US and Russia court Serbia as pact with Kosovo remains distant prospect

Moscow says Belgrade to sign free-trade deal with Kremlin-led economic bloc

Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic    flew to New York for lunch with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, as Washington and the EU urged Serbia and Kosovo to make compromises.  Photograph: Marko Djurica/Reuters

Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic flew to New York for lunch with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, as Washington and the EU urged Serbia and Kosovo to make compromises. Photograph: Marko Djurica/Reuters

 

Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic has played down prospects for a swift resumption of EU-brokered talks with Kosovo, as the United States and Russia court Belgrade amid a battle for influence in the Balkans.

Mr Vucic flew to New York for lunch with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, as Washington and the European Union urged Serbia and Kosovo to make compromises that would help break a nine-month impasse in efforts to normalise their relations.

“Secretary Pompeo praised the strong US-Serbia relationship . . . and discussed the shared bilateral vision of a stable, secure, and prosperous western Balkans region, and continued US support for Serbia’s goal of integration into the European Union,” state department spokesman Morgan Ortagus said on Tuesday.

Resuming negotiations

Mr Pompeo also “encouraged Serbia to focus on this strategic goal by accelerating domestic reforms and resuming negotiations with Kosovo on a comprehensive normalisation agreement centred on mutual recognition”.

The US, Germany, France, Britain and Italy last week jointly urged Kosovo to lift a 100 per cent tax on Serbian imports and called on Belgrade to stop lobbying countries to scrap their recognition of Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence.

Mr Vucic said that on Serbia’s opposition to the tariff imposed last November “there is no doubt that we have American support, because they, like us, think it is important to continue the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, so that we can preserve peace”.

“I believe America wants to be involved even more strongly in different ways to solve problems in our region,” he added.

Mr Vucic warned on Wednesday, however, that talks could probably resume “in early December at best” due to snap parliamentary elections that Kosovo is expected to hold in October.

The outgoing Kosovo government of prime minister Ramush Haradinaj – whose resignation last month set the stage for early elections – says the tax should remain until Serbia accepts the sovereignty of its former province; Belgrade, meanwhile, vows to keep lobbying against recognition and Pristina’s membership of international organisations.

Balanced policy

Russia is the biggest supporter of Serbia’s position and, while Belgrade struggles towards EU accession, Moscow is strengthening its relationship with one of its last Balkan allies.

“A free trade deal between Serbia and the Eurasian Economic Union is expected to be signed on October 25th,” Russia’s ambassador to Belgrade, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, said on Tuesday in reference to a bloc of five former Soviet states dominated by Moscow.

He said the move resulted from Serbia’s “balanced policy” between east and west and would “mark an entirely new phase for Belgrade in its presence in the Eurasian space,” which could make it a future “link” between the EU and the Russian-led bloc.

Serbia is the only Balkan state that is not a member or would-be member of Nato, and Russia is supplying its military with tanks, fighter jets and helicopters.

In neighbouring Bosnia, talks to form a government 10 months after elections failed again this week, when Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik opposed a plan to move the multi-ethnic country towards membership of Nato.