Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Da?i? became the first government official to visit Pristina at Kosovo’s invitation since the territory unilaterally declared independence from Belgrade in 2008.
Da?i? attended a Western Balkans conference on creating the infrastructure for a regional network of highways and railways on Wednesday (25 March) that was held under the auspices of the European Union.
Da?i?’s Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaçi was host of the event.
The visit “is a very good thing for an improvement of our relations and (creation of) opportunities to facilitate movement of goods, capital and people,” Da?i? told reporters.
Thaçi hailed the visit, which took place under tight security, as “a good sign”.
“This is a step forward towards the full normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia,” he said.
Kosovo and Serbia were joined at the conference by Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Montenegro.
Since the ethnic Albanian majority broke away from Belgrade in 2008, Da?i? and other top Serbian officials have occasionally visited areas of Kosovo populated by the ethnic Serb minority.
However, this is the first time a Serbian minister has visited at the request of Pristina.
Last October, Kosovo’s then-foreign minister Enver Hoxhaj visited Belgrade for the first time, for a similar regional conference.
Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo as an independent state, but in 2013 Pristina and Belgrade signed an EU-brokered agreement to normalise ties.
This enabled Belgrade to start EU accession talks a year later. The accord was the first breakthrough since the 1998-1999 Kosovo war, which ended after Serbian armed forces withdrew from the territory following an 11-week NATO bombing campaign.
More than 100 countries, including the United States and most of the EU’s 28 member states, have recognised Kosovo’s independence.
Kosovo seceded from Serbia in 2008, nine years after the end of a 1998-1999 war between Belgrade's security forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas. In the following years, Kosovo was an international protectorate patrolled by NATO peacekeepers.
After Kosovo declared independence in February 2008, the two million-strong republic, 90% of whose population are ethnic Albanians, established many of the trappings of statehood, including a new constitution, army, national anthem, flag, passports, identity cards and an intelligence agency.
However, the Serbian-populated northern part of Kosovo (the area of Mitrovica) remains largely outside the control of Pristina.
Most EU countries, except Spain, Greece, Romania, Cyprus and Slovakia, have recognised the independence of Kosovo. Of all UN members, 76 have recognised Kosovo so far.
In December 2008, the EU deployed a rule of law mission, dubbed EULEX Kosovo, with the intention of taking over post-crisis management in the territory. The aim of the operation is to assist and support the Kosovo authorities with the rule of law, specifically regarding the police, the judiciary and customs.
The EULEX mission is the largest EU civilian mission ever launched. The 3,000-member operation has the power to take on cases that the local judiciary and police are unable to handle.