Serbia and Kosovo resume talks on boosting relations

 

SERBIA AND Kosovo resumed talks yesterday on improving their fraught relations – a condition for Serbia’s quest to join the 27-nation European Union.

Serbia hopes that next month’s EU heads of government summit in Brussels will agree to confer candidate status on the country, assuring it of eventual membership if it complies with a programme bringing its laws and governance in line with other member states. The move was recommended in October by the European Commission.

However, a long-running customs dispute in northern Kosovo sparked inter-ethnic violence in July and September that killed one police officer and injured at least 11 people – seven Kosovo Serbs and four Nato soldiers.

Serbs in that area reject Kosovo’s 2008 secession from Serbia and want to stop Kosovo’s authorities from setting up customs checks.

Serbian government officials have also said they will never recognise Kosovo’s independence.

The EU has not set recognition of Kosovo as a formal requirement for Serbia’s candidacy, but it insists Serbia establish “good-neighbourly relations” with its former province.

The customs dispute will be a key topic in the negotiations, according to Borislav Stefanovic, the head of the Serbian delegation.

Like the ethnic Serbs who live there, Serbia has opposed having Kosovo customs officers on two border crossings inside the ethnic Serb enclave in northern Kosovo, saying this would signify recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. But Serbia’s government has not objected to Kosovo customs officials at other border crossings.

Maja Kocijancic, an EU spokeswoman, said other issues to be discussed include linking telecommunications networks and electricity grids, as well as Kosovo’s participation in regional forums.

Serbia’s application for EU membership has progressed rapidly since its capture earlier this year of the last two war criminals indicted by the UN tribunal dealing with the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. The country is expected to be granted candidate status next month, but no date will be set for the start of the EU accession process – which normally lasts several years – mainly due to continuing tensions over Kosovo.

Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci, said he hoped for progress on the technical issues “so that we can build on good neighbourly relations and pave the way for integration into the EU, both for us and for Serbia”.

Serbian president Boris Tadic said he was trying to solve the Kosovo problem, “because it is damaging not only for the Serbian people but also for the entire European continent”.

The meeting is the latest in a series that started in March. They have focused on practical issues, such as easing travel restrictions and recognising land registers and each other’s university diplomas.

“The Serbian government is in a bit of a bind,” said Tim Judah, a London-based Balkan analyst. “It wants candidacy but it doesn’t want to be accused of treachery by Kosovo Serbs and the opposition in Belgrade by agreeing to Kosovo customs officers at the border crossings.”

Although less is at stake for Kosovo, it too faces a delicate balance. “Kosovo wants to be seen as a constructive partner by the EU, but they also don’t want to be seen helping Serbia to get EU candidacy,” Mr Judah said. – (AP)