BELGRADE (Reuters) – Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic played down hopes on Tuesday that a U.S.-mediated agreement on economic cooperation with Kosovo could lead soon to a political deal with the former province.
Political normalisation with Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 nearly a decade after it was protected by NATO in a bombing campaign, is a pre-condition for Serbia’s entry into the EU.
Serbia and Kosovo agreed to take steps towards economic cooperation, including working on joint infrastructure projects, in agreements signed at the White House this month, which U.S. President Donald Trump called a “breakthrough”.
In his first interview with a Western news organisation since his trip to Washington, Vucic described the agreements as a big step in the right direction, but a long way from political normalisation.
“I think such agreements are very important in order to preserve peace and that once and for all we resolve our problems to have clear future for our children,” Vucic told Reuters.
“I am not saying that we are close to a political solution,” Vucic said, though he described economic cooperation as “key” for any future political deals.
On Tuesday, a U.S. delegation headed by Trump’s special envoy for talks between Serbia and Kosovo, Richard Grenell, arrived in Serbia to discuss possibility of financing projects.
The delegation visited Kosovo on Monday.
‘ARGUMENTS WITH EVERYONE EQUALLY’
Vucic, a former ultra-nationalist who pivoted towards a pro-European stance in 2008, is determined to bring his country into the EU, which requires some form of accommodation with Kosovo.
Serbia and its ally Russia reject Kosovo’s declaration of independence. EU-mediated normalisation negotiations broke down in 2018 but resumed in July after Kosovo lifted import tariffs on Serbian goods.
In his interview, Vucic described a future for his country that would involve balancing ties with East and West, even if this meant occasionally angering both sides.
“If you live in a small country which is geographically at the crossroads, then your policy should be maintain peace and stability, either by not having arguments with anyone, which is impossible, or having arguments with everyone equally,” he said.
“Serbia is on its European path, but Serbia has to live, and has friends in the U.S. but it also has friends and it is not ashamed of them in Moscow and in Beijing.”
Serbia accepted highly publicised offers of aid from China in fighting the coronavirus this year, annoying some European countries who saw the gesture as politicised.
More recently, Vucic risked friction with the Kremlin by steering clear of joint military exercises in Belarus, refusing to be drawn into a show of support for embattled leader Alexander Lukashenko, a Russian ally.
“Sometimes we have to protect our military neutrality by being all alone,” Vucic said.
Vucic said he hoped Trump would visit Serbia.
His delegation was warmly met in the United States, long the main supporter of Kosovo’s independence, and the trip irked Moscow. Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman compared Vucic’s White House visit to an explicit film scene, prompting Vucic to accuse Moscow of stooping to “primitivism and vulgarity”.
In Washington, both Kosovo and Serbia also agreed to move their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem, a Trump administration priority. Vucic said Serbia’s chamber of commerce would open in Jerusalem first, with the embassy move to follow.
(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Peter Graff)