Serbia and Kosovo urged to compromise in bid by US to end impasse

White House envoy steps up efforts to normalise relations between the two states

A White House special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo has urged the two states to make compromises and focus on economic development as a basis for establishing normal relations, as the US steps up efforts to end a major Balkan impasse.

US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who president Donald Trump appointed last year as a special envoy, is visiting Pristina and Belgrade just days after overseeing a deal to relaunch direct flights between the two capitals after a break of more than 20 years.

In Kosovo on Thursday, he told president Hashim Thaci and prime minister-designate Albin Kurti that Pristina should drop a heavy tax that was imposed on Serbian imports in response to Belgrade's efforts to block international recognition of Kosovo's independence and its membership of multinational organisations.

“I’m trying to ignore the political fights and to concentrate on economic development. And because of that I asked Kurti, and I am going to ask every single political leader here, that it’s very important, if we want to move forward in economic development, that the 100 per cent tariffs be dropped,” Mr Grenell said.

“At the same time, the derecognition campaign in Serbia should also be dropped. And I think that both of these things have to happen in order for businesses to grow, for us to create jobs for young people. And so, I’m going to be carrying the same message to Belgrade,” added Mr Grenell, who is due in Serbia on Friday.

Breakdown in talks

Pristina’s imposition of the tariffs in November 2018, in reaction to Serbian lobbying against Kosovo’s sovereignty, caused a breakdown in EU-brokered talks to normalise their relations two decades after the 1998-99 war.

With those talks frozen and the EU's commitment to expansion in the Balkans in question following French-led opposition last autumn to the start of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, the US is intensifying diplomacy in the region.

Some analysts believe the White House may be ready to push hard for a historic agreement between Serbia and Kosovo this year, to allow Mr Trump to celebrate a foreign policy victory ahead of the US presidential election in November.

“Had a fruitful meeting with Richard Grenell to discuss the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. Thanked him for a timely visit and determination in the process,” Mr Thaci said on Twitter.

“Stressed urgency of resumption of dialogue and that the role of Donald Trump on reaching a final agreement is indispensable.”

Mr Grenell oversaw the signing of a deal in Berlin on Monday to relaunch passenger flights between Pristina and Belgrade after a hiatus of 21 years, with a German low-cost carrier set to service the route.

“Everyone said it couldn’t be done,” Mr Trump tweeted.

“But for the first time in a generation, there will be direct flights between Serbia and Kosovo. Another win.”

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe