Albanian and Serbian PMs clash at historic Belgrade meeting

By bne IntelliNews November 11, 2014

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Hopes that Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s visit to Belgrade on November 10 would herald a new era of better relations between Albania and Serbia were dashed when Rama clashed with his Serbian counterpart Aleksander Vucic at a joint press conference.

Rama’s visit - the first by any Albanian leader to the Serbian capital for almost 70 years - appeared to go well, until Rama brought up the issue of Kosovo.

“As for Kosovo, we have two completely different views, but the reality is one and invariable,” Rama said. “Independent Kosovo, recognized so far by 108 different countries across the world and supported by the International Court of Justice, is an undeniable and inalienable regional and European reality.”

Kosovo was formerly a region of Serbia and has a largely ethnic Albanian population. Serbia is adamant that it will not recognise Kosovan independence. Rama’s words sparked an angry response from Vucic, who said he “did not expect this provocation".'

"What does Albania have to do with Kosovo? Kosovo is not part of Albania and it will never be,” Vucic said, according to the BBC, adding that Serbia “won’t be humiliated in the heart of Belgrade".

Rama hit back, saying that the sooner Kosovo is recognised "the faster we can move on”.

While relations between Serbia and Albania worsened during  Kosovo’s battle for independence from Serbia in the late 1990s, there is a long history of conflict between the two countries. The last visit of an Albanian leader to Belgrade was Enver Hoxha’s visit to Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito back in 1946.

Up until the press conference, both sides seemed keen to improve relations. This is at least partly motivated by both countries’ progress towards EU membership, which has provided a fresh impetus for peacemaking in the Balkans. For Serbia, normalisation of relations with Kosovo is one of the key conditions for entry to the bloc.

Vucic told the press conference that his one-on-one meeting with Rama had lasted longer than planned, and that he believed that the “problems the two sides shared could be solved."

“This visit marks a new beginning and I hope the pragmatic relations between Serbia and Albania will be focused on improving not only our mutual political and economic relations, but on making relations across the region better,” Vucic said.

Rama also took a positive stance in his address. “Our future depends a lot on what we can do together on the road to joining Europe, a road that will be even more difficult for each of us in the Balkans if we take it separately... The vision of the United Europe has finally gathered us together on the road of peace among us,” he said. Rama also extended an invitation to Vucic to visit Tirana in 2015.

While improving diplomatic relations in the Balkan region was naturally the main focus of the meeting, economic cooperation was also on the agenda.

“We want Serbian investors to visit Albania, not only related to the energy sector but also to other fields of mutual interest,” Vucic said. He proposed that the two countries jointly present major infrastructure projects such as the Belgrade-Tirana railway to the EU to increase their chances of securing funding.

Rama and Vucic had originally been scheduled to meet on October 22. However, on October 14 a brawl at the Euro 2016 football championships between the two countries held in Belgrade sparked a diplomatic row.

The match was interrupted when a drone carrying an amended version of the Albanian flag was flown into the stadium. The flag showed a map of “Greater Albania”, drawn to include parts of Greece, Macedonia and Serbia. Fighting broke out on the pitch when Albanian players tried to defend the flag from their opponents, and the match was abandoned. Further complicating the issue, Rama’s brother, Olsi Rama, has been accused by Serbian officials of being responsible for sending the drone into the stadium, though he has denied the charge.

The violence on the pitch on October 14 was followed by a series of attacks on ethnic Albanian targets within Serbia in the following days.

However, rather than cancelling the visit after the football match, Rama and Vucic discussed the visit on October 19, agreeing to postpone it until tensions had eased, rather than cancelling. The two prime ministers said at the time that “they must not and will not miss the opportunity to meet and work on maintaining regional stability,” according to a statement on the Serbian government website. The government also referred to it as “turning a new page” in the Balkans.

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