Tensions flare at Serbia-Kosovo meeting in Brussels

Hard to manage: Isa Mustafa, with Federica Mogherini. [European External Action/Flickr]

Serbian and Kosovar leaders agreed to continue talks after a tense meeting in Brussels on Tuesday (24 January), which only succeeded in further antagonising the two sides. EURACTIV Serbia reports.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said normalising relations between Serbia and Kosvo was vital for the two countries, but her guests seemed unwilling to make any concessions.

On the contrary. Tensions escalated before the meeting when Serbia attempted to send a passenger train emblazoned with the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” in several languages to the Serb enclave of northern Kosovo.

Pristina regarded it as a provocation and sent its ROSU special police forces to the north, forcing Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić to stop the controversial train from entering Kosovo.

Vučić’s decision halted the escalation, but tensions remained. Belgrade accused Pristina of jeopardising the safety of Kosovo Serbs by sending its security forces to the north, while Pristina stuck to its accusations that sending the controversial train had been a provocation to which the Kosovo authorities had to respond.

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić added fuel to the fire by saying Serbia would deploy its army in Kosovo if the local Serbs were endangered, triggering heated reactions in Kosovo.

This tense background explains why the meeting in Brussels, attended by Presidents Nikolić and Hashim Thaçi, and Prime Ministers Vučić and Isa Mustafa, was considered so important.

Kosovo leader hopeful ahead of talks with Serbia

Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaçi said Tuesday (24 January) that he hoped for long-awaited recognition from former foe Serbia as he left for a meeting in Brussels with Belgrade’s top leaders.

Diplomacy

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić said that the two sides had agreed to try and “cool things down”, adding that “certain things have been achieved through difficult and open talks on issues which Belgrade and Pristina to a great extent approach from completely opposite positions”.

“We have agreed to continue a series of high-level talks in the coming period… and that we will all try… to ‘cool things down’ and act responsibly,” said Vučić. He added that the meeting had been important because an agreement had been reached on essential matters – that peace and stability were absolutely of the highest interest to all.

Federica Mogherini underscored after the meeting in Brussels that the two sides had agreed to continue their dialogue on the normalisation of relations and intensify top-level meetings in the coming days.

“They discussed the developments over the past days, agreed to leave tensions behind and focus on the work ahead,” Mogherini said in a statement.

But such measured diplomatic statements do not fully reflect the actual state of affairs. It became evident very quickly that the problems had not been solved and that serious clarifications at the new top-level meetings were yet to come.

A turn for the worse

The Serbian president, who took part in the dialogue for the first time after nearly four years, took a tougher stance than Vučić.

Addressing reporters in Brussels after a separate meeting of the Serbian delegation with Mogherini, Nikolić said that the problem for Serbia was Kosovo’s insistence on independence and the EU’s so-called ‘neutral’ position.

Nikolić told the Serbian Broadcasting Corporation that “hardly anything can be agreed” in talks with Kosovo’s leaders in Brussels, and that the first issue that ought to have been agreed on at the meeting was attitude, in the event that a case similar to the Belgrade-Kosovska Mitrovica train incident happened again.

Serbia says Kosovo wants war in row over nationalist train

Serbia’s president said yesterday (15 January) that Kosovo had shown it wanted war with after it deployed special forces to prevent a train painted with Serbia’s national colours and the words “Kosovo is Serbia” from entering its territory.

“That is what I told the EU high representative: What exactly do you think we can agree on with them, when they come here as the representatives of a so-called independent state, when they have the support of all of you? She said they did not have the support of all of the EU,” said Nikolić, adding that it all boiled down to Serbia taking on new obligations, whereas Pristina did not have to fulfill those it had accepted.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi stated that the meeting in Brussels represented “the opening of the last chapter” in talks with Belgrade, which would result in mutual recognition. The meeting had not been easy, he added, saying discussions would continue at a high level.

Prime Minister Isa Mustafa said the Kosovo side had called for respect for the territory of Kosovo and for Serbia to cease provocations.

Serbia counts on Trump over Kosovo

Serbia’s president criticised the outgoing US administration yesterday (17 January), voicing hope that President-elect Donald Trump would be more favourable towards Belgrade over the thorny issue of Kosovo.

Aside from the controversial train, Pristina also reproached Belgrade for beginning construction of a wall on the Ibar River in the divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica. Serbia was also slated for arresting Ramush Haradinaj, a former Hague Tribunal indictee and president of the opposition Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, in France on 4 January.

The next day

The day after the meeting in Brussels, Mogherini, obviously dissatisfied with the inflammatory statements, berated her guests for not abiding by an agreement not to reveal the content of their discussions to the public.

“We regret that not everyone adhered to that and urge them to show restraint and build progress on the agreements reached,” said her spokesperson, Maja Kocijancic.

Meanwhile, on 25 January, Kosovo’s president accused Belgrade of arming Serbs in the north as part of a plan to partition it. In an interview with Deutsche Welle’s Albanian service, Thaçi said the Kosovo government had information that there had been weapons and members of paramilitary formations on the so-called Russian train, who were to enter Kosovo and destabilise it.

“We know about the Serbian plan for dividing Kosovo and we also know that Serbia is arming the Serbs in northern Kosovo,” said Thaçi, adding that there was evidence that Serbia was using the hybrid warfare model Russia had applied in Ukraine.

Thaçi called on Kosovo Serbs not to fall under the influence and become victims of Belgrade’s nationalistic policy, which had already “caused the Serbs great pain in the past”.

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