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Serbia, Kosovo announce closer economic ties at White House event

Serbia and Kosovo announced Friday that they have normalized economic ties as part of U.S.-brokered discussions that also include Belgrade moving its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and Pristina recognizing Israel.

After two days of meetings with Trump administration officials, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti agreed to co-operate on a range of economic fronts to attract investment and create jobs. The White House announcement provided President Donald Trump with a diplomatic win ahead of the November presidential election and furthers his administration’s push to improve Israel’s international standing.

“Truly, it is historic,” Trump said, standing alongside the two leaders in the Oval Office. “I look forward to going to both countries in the not-too-distant future.”

Serbia’s decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a nod to both Israel and the United States. The Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in late 2017 and moved the U.S. embassy there in May 2018.

The administration has encouraged other countries to do the same but has been widely criticized by the Palestinians and many in Europe because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved.

Kosovo is a predominantly Muslim region and former province of Serbia that unilaterally declared independence in 2008. Canada and about 30 other countries recognize Kosovo as a separate state, but Serbia has opposed it being formally admitted into the United Nations.

Kosovo has never before recognized Israel; nor has Israel recognized Kosovo.

The gestures to Israel are part of the Trump administration’s push to improve the Jewish state’s international standing, which has included forceful denunciations of criticism of Israel at the United Nations and in other international venues.

Most recently, the administration brokered a deal for Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations. That was followed by the first commercial flight between Israel and the U.A.E., with neighbouring Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to allow such flights to pass through their airspace. Additional Arab states, including Sudan, Bahrain and Oman, have been identified as countries that may soon also normalize relations with Israel.

Path to recognition not on the table: Serbia PM

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 ongoing deadlock and Serbia’s unwillingness to recognize Kosovo have kept tensions simmering and prevented full stabilization of the Balkan region after the bloody wars in the 1990s.

“We haven’t resolved all our problems. There are still differences,” the Serbian leader said, but he added that having a unified economic zone with Kosovo was a “huge step forward.”

A woman walks by graffiti depicting the Serbian flag, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump, vandalized with paint in Belgrade, Serbia on Friday. The Cyrillic letters on the graffiti read ‘Kosovo is Serbia,’ reflecting Serbia not recognizing Kosovo’s independence. (Darko Vojinovic)

Hoti also described the economic co-operation as a “huge step forward” in the relationship and said the two leaders were committed to working together.

On Thursday, Vucic had told reporters: “We cannot accept any document which includes Kosovo’s independence, and that’s full stop.”

Serbia and Kosovo have already OK’d air, rail and transit agreements, including one that would clear the way for the first flight between Pristina and Belgrade in 21 years. The new agreement comprises many more areas of economic co-operation. Business leaders in both nations have been frustrated and have been talking among themselves about ways to foster investment outside of the ongoing political talks brokered by the European Union.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is shown with Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti at the State Department in Washington on Friday. Koti called the strengthening of economic ties with Serbia a ‘huge step forward.’ (Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

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.

Netanyahu, Democrat praise Israel-Kosovo development

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement thanked the president of Serbia for moving the embassy to Jerusalem. He confirmed that Israel and Kosovo will establish diplomatic relations and said Kosovo also will open its embassy in Jerusalem.

“Kosovo will be the first majority-Muslim country to open an embassy in Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said. “As I’ve said in recent days, the circle of peace and recognition of [Israel] is widening and is expected to add additional countries.”

In all, a total of four countries now recognize contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, including the U.S. and Guatemala. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as their would-be capital.

Eliot Engel, Democratic chair of the House’s foreign relations committee, congratulated Israel and Kosovo on the establishment of diplomatic relations.

On the subject of Serbian-Kosovar relations, Engel released a statement on Thursday stating that “a final resolution to the conflict must lead to mutual recognition by Kosovo and Serbia,” as well as grant Kosovo full membership to the United Nations and other organizations.

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 was following events closely on Friday, tweeting his praise for the agreement and thanking the White House “for their leadership in the process.”



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