Europe’s largest airline, Lufthansa, signed an agreement in Berlin on Monday (20 January) to operate direct flights between Serbia and Kosovo’s capitals, in a move welcomed by diplomats and politicians eager to see further rapprochement between the erstwhile foes.
A direct air link between the two has not existed for twenty years, after conflict in the region escalated and NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 to halt its crackdown on its southern province. It eventually led to Kosovo declaring independence from Belgrade in 2008.
German carrier Lufthansa is looking to turn back the clock and operate a service through its budget airline subsidiary, Eurowings. The airline is still yet to work out the details but the 250km distance would likely mean a flight lasting around 50 minutes.
Currently, Belgrade and Pristina are linked by bus and train services, although the rail journey lasts more than 12 hours, given that it has to go through North Macedonia first. Buses take more than six hours to complete the trip.
Eurowings boss Michael Kitter said after a signing ceremony in the US embassy that “air transport stands for bringing people of different origins together peacefully. By establishing an airlink, Kosovo and Serbia are taking a step towards rapprochement.”
It has already prompted a positive response from Kosovo’s leaders. President Hasim Thaçi said he welcomed the agreement, saying that it “is an important step for the movement of citizens and normalization process”.
Outgoing Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, who is set to be succeeded by Albin Kurti, said it was a step forward in “consolidating Kosovo’s sovereignty”. He also pointed out that it would be the third air link, adding to existing routes with Albania and North Macedonia.
But Serbia has already set its conditions for giving the idea the final green light. The head of the government’s Kosovo office, Marko Djurić, said that Kosovo’s levies on Serbian goods would have to be lifted first.
In November 2018, Kosovo decided to raise import duties from 10% to 100% in retaliation for Belgrade blocking its attempt to join Interpol.
But that did not stop NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg from extolling the virtues of the proposed aviation deal, pointing out in a statement that it “will make the circulation of people and goods easier and faster within the Western Balkans region”.
He added that the commander of the Alliance’s Kosovo mission (KFOR) will retain authority over the airspace in Kosovo and that NATO will remain involved in the Balkans Aviation Normalisation Meeting process.
Plenty of details still need to be worked out, even if Belgrade gives its assent to the plan. Serbia does not recognise Kosovo documents or the state border between the two. It might mean that passengers entering Serbia via the new link would have to return by the same means or risk problems at the border.
Lufthansa appears to have beaten regional carrier Air Serbia to the punch. The government-controlled carrier has increased its connections across the former Yugoslavia in recent years but still lacks a Pristina route.
Serbia’s Minister for Finance, Siniša Mali, previously said that “our goal is to eventually fly twice daily to all cities in the region but before we do that we need to connect the last city in the former Yugoslavia that we do not fly to yet – Pristina.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]