Ten-year rejection of Kosovo stalls Serbia's EU hopes

by Katarina SUBASIC

Belgrade (AFP) - A decade after its southern province formally broke away, Serbia bluntly refuses to recognise Kosovo's independence, but President Aleksandar Vucic has warned something must change for his country to join the European Union.

The "normalisation" of ties between Belgrade and Pristina is a crucial requirement for each side's bid to join the bloc -- yet this goal remains elusive, two decades after the Kosovo war claimed 13,000 lives.

That conflict, pitching ethnic Albanian rebels against Serbian forces controlled by Belgrade, set Kosovo on the path to unilaterally declaring independence on February 17, 2008.

The former foes have been engaged in EU-mediated talks since 2011 and reached some agreements on issues such as freedom of movement and trade.

But a binding agreement that would put an end to the territorial dispute is called for within the European Commission's latest enlargement strategy.

"The content of that agreement is being considered in advance as a recognition of Kosovo's independence," Serbia's EU Integration Minister Jadranka Joksimovic said.

But "Serbia will not recognise Kosovo," she insisted, reiterating a red line that Belgrade has refused to cross.

- Mountain to climb -

In recent years, Belgrade has lobbied to prevent Pristina joining various international organisations, especially the United Nations.

Nevertheless Serbia's powerful president has warned that his citizens must decide if they want to "pay a certain price" to join the EU, for which Serbia has candidate status.

"Are these easy obstacles for us? They are not, they are like the Himalayas, but we would not be the first to climb Mount Everest," Vucic told reporters last week.

Serbia considers Kosovo the cradle of its history and religion and the preamble to the Serbian constitution describes Kosovo as an "integral part" of its territory.

But Kosovo is now recognised as a state by more than 110 countries, including the United States and most EU members.

- 'Wishful thinking' -

Last year when he was sworn in as president, Vucic called for an "internal dialogue" on Kosovo.

But Serbia's weak and divided opposition almost unanimously refused, instead accusing him of trying to spread responsibility for an anticipated recognition of Kosovo.

Analyst Dusan Janjic said there was only a "small number of people from state institutions" involved in the dialogue, who either advocate the status quo or engage in "wishful thinking" over how to regain control of Kosovo.

Public opinion surveys regularly show some 60 percent of citizens support dialogue with Pristina. But around 65 percent are against EU membership if Serbia has to recognise Kosovo's independence.

"It takes two to tango," said Vucic.

"Others should understand that they have to make compromises as well, not only Serbia."