Serbian president says Kosovo recognition must not be precondition for EU entry

By bne IntelliNews January 6, 2015

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Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic said on December 5 that the European Union must not make Belgrade's recognition of Kosovo  a precondition for Serbian accession to the bloc. The Kosovo issue is likely to be the main stumbling block to Serbia’s EU ambitions as the country has made good progress towards accession in other areas, particularly economic reform.

Nikolic said in an interview with Happy TV late on January 5 that while he was keen for Serbia to join the EU, giving up Kosovo must not be made a condition for accession to the bloc.

“My position is clear and absolutely unchanged - we should be in the EU, and join the Union proudly. My position is that giving up on Kosovo-Metohija must not be a condition for joining the Union," Nikolic said. Serbia “cannot [join the EU] without Kosovo-Metohija”, he added.

His statement follows a call in December 2014 for a referendum to be organised to allow the Serbian population to decide how far Belgrade should go to compromise with the EU over Kosovo, a former province of Serbia that has been independent since 2008.

Kosovo broke away from Serbia after a war of independence in 1998-1999, in which more than 10,000 died. The newly formed republic’s population is mostly ethnic Albanian, but many Serbs consider it to be an integral part of Serbia.

So far, Kosovo has been recognised by 108 countries worldwide. However, Russia, which holds a United Nations veto, has blocked Kosovo's entry to the UN. In 2014, the International Olympic Committee granted full recognition to Kosovo, paving the way for Kosovan athletes to compete in a national team in the Rio 2016 Olympics. The decision drew heavy criticism from the Serbian government.

Despite the deep divisions over Kosovo’s status, with the two countries aiming for EU membership, there is a strong incentive for both to work towards a peaceful solution. Under a 2013 deal brokered by the EU, the two countries agreed to work towards normalizing relations. Brussels has made integration with the EU and eventual accession for both Serbia and Kosovo contingent on this process.

However, there is some ambiguity over whether Brussels is looking to Belgrade to recognise Kosovo, or whether a softer option would be acceptable.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has also commented on the issue in an interview with Belgrade TV Prva on January 3, saying that "There are countless interpretations of the Brussels agreement, and difficult talks in difficult conditions are ahead of us.”

Nikolic claims that the new European Commission under Jean-Claude Juncker, which took office in 2014, is taking a tougher stance on Kosovo than its predecessor.

"Now they are not saying 'we do not demand that you recognise the independence of Kosovo-Metohija' - instead, they are saying what the German parliament said two years ago: 'to become an EU member, you will have to bring a signed agreement on good-neighbourly relations with Kosovo that will define all your relations,'" Nikolic told Happy TV, according to Tanjug.

Shortly after Johannes Hahn, the European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, made his first official visit to Serbia on November 20, Nikolic told broadcaster RTS that he had been told by Hahn that Serbia would not be welcomed into the EU until it had resolved the Kosovo issue.

Recently there has been somewhat shaky progress towards better relations between Belgrade and both Kosovo and Albania. Vucic and his Albanian counterpart Edi Rama met in Belgrade in November - the first visit by any Albanian leader to the Serbian capital for almost 70 years.

However, the visit first had to be postponed after a brawl at a football match between the two countries  in Belgrade sparked a diplomatic row. The two prime ministers also clashed at their joint press conference on November 10, when Rama raised the issue of Kosovo, sparking an angry response from Vucic.

Kosovo’s population of around 2mn includes a 100,000-strong Serb minority, which continues to look to Belgrade rather than Pristina for leadership. Despite efforts at normalisation, there are sporadic outbreaks of violence in the ethnically divided Kosovska Mitrovica area. Security has been stepped up in Serb areas of Kosovo this week as Serbs prepare to celebrate Orthodox Christmas on January 8.

Aside from the Kosovo issue, Serbia has made steady progress on its path towards EU accession in the last year. The accession negotiations process was formally launched in January 2014, and Belgrade hopes to open the first chapters of its EU accession talks this year.

In an October 2014 report, the European Commission commended Serbia’s progress towards accession, citing its economic reforms, the adoption of new laws on labour, privatisation and bankruptcy and progress in the fight against crime and corruption, although it also called for “new momentum” in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.

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