Kosovo PM: ‘There Is No Other Solution Than Mutual Recognition’
As two days of talks between Serbia and Kosovo begin at the White House, Kosovo’s prime minister says Serbia’s got to finally recognize his country—or risk both their futures in the EU.
The leaders of Serbia and Kosovo are meeting at the White House for two days of talks starting Thursday in a bid to improve economic cooperation between the unreconciled neighbors—a key moment as both try to put the ghosts of the Balkan war behind them and look toward a joint future inside the European Union.
The Trump administration is hopeful that job creation and economic development between the feuding countries—both formerly part of Yugoslavia—can pave the way for peace. “We’re going to flip the script” by focusing on economic ties first, and political issues later, an advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters in a call Tuesday.
But it’s still unclear whether Belgrade will budge on the fundamental issue of recognizing the independence of Kosovo, which was its former province that for historic reasons looms large in Serbian national identity. Following a bitter war in the 1990s, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, and over 100 countries have since recognized it—though not some important players in the Balkans, such as Russia and China.
The stakes are high for both parties to reach an agreement: Normalization of ties is a key precondition for them to join the EU, something both Pristina and Belgrade have said is a top priority. Kosovo is not yet an official candidate to join the bloc while Serbia has already begun accession talks but still has a long road ahead.
On the eve of the talks, Foreign Policy spoke with Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti about his hopes for the two-day meeting. What follows has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Foreign Policy: What are your aspirations for these talks at the White House with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic? What are you hoping that will come of this?
Avdullah Hoti: We have been talking with Serbia for almost a decade. We declared our independence back in 2008, and then Serbia asked for an opinion from the International Court of Justice whether our Declaration of Independence violated any international law. In July 2010, the International Court of Justice decided that this declaration did not violate international law. A year later, in 2011, we started our discussions in Brussels about various issues to normalize relations between the two countries. And we reached a number of agreements, more than 30 agreements. Most of them have not been implemented. Why? Because we just couldn’t address the main issue, which is mutual recognition between the two countries.
This time in Washington, we have a strong agenda on improving and strengthening economic cooperation between the two countries, developing large-scale infrastructure projects that would make our two economies more connected to each other and to the region, and beyond the region as well. Of course, the main issue remains a final settlement, a peace agreement between the two countries that will solve once and forever the open issue between the two countries, which is mutual recognition, because it seems that without addressing this main issue, we just cannot achieve a full normalization between the two countries.
FP: Are you optimistic that President Vucic would agree to those terms? In an interview with us earlier this year he said that most Serbs would prefer a frozen conflict with Kosovo to continue.
AH: It’s hard to say because President Vucic keeps saying that he is not going to accept an agreement that includes mutual recognition. The reality is that there is no other solution than mutual recognition between the two countries. But I think that the good thing is that now we see strong commitment by key countries such as the U.S., Germany, France, and some other EU countries on engaging very, very actively to reach a final agreement.
FP: What needs to be done to break the stalemate?
AH: Well, I think it should be made very clear to Serbia that the only way to progress on EU integration and Euro-Atlantic integration is reaching a final agreement with Kosovo. We are trying to be very constructive. But again, Serbia is playing with both cards. Just before coming here and before other meetings in Brussels, President Vucic visits Moscow and meets other countries, kind of, as I said, playing with both cards.
FP: Are you concerned that Belgrade’s increasingly close relationship with China and the very close relationship with Moscow could undermine the influence that Western powers have over Serbia to help bring it to the negotiating table on key issues?
AH: I believe that the only solution for the whole region, including Serbia, is EU integration. It’s a pity to see the Serbian leadership turn to the east from time to time, strengthening economic ties with the east or even entering into some agreements to buy and sell military weapons. But there is no doubt that the whole region has an EU perspective. And as soon as Serbia realizes this, the better for the whole region. As far as we are concerned as a country, we see no other alternative than Euro-Atlantic integration. When I started my job as prime minister [this June], we removed all obstacles as they were seen by the international community. And now we are actually asking for some concrete results.
FP: The U.S. special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo negotiations, Ric Grenell, has said that these talks on Friday will mainly focus on economic cooperation. Are you optimistic that greater economic ties can lead to an improvement in political relations?
AH: I hope so. I firmly believe that by engaging in a dialogue on economic cooperation and starting large-scale projects, I think we would strengthen the economy, and cooperation between the two countries. I see this as a complementary, supportive action toward the final agreement.
FP: There’s speculation that the White House is keen for a deal between Serbia and Kosovo to bolster President Trump’s reputation as a deal-maker. Are you concerned Kosovo could be pressured into a deal that might be unfavorable?
AH: There is no pressure at all whatsoever. We were asked to come to Washington to sit together to reach an agreement on economic cooperation between the countries concentrated on, as I said before, some large-scale infrastructure projects that will strengthen the economic cooperation between the two countries and that it would integrate the region in terms of economic cooperation. But there is no pressure whatsoever.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack