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Serbia, Kosovo kick off historic talks

2011-03-08 15:21

Brussels - Serbia and Kosovo kick off ground-breaking talks in Brussels on Tuesday, the first of their kind since Pristina unilaterally declared independence three years ago.

In an initial stage, the "historic" EU-brokered talks, starting late in the day and winding up on Wednesday, will touch on nuts-and-bolts issues such as border crossings, trade and personal documentation.

The larger picture of mutual recognition or official apologies will remain strictly off the table.

But these first face-to-face discussions bring both sides inching closer to Europe, with Serbia notably clearing a crucial hurdle last year in its bid to join the European Union as a reward for its softened stance on Kosovo.

For Pristina, whose leadership stands accused of harvesting organs from former Serbian prisoners, participation is diplomatically vital to rehabilitating the image of newly-re-elected Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci.

"This is an opportunity for a historic reconciliation between Serbs and [Kosovo] Albanians and neither Belgrade nor Pristina should pass it up," Goran Bogdanovic, Serbia's minister for Kosovo, said last week.

Tension

But the chasm between the two sides remains wide.

Kosovar Albanians are bitter over Belgrade's refusal to apologise for the deaths of Albanians prior to the 1999 Nato intervention. Belgrade is adamant that recognition of its former territory as independent is a bridge too far.

"For us Kosovo is Serbia," chief negotiator Borko Stefanovic told AFP this week, though Kosovo's self-proclaimed sovereignty has been recognised by 75 nations, including the United States and a majority of EU countries.

A recent Council of Europe report linking Thaci to a crime ring involved in organ harvesting and heroin smuggling in the late 1990s has added tension between the two capitals.

Serbia has urged the United Nations to launch an independent probe into the claims. Thaci denies the claims.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in press interviews on Monday that she hoped the talks would help bring both Pristina and Belgrade closer to the EU.

"I want the dialogue to help in removing obstacles to free movement of property and goods," she told Kosovo's Koha Ditore daily.

New perspectives

Kosovo's chief negotiator, Deputy Prime Minister Edita Tahiri, said she hoped the talks would open new perspectives.

"It is time not to forget history but to rise above it and look ahead," she told AFP in an interview last week.

But in Pristina there is limited enthusiasm for the talks.

In parliament, where Thaci's ruling coalition has a slight majority of 61 out of 120 seats, the opposition called for a special session to determine the topics of the dialogue with Belgrade.

Tahiri said Kosovo had set out "red lines" not be crossed. "It is clearly a dialogue in the framework of technical issues because the status issue [independence] is a closed chapter," she insisted.

But Serbia says dialogue will eventually have to deal with independence.

"We will go into all questions and try to resolve them regardless of what they are called," Stefanovic told the Blic daily on Monday.

Kosovo declared independence after nearly a decade under UN administration following the ouster of Serbian troops loyal to then president Slobodan Milosevic in the wake of the 1998-99 war.