Kosovo-Serbia status remains biggest challenge in Balkans – EU envoy

NATO soldiers serving in peacekeeping mission in Kosovo arrive for an Orthodox Christmas mass at a Serb Orthodox monastery in Decani, Kosovo, on 7 January 2016. [EPA/VALDRIN XHEMAJ]

Normalising relations between Kosovo and Serbia is “the most complicated process in the Balkans at the moment”, according to the head of the EU’s office in Pristina. But both sides need steady encouragement from the international community to reach a final solution and progress towards EU membership.

Kosovo, one of the six Western Balkan states hoping to join the bloc, has made a lot of progress towards earning all-important visa liberalisation, but still needs to work hard on fighting organised crime and corruption, Nataliya Apostolova, who is also the EU special representative in Kosovo, said in an interview with EURACTIV.

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but five EU countries, as well as Serbia and Russia, refuse to recognise it (Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia, Romania).

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Apostolova said non-recognition was a cause of concern in the country, which is the second biggest recipient of EU money per capita, after Gaza, and it resurfaces “every time we talk to the authorities”.

“They are a bit concerned because there are still five non-recognisers among member states, so in a way, they think ‘even if we progress quite well on the reform agenda, at the very end, we are going to be stopped again… because we have status neutral of five member states'”.

Relations between Kosovo and Serbia are the over-arching concern. An EU-sponsored dialogue has made some progress but Apostolova acknowledged it was “the most complicated process in the Balkans at the moment”.

“It is extremely vulnerable and sensitive because we know the history and the legacy behind it. But the dialogue is the only game in town because there is no other way the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo could happen.”

She said Serbia, which has been negotiating EU membership since 2014, had already launched an internal dialogue about the issue while Kosovo has yet to do it.

“They want to see the end game on both sides. I cannot say what form, and if recognition will be the end game, but if the two sides do not meet and discuss that, if they do not start to negotiate the package… we will never get to that point. So I think all sides, international partners and friends, who want to see this dialogue succeed, have to encourage it. Here is the real strength of the EU.”

After signing an association agreement with the EU in 2015, which gave Kosovo “a contractual relationship with the bloc”, the next benchmark is visa liberalisation, which has already been extended to the other five Western Balkan states.

“Visa liberalisation is very important for them, they want to travel and have access to different universities. Visa liberalisation is a symbol of equality with the others in the region. It is extremely hard for them at the moment, when there are five non-recognisers and they have still the dialogue with Serbia on the status on Kosovo, to find their identity. They want to know what their identity is, and visa liberalisation is part of it.”

One of the last obstacles was removed when Kosovo’s parliament ratified a demarcation deal with Montenegro in March but Apostolova emphasised the need to continue implementing the ‘European reform agenda’ for Kosovo, created in 2016.

“One of the main targets of the European reform agenda is the improvement of the rule of law. Part of the process of the rule of law is fighting corruption and organised crime. This is the last condition Kosovo has to meet in order to get visa liberalisation.”

“I wouldn’t say it is a condition per se, it is a process. What we want to see is the maintenance of a good and stable process, which shows that they are doing the right thing to fight corruption and organised crime,” she said.

Europe should not be afraid of being flooded by Kosovars once the visa liberalisation is in place, she said, because “Kosovars are very well aware that the visa-free regime does not allow them to work.”

However, many Kosovars have tried to migrate to the EU, some of them asking for asylum. the requests are usually turned down.

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Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe, with around 70% of people under 30, and eventually, she said, Europe could even see it as an opportunity.

“If you look at the ageing population in Europe and the lack of workforce, I think it is a good opportunity. You have young generations who all speak several languages, most of them because they have relatives abroad, who can adapt, who know what is Europe, and I think it might be an asset for Europe rather than a threat, if, of course, we invest and make this workforce adequate for the needs we have in Europe.”

She said there have been ethnic incidents in recent months involving Serbs and Albanians, which was “worrying, starting to look like tit for tat”.

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A Kosovo Serb leader was shot dead outside his party offices in Serb-run northern Kosovo on Tuesday (16 January), raising concerns of renewed tensions in the Western Balkans and prompting a Serbian delegation to cancel EU-sponsored talks with Kosovo in Brussels.

But, on a positive note, work on a statute to regulate the status of Serb municipalities in Kosovo has resumed after a long time and should be completed by August.

“If in this statute, the guarantees of the rights of Kosovo’s Serbs are well spelled out, if their worries about security, property rights, access to civil registry, documentation, justice, with the participation of Serbian judges as well, are addressed, this period of lack of trust will be overcome.”

“But no one says it will be easy and I think again that dialogue is the only solution in this process.”

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