U.S. envoy says deal between Serbia and Kosovo "entirely" possible this year

FILE PHOTO: Kosovar flags hang from lampposts on the day of celebrations of the 15th anniversary of Kosovo independence in Pristina, Kosovo, February 17, 2023. REUTERS/Florion Goga

BELGRADE (Reuters) - An agreement over the normalisation of ties between Serbia and Kosovo this year is "entirely" possible, a U.S. envoy said on Thursday.

Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti are set to meet in North Macedonia's lake resort of Ohrid on Saturday under European Union auspices to discuss ways of implementing a Western-backed agreement to normalise relations.

"I would like to see the agreement this calendar year. I think this is entirely possible," Gabriel Escobar, the senior U.S. diplomat for the Western Balkans, told reporters in Belgrade after meeting Vucic.

On Feb. 28, the two leaders agreed in Brussels that "no further discussions" were needed on the deal between the former wartime foes but that more talks were needed about its implementation.

Escobar said the two parties should focus on the normalisation of relations and not on mutual recognition, something Kosovo has long demanded.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, almost a decade after war brought an end to Serbian rule. Serbia still regards Kosovo as its southern province.

Under the new agreement, Serbia would stop short of recognising Kosovo as an independent state but would agree to recognise official documents such as passports, diplomas and licence plates, and would not block Kosovo's membership of any international organisation.

Serbia has so far relied on its ally Russia, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, and other countries that do not recognise Kosovo, including five EU members, to prevent it from joining the United Nations.

Escobar also said Kosovo - whose population is mainly ethnic Albanian - would have to ensure a level of self-management for its Serb community as stipulated by a 2013 EU-sponsored agreement in Brussels and is the main demand of Belgrade.

"The fact is that the association (of Serb communities) appears in the Brussels Agreement, it is part of the conclusions of the European Council and it is part of the U.S. policy," he said.

Leaders of Kosovo's ethnic-Albanian majority have long argued such a body would give Belgrade an outsize influence in their country while Serbs say it is needed to protect their rights.

Escobar said the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo would bolster economic opportunities and EU integration not only for the two countries but also for the rest of Western Balkans that is comprising Montenegro, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Albania.

(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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