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US envoy urges Kosovo and Serbia to take tough decisions to restart talks on normalizing ties

By FLORENT BAJRAMI and LLAZAR SEMINI, FLORENT BAJRAMI and LLAZAR SEMINI, Associated Press
Published: March 13, 2024, 8:01am

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — A senior U.S. official on Wednesday reassured top officials in Kosovo that the burdens of normalizing relations with longtime rival Serbia would be borne by both sides.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar met with officials in Kosovo in the latest American effort to restart talks on normalizing ties between Kosovo and Serbia, after Kosovo made a controversial decision to ban ethnic Serbs in its territory from using the Serbian dinar.

The central bank’s ban sparked new tensions and threatened to cause chaos in Serbian-speaking areas, where the dinar is widely used to pay pensions and salaries to staff in Serbian-run institutions including schools and hospitals, fueling Western concerns about regional tensions as a full-scale war rages in Ukraine.

Escobar has acknowledged that Washington and Brussels were struggling to get Pristina-Belgrade dialogue “back on track.”

Brussels has warned both that refusal to compromise jeopardizes Serbia and Kosovo’s chances of joining the bloc, which is mediating a dialogue between the former foes. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s 2008 independence.

“Both sides need to move forward on the implementation of a historic normalization agreement,” said Escobar, assuring Kosovo “it is not a unilateral effort to get Kosovo only to make the tough decisions that are required to make the dialogue and law and agreement a reality.”

Kosovo has postponed implementation of the ban on the dinar by several months in response to international concerns. The rule would ban banks and other financial institutions in ethnic Serbian-dominated areas, especially in Kosovo’s north, from using the dinar in local transactions, and require them to use the euro, which is Kosovo’s official currency.

Escobar also praised the “difficult but necessary” decision to recognize the land rights of a 14th century monastery associated with the Serbian minority on Wednesday.

The Visoki Decani Monastery, listed as an endangered World Heritage site, has been fighting for formal title to lands around its buildings for nearly a decade.

In 2016, Kosovo’s top court ruled that the monastery, located some 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of the capital, Pristina, is the rightful owner of the land, but local authorities resisted giving it formal title for years. The international community has pressed Kosovo’s government to legalize the land of the monastery.

In 1999, a 78-day NATO bombing campaign ended a war between Serbian government forces and ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo. Serbian forces were pushed out but Belgrade still considers Kosovo a Serbian province.

Tensions have run high over the past year.

In May last year, Kosovo Serbs clashed with security forces, including NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers, injuring 93 troops, in a dispute with Pristina over the validity of local elections in the Serbian minority-dominated part of northern Kosovo.

Kosovo has agreed to hold referendums in four Serb-majority municipalities on April 21 on whether to oust their ethnic Albanian mayors, whose election last year raised tensions between Serbia and Kosovo.

In September, a Kosovo police officer and three Serb gunmen were killed in a shootout after about 30 masked men opened fire on a police patrol near the Kosovo village of Banjska.

Escobar said Washington was “still very deeply concerned about the events of September 24th” and called on Serbia “to bring those who are responsible to justice and to have full accountability for that attack.”

Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.

Follow Llazar Semini at https://x.com/lsemini

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