EU says Serbia, Kosovo talks end without breakthrough

A billboard showing Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic reads ‘Welcome, President’ near the ethnic Serbian village of Lesak in northern Kosovo. Vucic has refused to meet with his Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci in Brussels despite being scheduled for EU-mediated talks. (AP Photo)
Updated 07 September 2018
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EU says Serbia, Kosovo talks end without breakthrough

  • A territory swap had been suggested as part of a package to normalize relations between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo
  • Tensions remain high in northern Kosovo, where many ethnic Serbs still live

BRUSSELS: Serbia’s president refused to meet with his Kosovo counterpart at European Union-backed talks Friday, dashing hopes of an imminent improvement in long-strained relations between the two countries.
Hopes of a breakthrough had been relatively high after a territory swap had been suggested as part of a package to normalize relations between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo. Only after the two sides have patched up their differences do they stand a chance of becoming a member of the EU.
However, after separate meetings on an array of issues with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said “difficulties remain.”
Without elaborating, Mogherini said she trusts that both leaders will “continue the process and reach in the coming months a legally binding agreement on comprehensive normalization of relations, in line with international law.”
Behind the scenes in Brussels, there were few signs of a change in the rhetoric.
Marko Djuric, a leading Serbian negotiator, said Vucic refused to meet Thaci because of recent “threats and deceits” from Kosovo.
“There are not minimum conditions to talk to the representatives of Pristina today,” Djuric said.
The dispute between Serbia and Kosovo dates back to 1998-99, when the former Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, ordered a bloody crackdown on Kosovo Albanian separatists. More than 10,000 people died in the conflict before NATO forced Serbia to pull out of the territory.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is recognized as a nation by more than 100 countries. But Serbia does not recognize it, and neither do five EU countries — Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain.
Tensions remain high in northern Kosovo, where many ethnic Serbs still live.
Serbia and Kosovo have been told to sort out their differences if they ever hope to join the EU. Officials from both sides have suggested a land swap could work, but the idea has been criticized both locally and internationally.
The proposal would likely see a part of southern Serbia centered on the ethnic Albanian-dominated city of Presevo transferred to Kosovo, while the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovo, around Mitrovica, would become part of Serbia.
Some fear that any border changes might trigger similar demands elsewhere in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro, which like Serbia and Kosovo, were part of the former Yugoslavia.
Germany, Austria and Luxembourg have warned that any land swap could open up old wounds in the region. Other EU countries, such as Belgium and Romania, believe it’s up to the two sides to sort things out.
US President Donald Trump’s administration has signaled it would accept any agreement between the two sides.
Zoran Ostojic, an analyst from Belgrade, said he believed that Vucic and Thaci are “testing the ground, primarily with the international community” by floating the swap idea.
“Who knows where that could end?” Ostojic warned, echoing fears of a chain reaction throughout Balkans.
Mogherini is due to chair further high-level talks in Brussels between the sides later this month.


Beijing dismisses ‘hearsay’ on Muslim internment

Updated 13 November 2018
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Beijing dismisses ‘hearsay’ on Muslim internment

  • Critics say China is seeking to assimilate Xinjiang’s minority population and suppress religious and cultural practices that belong in the minority
  • Beijing has repeatedly described the camps as vocational “training centers” that were built to help people drawn to extremism

BEIJING: China defended its internment of Muslims in the country’s northwest as a terror prevention measure on Tuesday, calling on the international community to reject “hearsay” and believe its official line.
Up to a million Uighurs and other Chinese Turkic-speaking minority groups have been placed in political re-education camps in the Xinjiang region, according to a group of experts cited by the United Nations.
After originally denying the existence of the centers, Beijing has repeatedly described the camps as vocational “training centers” that were built to help people drawn to extremism to stay away from terrorism and allow them to be reintegrated into society.
But the program has faced rising criticism outside the country — notably from the United States and human rights groups.
“We hope our journalist friends and our other foreign friends will take into consideration the information and briefings on the situation given by the Chinese authorities,” said China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
“Rumours and hearsay should not be believed,” he said standing next to his German counterpart Heiko Maas at a press conference.
“It’s quite clear that the government in Xinjiang knows best what is happening in Xinjiang — not other people and third party organizations.”
Critics say China is seeking to assimilate Xinjiang’s minority population and suppress religious and cultural practices that conflict with Communist ideology and the dominant Han culture.
Former inmates of the camps say they were detained for having long beards or wearing the veil.
Attacks attributed to Uighurs have left hundreds dead over the last few years in China, many of them in Xinjiang, where Beijing says its concerned about a rise in Islamic radicalism.
The authorities have put in place intrusive measures of security — ubiquitous surveillance cameras, DNA sampling, home visits by officials and GPS trackers in cars.
“We call that a combination of repression and prevention. But we place the priority on prevention. If it’s done well, terrorism won’t expand and take root. It’s the most effective way to combat terrorism,” Wang Yi said.
The German foreign minister did not mention the Xinjiang region at the press conference, but did say he had “spoken on the question of human rights” during his closed meeting with his Chinese counterpart.
A debate on the situation in Xinjiang was held in the German parliament last Thursday.
China’s ambassador to Berlin expressed Beijing’s “profound discontent” and put in an official protest following the “blatant interference” in its “domestic affairs.”