Long-stalled face-to-face talks between Belgrade and Pristina got off to a frosty start in Brussels on Thursday as Serbia accused Kosovo of making unrealistic demands.
More than two decades after clashing in war, the Balkan neighbours are still haunted by unresolved tensions that threaten instability in their corner of southeastern Europe.
After a virtual meeting organised by EU officials last weekend, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s new Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti met in person on Thursday as they try to re-energise efforts to normalise relations.
But afterwards Vucic accused Hoti of coming not to talk but to try to “blackmail” Serbia.
“Is it pleasant to sit on the other end from Hoti and listen to the gibberish, saying that they are the only victims and we are the only villains? No,” Vucic said.
The Serbian leader said he wanted to solve the outstanding disputes with Kosovo.
“But it is obvious that the differences are too big at the moment, concerning all important and strategic matters,” Vucic said.
“They would like to solve (everything) overnight, with an attempt to make Serbia accept everything they want.”
– September meeting –
The EU’s special representative for the talks, Miroslav Lajcak, said the meeting focused on missing and displaced persons and economic development.
Talks will continue next week among officials and another high-level meeting is planned for September, Lajcak said.
Hoti gave a more positive assessment of Thursday’s talks than Vucic, saying they had been able to make progress on economic development issues.
But the fundamental dispute is territorial: Belgrade refuses to recognise the independence that its former province, home mainly to ethnic Albanians, proclaimed in 2008.
Kosovo’s statehood has been backed by around 100 countries, including the United States and all but five member states of the European Union.
But Serbia’s core allies Russia and China deny it, effectively shutting Kosovo out of the United Nations.
EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell hailed the fact the two leaders were talking for the second time in a week as a sign of their commitment to the process.
He urged them to adopt a “spirit of compromise and pragmatism” in order to make progress.
The two sides have been in EU-led talks for a decade to normalise their relationship, but little progress has been made, with a raft of agreements concluded in 2013 yet to be fully implemented.
The previous round of negotiations broke down in 2018 after a series of diplomatic tit-for-tats.
While Kosovo is determined to gain full recognition of its sovereignty, Serbia is under pressure to resolve the issue in order to move forward in its bid to join the EU.
Any final accord will need to resolve numerous thorny disputes, including the status of Serb-populated parts of Kosovo, war reparations, and the future of Serbian Orthodox religious sites, among many others.
Both governments also face combustible political situations at home, where any concession to the other side would be highly unpopular.
The issue is highly sensitive in Serbia, especially among nationalists who consider Kosovo the cradle of their culture and religious heritage.
Kosovo is clear that the goal of the talks is “mutual recognition”.
But Vucic speaks only vaguely about the need to “accept the reality” of Kosovo, which Belgrade effectively lost control over after the 1998-99 war.
Ahead of the talks, Vucic said he was “trying to get what I can for Serbia and to lose only the inevitable minimum.”
– Thaci absent –
The shadow of Kosovo’s traditional interlocutor, President Hashim Thaci, hangs over the talks.
He is out of the game after being accused by special prosecutors in The Hague of war crimes dating back to the conflict with Serbia.
The fighting between ethnic Albanian rebels and Serb forces claimed some 13,000 lives, mainly Kosovo Albanians.
But the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), of which Thaci was a leader, was accused of reprisals on Serbs and fellow Albanians during and after the conflict.
The war ended when a NATO bombing campaign forced Serb troops to withdraw, putting Kosovo under UN administration.