‘Historic’ Albanian visit to Serbia leaves bitter aftertaste

The first visit by an Albanian prime minister to Belgrade in 68 years was designed to mark a new phase in Serbian-Albanian relations, and send an important signal to the European Union on the readiness of the two countries to cooperate. But, in fact, it opened old wounds. EURACTIV Serbia reports.

From the very start of Edi Rama’s visit, it became clear that even with the good will expressed, and encouragement from the EU, it would not be easy for Belgrade and Tirana to put aside their differences regarding the status of Kosovo, and focus on the areas in which they can cooperate.

Rama’s visit was marked by a polemic on the independence of Kosovo and tensions brought on by it. But the two prime ministers nevertheless voiced readiness to develop cooperation, and Rama invited his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vu?i? to visit Tirana.

In Belgrade on 10 November, Rama said that Kosovo is an independent state and that this is a reality that cannot be changed, and should be accepted. His Serbian colleague described the statement as a provocation, and the Serbian government called it a diplomatic incident.

“We can speak of different approaches, but I don’t think anything should prevent us from speaking the truth,” Rama told a joint news conference, and said that an independent Kosovo had a positive impact on peace in the Balkans.

Vu?i? said he and the Albanian prime minister obviously had different opinions on the status of Kosovo, but that “the reality is that Kosovo is a part of Serbia,” adding that he was “pleased to be able to repeat that in front of Rama.”

“I am sorry that Rama took this opportunity to talk about a topic we had not agreed on, but it is my obligation not to let anyone humiliate Serbia,” Vu?i? told the press conference after the meeting with his Albanian counterpart.

Rama’s statement stirred the public in Serbia and in the Serb-populated north of Kosovo. The Serbian president’s press service said that this was the reason why President Tomislav Nikoli? refused to meet with Rama.

Matters were additionally complicated by the fact that in the live broadcast of the two prime ministers’ press conference on Serbian state TV RTS, there was no translation of the Albanian prime minister’s statement, made in Albanian. RTS explained that this happened due to technical problems, and announced that it would air the statement with a Serbian translation at a later time.

Cooperation important, after all

Nonetheless, Vu?i? and Rama showed readiness to continue with the talks and further improve relations between the two countries, and Rama invited Vu?i? to visit Tirana. Vu?i? said that, even though he was unhappy about the Albanian prime minister’s statement, Serbia would do everything to advance interstate relations.

The Albanian prime minister pointed out that Serbia and Albania should overcome the past and turn to the future, and that Europe can unite the two countries. He welcomed Belgrade’s dialogue with Pristina, adding that its success was the result of efforts by the two countries’ leaders. He added that Vu?i? had “greatly contributed” to the endeavor.

Vu?i? said he wanted Serbian investors to visit Albania and to increase trade, whereas Rama said that economic cooperation between Serbia and Albania and the entire region was very important.

The Serbian prime minister further said that he and Rama had agreed to make an agreement that would allow the citizens of Serbia and Albania to travel to each others’ countries with just their ID cards.

During the Albanian prime minister’s visit, a memorandum of understanding was signed on youth cooperation, as well as an agreement on mutual assistance in preventing, investigating and suppressing customs misdemeanors. The signing of an agreement on acknowledging diplomas was announced.

Belgrade dissatisfied, EU calls for cooperation

The EU underscored that the Albanian prime minister’s visit to Belgrade should lead to a turnabout in relations between Serbia and Albania and that the leaders of the two countries should demonstrate new resolve to renew ties. Brussels recalled that regional cooperation was very important as part of the Western Balkans’ European integration.

Edi Rama’s visit is an important step forward in the two countries’ relationship, officials in Brussels said. “We praise both leaders for their political courage in holding a visit that is by nature both challenging and delicate,” reads a news release issued by the spokeswoman of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini.

“We see this visit as a new phase in relations between the two countries and we hope that both leaders will continue to build upon that visit, so as to ensure further positive steps forward,” adds the press release.

Belgrade officials say the visit did not fulfill its purpose, because it “failed to bring a move forward” in the enhancement of relations between the two countries, and that Rama abused his hosts’ hospitality, while in Pristina the visit was hailed as a concrete step toward improving Serbian-Albanian relations.

Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci congratulated Rama for his position on the necessity of “recognizing the reality of an independent Kosovo,” for the support he gave the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade and the solidarity he expressed for Albanian compatriots in southern Serbia.

Minorities – bridge or source of tension?

On 11 November, Rama visited municipalities in southern Serbia inhabited by Albanians, and several thousand citizens welcomed him in Presevo. The visit passed with heavy security measures.

Rama said the Albanians in southern Serbia had fewer rights than the Serbs in Kosovo, but supported the dialogue between the Albanians in the region and the Serbian authorities on solving local problems, primarily in the areas of infrastructure and education.

“Albania will back the idea of solving the problems in the Presevo Valley being essential on the path of Serbia’s association with the EU and will not allow the assimilation of Albanians in that region,” said Rama.

Commenting on the statement that the Albanians in the south of Serbia had fewer rights than the Serbs in Kosovo, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Da?i? said that such messages were “nonsense” and that Rama was not competent to speak about that subject, without mentioning the position of the Serbs in Albania who, as he put it, have been “Albanized.”

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s visit is the first official top-level visit since the visit of Albanian leader Enver Hoxha to the former Yugoslavia in 1946, which was followed by a brief period of developing relations. However, in 1948, after the distancing of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from the Soviet Union, the relations were suspended.

Only in 1971 were the missions upgraded to the level of embassies, while ten years later Albania supported the separatist tendencies of the Kosovo Albanians and their protests.

During the NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, diplomatic relations were suspended again, only to be re-established after the collapse of Slobodan Miloševi? and the change of government in Serbia in 2000.

The relations were once again interrupted after Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, while in 2010 Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ilir Meta visited Belgrade.

Rama was to pay an official visit to Belgrade on 22 October, but after the incident at the Serbia-Albania football match, it was decided to postpone the visit until 10 November.

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