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Serbia-Kosovo dispute: Leaders head to Washington for talks but what's at stake?

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Serbia-Kosovo dispute: Leaders head to Washington for talks but what's at stake?
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Leaders from Kosovo and Serbia will head to Washington this week for a meeting organised by the US president’s special envoy for Belgrade-Priština dialogue, Richard Grenell.

Talks between Kosovo's prime minister, Avdullah Hoti and the president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić resumed in Brussels when they met for a "high-level meeting of the EU-facilitated dialogue" in July.

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 that 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 meeting will focus on "major economic cooperation projects that will change the economic perspective of Kosovo and the region," Hoti wrote on Facebook.

His post implied Grenell’s plan from June 2020 to divide talks between the countries into two phases - first, an economic dialogue facilitated by the US, followed by a second round of politically focused talks facilitated by the EU - could be going ahead.

"Serbia is not in a position to reject the talks. We will take part in them, and in topics focused o

n the economy. This is important to us, and these are good topics," Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told Serbian privately-owned Pink television channel on Friday.

Hoti has stated “reaching an agreement on mutual recognition, without jeopardising the territorial integrity of Kosovo" was the only subject he will discuss with Serbian officials.

But Vučić has warned should the US demand mutual recognition, he would refuse to meet with US President Donald Trump.

If this happens, he told Pink he would be "the first Serbian president to be offered a bilateral meeting with a US president and the first Serbian president to refuse it”.

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 Euronews, 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 meeting in the US was initially planned for June 27 but was pushed back after The Hague's a Specialist Prosecutor’s Office announced it had filed a draft indictment against Thaçi. The president has denied responsibility for war crimes.

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.

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.