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Will Pristina and Belgrade be able to break the impasse to normalising relations?

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Will Pristina and Belgrade be able to break the impasse to normalising relations?
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Eleven years since Kosovo declared itself independent from Serbia, Belgrade still refuses to recognise the move after the former province broke away in 2008 following a war between Serbian government forces and Kosovar separatists in 1998-99.

Serbia continues to view Kosovo as its own territory despite a majority of European Union countries and the US recognising it as a sovereign nation.

Both countries entered mediation talks in 2011 to normalise their relations, a prerequisite for either to join the EU.

Thanks to these talks, the two neighbours have been able to resolve some of the technical issues such as border management and proper identification for Kosovo's Serb community. The talks gave way to the 2013 Brussels agreement, which was aimed at the integration of the Serb majority in northern Kosovo. But disagreements still block normalising relations and no major breakthrough has been made since 2015.

A series of setbacks in the last couple of years have seen talks break down, starting with the murder of the ethnic-Serb politician Oliver Ivanović in January 2018. At the end of that year, Kosovo raised customs duties on imports from Serbia to 100% after Belgrade blocked Kosovo's bid to join Interpol. In addition to this, Kosovo decided to upgrade its security force into an army, which Serbia sees as a potential threat that could trigger a military response from Belgrade.

But on April 29th, Kosovar and Serbian presidents, Hashim Thaçi and Aleksandar Vučić, will sit at the negotiating table in a meeting organised by France and Germany since talks were suspended in 2015 to try and find concrete solutions to their impasse.

Euronews spoke to Ruairi O'Connell, Britain's Ambassador to Kosovo, about the key issues, the problems regarding the Kosovar Serb community and why a border change might not help solve the issue.

What major disagreements impede normalising Serbian-Kosovar relations?

Kosovo's status

One of the major points of tension is Kosovo's status and Serbia's strong opposition to Pristina's international integration, said O'Connell, this hasn't changed much in the last 11 years.

Kosovo's Serb minority

Another stumbling block is Kosovo's Serb minority. Around one in 12 Kosovars is an ethnic Serb and nearly all of them are concentrated in the north. But despite efforts to integrate this community, Pristina still struggles to control the region. In 2013 and 2015, the Kosovar government agreed to establish an association of Serb-majority municipalities but the deadlock remains.

O'Connell believes there are two reasons why the Serb community still isn't fully integrated: The first is the lack of a comprehensive agreement between Belgrade and Pristina that impedes coming to terms with the past and blocks reconciliation between communities.

"There needs to be a big conversation that needs to be had, probably in the context of these talks about the past and dealing with the difficult legacy that has generated.

"There is a degree of truth-telling and degree of justice that is needed for everyone to move forward," he said.

The second thing missing is a proper rule of law to make sure that the state delivers not just to the people who have access to power but the less powerful, including minority communities, according to O'Connell.

"It's about how they're organised, how they're represented."

Would changing the border help the impasse?

In 2018, the Kosovar and Serbian presidents toyed with the idea of moving the border in northern Kosovo — an idea that received foreign and national backlash. On the one hand, the proposal was heavily criticised by Germany who feared that any border change would flare up conflict in the region by calling into question other western Balkan borders. On the other hand, there was strong domestic opposition in Kosovo and Serbia.

O'Connell agrees that a border change would not necessarily bring an end to tensions.

"There's a number of deep traumas that came out of the wars and moving borders isn’t really going to address those between two countries that are going to remain neighbours and should be aiming for a future that isn’t just antagonism over a new border but an actual partnership and in the future, friendship," said the ambassador.

O'Connell emphasised that to get somewhere, both countries needed to adopt a "more transparent approach" to achieve any sort of agreement.

What does each side want?

For Kosovo, it's gaining the status that allows it full international integration.

A majority of EU member states recognise Kosovo as a sovereign state but blockages remain because two of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and Russia, do not recognise Kosovo's independence, pointed out O'Connell.

On the other hand, Serbia wants to ensure the rights of Kosovo's Serbs and their ongoing protection.

What can we expect from the April 29 talks?

O'Connell doesn't expect a big breakthrough in negotiations but he hopes that sides use this opportunity to "reset".

"There’s been a period of tension and that doesn’t help anybody, it increases worries and concerns for most people in the region, hurts investors, and holds the region back.

What we really need the leaders to do is to focus on the fact that both need a full comprehensive deal and they both know that. There’s momentum in the region, let’s use that. We don’t need a quick deal, we need the right deal and that needs both sides to come prepared and to talk to their people and get ready to sit down at the table seriously. Maybe not in Berlin at this time but very soon after."