenge Nato, which guarantees Kosovo’s security and which still has troops in the area.
Serbia was facing presidential and possibly early parliamentary elections this spring, with a bit of patriotic chest-banging helpful in winning votes, Vasic added.
He said Thaci also needed to repair his patriotic credentials after finding himself under pressure for ceding too much ground to Serbia in previous rounds of the Brussels dialogue.
At the same time, both sides feel neglected by the EU and the US, who are too busy trying to cope with Brexit and with the election of Donald Trump to pay attention to the Western Balkans.
“Balkan politicians have become very apt in creating tensions and then selling themselves as peacemakers,” Vasic said.
Real or not, the crisis seems to be over for now, and Tuesday’s meeting in Brussels is a chance to turn over a new leaf.
Thaci has said he expects the Brussels dialogue to end with Serbia’s full recognition of Kosovo, while Serbia is pushing for autonomy for northern Kosovo.
It is unrealistic to think there might be a breakthrough on Tuesday but, unlike the painted train, the process is back on track.