WASHINGTON – Trump administration officials worked Thursday to persuade the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo to set their difficult political disputes aside to make room for economic relations to develop.
Administration officials met with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo's Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti to discuss furthering relations on the economic front — something that would provide the president with a diplomatic win ahead of the November presidential election.
“It was not an easy day for us, but we are closer to an agreement,” Vucic told Serbian reporters in Washington.
Kosovo’s Parliament declared independence from Serbia in 2008, nine years after NATO conducted a 78-day airstrike campaign against Serbia to stop a bloody crackdown against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
Most Western nations have recognized Kosovo’s independence, but Serbia and its allies Russia and China have not. The deadlock has kept tensions simmering and prevented full stabilization of the Balkan region after the bloody wars in the 1990s.
The administration insisted that the discussions at the White House would focus only on economic development, but members of the Serbian delegation told the Serbian media that the 10th point of a draft agreement was not acceptable to Serbia because it touched on mutual recognition.
“I said this is not acceptable to us and that point was not included in other documents," Vucic said. “We cannot accept any document which includes Kosovo’s independence, and that’s full stop."
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, speaking in Belgrade, said it was an obvious attempt to widen the talks outside the economic issues.
Trump’s envoy Richard Grenell denied that the U.S. confronted the Serbian president with a demand to recognize Kosovo. “Not true,” Grenell tweeted.
After the talks, which are to continue on Friday, Trump's national security adviser Robert O'Brien said the two sides made “real progress” toward economic normalization, which would means jobs for young people, but he didn't elaborate.
Senior administration officials have said that Serbia and Kosovo have already OK'd three transportation-related agreements, including one that would clear the way for the first flight between Pristina and Belgrade in 21 years. Business leaders in both nations are frustrated and have been talking among themselves outside of political talks brokered by the European Union.
On Monday, Vucic and Hoti are scheduled to go to Brussels to hold talks under the auspices of the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and special envoy for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue Miroslav Lajcak.
The EU has mediated the talks between the two former wartime foes for more than a decade, and the parallel U.S. effort, although focused on economic development, has not been fully embraced by some EU officials.
The White House summit was originally scheduled for June, but it was cancelled after Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, who was to lead the Kosovo delegation, was indicted for war crimes by an international court.
Thaci encouraged the “Kosovo delegation to make courageous steps towards peace, reconciliation and economic prosperity.”
Associated Press writers Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.