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Serbia-Kosovo dialogue encouraged at opening of Balkan summit

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Tirana (AFP) – European leaders called for dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia after a recent rise in tensions, as a Balkan regional summit opened in the Albanian capital Tirana on Monday.

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After the deaths of a Kosovo police officer and three Serbian gunmen in clashes in Kosovo’s volatile north, simmering frictions have reached their highest level in years.

“It is time to overcome conflicts that have lasted too long,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said at the summit.

“The recent escalation of the situation in northern Kosovo has proven how important this is.”

On the eve of the event, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged Belgrade and Pristina to resume a Brussels-sponsored dialogue on the normalization of relations.

“This is the path to a future in which Kosovo and Serbia will be part of the European Union,” she said in Tirana on Sunday.

But Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic will not attend this year’s edition of the annual summit. Instead, he traveled to Beijing for the Belt and Road Forum, where he is expected to sign a free trade deal with China.

However, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic is present in Tirana.

On the agenda of the meeting are discussions around greater convergence with the European Union and “support for the ecological and digital transition” in the region.

During the one-day meeting, leaders are also expected to ratify an agreement on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications and announce the opening of a College of Europe campus in Tirana.

Regional tensions

Monday’s meeting is the 9th summit of the Berlin Process, launched in 2014 by then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Berlin Process aims to promote political dialogue, cooperation and reconciliation between six Western Balkan countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

It is also a space to foster closer ties with the EU – with nine member states, including France and Germany, involved in the annual summit.

Hungary, the Netherlands, Romania and Spain are also joining this year, at the invitation of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.

Last year’s meeting resulted in several agreements on free movement and residence in the region, as well as the recognition of academic and certain professional qualifications.

Von der Leyen also announced a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) energy support plan.

“The Berlin process over the past decade has produced many agreements, but little follow-up,” said Florian Bieber of the Balkans Policy Advisory Group in Europe (BiEPAG).

“In Vienna in 2015, the foreign ministers of the six countries signed a declaration according to which no bilateral dispute would obstruct the EU’s progress,” he added.

But despite committing to resolving their disagreements, the countries have not put in place any monitoring mechanisms, Bieber said, meaning their differences “continue to plague the region.”

In the wake of recent tensions, Kosovo’s government has deployed a vast arsenal of weapons and equipment and accused the government in Belgrade of supporting Serbian gunmen during clashes in the volatile north.

“We have a lot to do,” said an adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron, “with concerns over both Serbia and Kosovo, as well as Bosnia.”

Macron is due to arrive Monday evening and will remain in Albania on Tuesday for bilateral meetings.

“As far as Kosovo and Serbia are concerned, we can see that Vucic’s absence is a clear sign of a lack of goodwill,” which could risk isolating Belgrade on the international stage, said the political scientist Katarina Radic.

“When we return from Tirana on Monday, I am skeptical that Serbia or the region will be different from what we have today,” she added.

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