For former foes Serbia and Kosovo, disagreements extend to Israel as well

After Belgrade and Pristina announce upgrade in relations with each other, and Jerusalem, Serbian leader is quick to say he did not approve of Israel recognizing Kosovo

A father holds his son waving Kosovo's flag as they celebrate the 12th anniversary of the country's independence, in the capital Pristina, Monday, Feb. 17, 2020 (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
A father holds his son waving Kosovo's flag as they celebrate the 12th anniversary of the country's independence, in the capital Pristina, Monday, Feb. 17, 2020 (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

A White House summit intended to improve tense relations between eastern European nations Serbia and Kosovo Friday included a surprise addendum, with both countries announcing they would upgrade their relations with Israel — to much fanfare from the Trump administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Serbia announced it would move its embassy to Jerusalem, the first European nation to do so, while Muslim-majority Kosovo, which unilaterally broke off from Serbia in 2008 and declared independence, said it would establish relations with Israel and also open a Jerusalem embassy. The states had not previously recognized each other.

Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, though it moved to normalize economic relations with its smaller neighbor Friday, as Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti agreed to cooperate on a range of financial fronts to attract investment and create jobs.

But soon afterwards the Serbian leader made clear he had not been particularly happy with Jerusalem and Pristina formalizing ties. The president’s official website said there had been “a big fight” with Washington over the US desire that Israel and Kosovo recognize each other.

“They thought we should call on Israel to recognize Kosovo, and we said we couldn’t because it undermines our policy,” Vucic was quoted by the website as saying. “We said that if Israel and Pristina agree on that — fine. We also told Israel that if they respect Serbia, then our country will move the embassy to Jerusalem.”

The statement underscored the complicated relations between the two states. Kosovo is only partially recognized as sovereign around the world. Kosovo’s parliament declared independence from Serbia in 2008, nine years after NATO conducted a 78-day airstrike campaign against Serbia to stop a bloody crackdown against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

About 100 countries, including most Western nations, have recognized Kosovo’s independence, but Serbia and its allies Russia and China have not. The ongoing deadlock and Serbia’s unwillingness to recognize Kosovo have kept tensions simmering and prevented full stabilization of the Balkan region after the bloody wars in the 1990s.

Serbia and Kosovo’s leaders both declared satisfaction with Friday’s talks, though they stressed the sides were not moving to recognize each other.

Kosovo did agree to a one-year pause in efforts seeking new membership in international organizations. And Serbia agreed to a one-year pause of any campaign against Kosovo’s efforts for membership into international organizations and new recognition from other countries.

US President Donald Trump watches as Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti (R) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (L) sign an agreement on opening economic relations, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on September 4, 2020. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

The EU has mediated the talks between the two former wartime foes for more than a decade, and the parallel US effort, although focused on economic development, has not been fully embraced by some EU officials.

The countries’ decisions to establish embassies in Jerusalem were a nod to both Israel and the United States. The Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in late 2017 and moved the US embassy there in May 2018.

The administration has encouraged other countries to do the same but has been widely criticized by the Palestinians and many in Europe because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved.

The gestures to Israel are part of the Trump administration’s push to improve the Jewish state’s international standing, which has included forceful denunciations of criticism of Israel at the United Nations and in other international venues. Most recently, the administration brokered a deal for Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations. That was followed by the first passenger commercial flight between Israel and the UAE, with neighboring Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to allow such flights to pass through their airspace. Additional Arab states, including Sudan, Bahrain and Oman, have been identified as countries that may soon also normalize relations with Israel.

Serbia and Kosovo have already okayed air, rail and transit agreements, including one that would clear the way for the first flight between Pristina and Belgrade in 21 years. The new agreement comprises many more areas of economic cooperation. Business leaders in both nations have been frustrated and have been talking among themselves about ways to foster investment outside of the ongoing political talks brokered by the European Union.

File: A Kosovar woman climbs a hill after receiving blankets at a NATO-run refugee camp near Skopje’s Stenkovec sports aviation airport, Wednesday, April 7, 1999. Following NATO airstrikes Serb forces expelled tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their Kosovo province, creating the greatest migration of refugees in Europe since World War II. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

On Monday, Vucic and Hoti are scheduled to go to Brussels to hold talks under the auspices of the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and special envoy for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue Miroslav Lajcak.

Serbs view Kosovo as their national heartland and trace their presence to hundreds of medieval Serbian Orthodox Church monasteries dotting the province. The majority Albanian Kosovars insist they are Kosovo’s oldest inhabitants. First granted and then stripped of self-governance within Serbia and the former Yugoslavia, ethnic Albanians claimed they were oppressed by the Serbian state before their fighters launched a rebellion in 1998.

Serbia, led at the time by nationalist strongman Slobodan Milosevic, responded with a brutal crackdown that triggered NATO intervention in 1999.

In June an international prosecutor indicted Kosovo’s president and nine other former rebel fighters with war crimes and crimes against humanity during and after a 1998-99 armed conflict.

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