Serbia’s refusal to sign agreement with Kosovo will not halt progress, says US official

Serbia’s refusal to sign agreement with Kosovo will not halt progress, says US official
Gabriel Escobar, deputy assistant secretary for the US Department of State’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, speaks during a hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation on February 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. (AFP/File)
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Updated 20 March 2023

Serbia’s refusal to sign agreement with Kosovo will not halt progress, says US official

Serbia’s refusal to sign agreement with Kosovo will not halt progress, says US official
  • Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has verbally agreed to normalize relations with the breakaway former province but will not sign any legally binding international documents
  • US State department official Gabriel Escobar said the ‘important and historic’ deal is binding nonetheless and leaders on both sides had shown political courage and vision
  • Both countries seek EU membership and the bloc set normalized bilateral relations as a condition for this; Escobar said they will now be judged by their actions under the agreement

CHICAGO: The refusal by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to sign a formal agreement for establishing diplomatic ties with its breakaway former province, Kosovo, will not prevent the normalization of relations process from moving forward, a US official said on Monday.

Gabriel Escobar, the deputy assistant secretary for the Department of State’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, said that Serbia had verbally agreed to implement a Western-backed plan to establish ties. But he acknowledged it represents just the first step in efforts by the formerly warring nations to resolve their differences.

Vucic has made it clear that he wants Serbia to join the EU, but the latter has made it a condition of membership that the former normalize its relations with Kosovo, which has an ethnic Albanian majority but a large community of Serbs.

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008 but Serbia refuses to recognize this and continues to consider it a province. During a meeting with EU officials on Saturday, Vucic verbally agreed to the normalization proposal but declined to sign any legally binding international documents.

“The United States is very happy to welcome this important and historic agreement,” said Escobar. “It sets the conditions for normalization between Serbia and Kosovo, on European terms, and in that regard it took a lot of political courage and a lot of vision from both Serbian President Vucic and Kosovan Prime Minister (Albin) Kurti to reach this agreement.

“This agreement is a legally binding obligation on both parties and both parties will be judged by their performance under the agreement. And that agreement will continue to be the basis of our policy for the United States going forward, and the basis for European engagement in the region.”

Escobar reiterated that despite the lack of formal signing, the agreement reached by the negotiators from Kosovo and Serbia is nonetheless “legally binding in every respect” and both sides have made commitments as they seek EU membership.

“So the signature was not the issue,” he added. “It was the obligation that both countries freely entered into and, again, the understanding, the clear understanding from both sides, of what was expected and what each side would receive. So, it is an agreement in every respect.

“The next steps, really, are for both sides to start on the implementation as it was outlined on Saturday. Both sides have legally binding obligations that they have to meet.”

On the Serbian side, Escobar said, this means the beginning of a process of recognizing “Kosovo’s documents and other national symbols … and things of that nature.”

He added: “For Kosovo, it’s important for them to begin the drafting of their version of the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities. There are many other obligations but I think those are the most important ones.”

The significance of the negotiations and the agreement between the two nations marks “the start of the reconciliation between Serbia and Kosovo,” Escobar said. “So there will be a lot of work to continue to be done beyond this agreement. Additionally, the EU-facilitated dialogue will also continue.

“So there’s a lot here but what’s important is that we have set clear markers on how the two countries are going to relate to each other going forward.”

As the two nations move forward they “will receive the benefits flowing” from European nations and from the US, he added.

In turn, the responsibilities that both Serbia and Kosovo have accepted are clear, he said.

“I think … for Kosovo the most important thing, and the thing that will get them the most benefit, is greater Euro-Atlantic integration. So that’s our focus: Integration into European structures,” said Escobar.

“For Serbia, their insistence on the implementation of the legally binding obligation to … begin talks and implementation of the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities remains key.”

While acknowledging that it has only been two days since the agreement was announced, he added that everyone is hopeful it will succeed and lay the foundations for further progress for both nations.

After generations of conflict dating back to when the Balkans were controlled by the Ottoman Empire, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1244 on June 10, 1999, which placed Kosovo under transitional UN administration and authorized the deployment of a NATO-led peacekeeping force called the Kosovo Force. It provided for Kosovo to be granted autonomy, initially under the former Yugoslavia and then under successor nation Serbia.