Serbia-Kosovo dispute: Stalled talks set to resume in Brussels but what's at stake?

Talks to ease tensions between Kosovo and Serbia will resume on Sunday, the EU has announced.

Kosovo’s prime minister, Avdullah Hoti and the president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić are set to travel to Brussels for a “high-level meeting of the EU-facilitated dialogue” on Sunday.

Ahead of the meeting, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hold a videoconference summit on Friday with Vučić and Hoti, as well as EU foreign affairs and policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles and EU special envoy Miroslav Lajčak.

The goal is an agreement between the former Yugoslav territories which are still at odds over 20 years after they were at the centre of one of Europe’s most violent conflicts, which killed more than 13,000 people.

In short: Serbia considers Kosovo part of its territory, while Kosovo considers itself an independent state.

Read more: A history of tension: Serbia-Kosovo relations explained

The dialogue, which originally started in 2011, ground to a halt in November 2018 after Kosovo imposed a 100 per cent tariff on imports from Serbia and Bosnia. These measures have now been eased after pressure from the US and the EU.

Kosovo cited action by Belgrade to scupper its efforts to join Interpol, and moves encouraging countries to cease recognition of the territory, as its motivation for the tariffs.

How likely are the talks to see any progress?

In the short term, not very likely, according to Naim Rashiti, Founder & Executive Director of the Balkans Policy Research Group.

“Nobody expects any major breakthroughs,” he told Dailyrater, although envoys will be pushing for a deal in the next 12 months if certain key issues can be surmounted.

What could prove to be stumbling blocks?

Rashiti considers president Hashim Thaçi’s indictment on war crimes charges as Kosovo’s main stumbling block in talks, which he says has left the country handicapped as it is not politically ready for dialogue.

The president has denied responsibility for war crimes, but on Wednesday said that he would go to a special chamber The Hague to be questioned by prosecutors.

This also means that Serbia, with President Aleksandar Vučić feeling “extremely powerful” after declaring a landslide victory in June’s elections, will likely expect Kosovo to be more willing to compromise, which may not be the case.

For Serbia, the talks will be a real acid test of Vučić’s intensions, according to Rashiti. “Will he (Vučić) make a deal to move rapidly towards the EU, or will he use it to further consolidate power and undermine the rule of law with governance?” he said.

What role are the EU and US playing in all this?

Both Serbia and Kosovo aspire to EU membership; Serbia as a candidate country and Kosovo as a potential candidate. The EU insists that Serbia must normalise its relations with Kosovo before joining.

The EU’s ability to “provide both sides with a promise” could also swing the balance during discussions, according to Rashiti.

He says the EU “is trying hard to ease the deadlock and to resolve conflicts of the past” so that the countries are prepared to economically integrate into the bloc, but admitted this is “very challenging — the Western Balkans is not Sweden or Norway”.

The Trump administration has recently moved to encourage a swift compromise between Pristina and Belgrade, which clashes with the EU’s slow-burn approach.

However, US efforts were held up upon the announcement of charges against Thaçi. He was travelling to Washington for a White House meeting with Vučić which was organized by US presidential envoy Richard Grenell at the time.

The divide between the US and the EU on their approaches has at least served to reengage Germany and France in the western Balkans, according to Rashiti.

While there have rarely been so many parties embroiled in helping to solve the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, several facets must fall into place for an agreement to be reached.

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