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Europe

Serbia and Kosovo presidents hold rare talks

EU-mediated talks dubbed "open and constructive" as two countries try to mend strained ties over future of Kosovo.
Last Modified: 07 Feb 2013 01:54
The Kosovo leader said the talks were "the expression of our interest for good neighbourly relations" [Reuters]

The presidents of Serbia and Kosovo have met for the first time in talks mediated by the European Union in Brussels to mend their strained ties.

Wednesday's meeting was characterised as "open and constructive", by Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, after separate meetings with Tomislav Nikolic, the Serbian president, and his Kosovo counterpart Atifete Jahjaga.

Both "assured me of their continued support and commitment" to EU-sponsored talks aimed at normalising ties since Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

"I reaffirmed the European perspective for both Serbia and Kosovo and encouraged both sides to continue with the efforts needed for further progress towards the European Union," Ashton said in a statement.

Though no concrete announcements were made, this first top-level meeting marked a significant step in two years of EU efforts to ease tension in the Western Balkans.

The EU is pressing both sides to mend ties, before the bloc moves ahead with Serbia's bid to join.

"The handshake will be highly symbolic, very important," said an EU diplomat who asked not to be named.

The meeting comes nearly 14 years after the end of the 1998-1999 conflict between Belgrade and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian separatist guerrillas.

Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after NATO launched air strikes against Serbian military and police forces accused of trying to purge Kosovo of ethnic Albanians to put down the uprising.

Easing border controls

Belgrade refuses to recognise Kosovo's sovereignty, which is backed by over 90 countries including the United States and most EU members.

President Nikolic said there was no question of Belgrade "recognising an independent Kosovo", and that he favoured "a wide institutional autonomy" for ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo.

"If Pristina's position stays firm, that they are an independent state, then we will hardly reach an agreement," he told reporters.

The Kosovo leader, a former police commander elected to office in 2011, said that the talks were "the expression of our interest for good neighbourly relations. Our countries benefited, but the whole region as well".

The prime ministers of the two countries, who hold executive powers, have already met four times in Brussels since October, with Ashton as mediator.

Their next talks are slated for February 22.

The EU-brokered dialogue between the former foes has focused on easing difficulties for people on both sides by easing border and customs' controls or mutually recognising each others' university diplomas.

But at stake for Serbia in the longterm are hopes of joining the EU.

Shortly both sides will post so-called "liaison officers" in their respective capitals to boost communication, a key development.

The most sensitive and complex issue is Belgrade's hope for some autonomy for the Serbs of northern Kosovo, as well as for 80,000 others in enclaves scattered throughout Kosovo.

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