PRISTINA – The leaders of Serbia and Kosovo met in Brussels on Tuesday for talks to implement a European Union-backed plan to normalize ties, and agreed to cooperate on resolving cases of missing persons.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell convened the meeting between Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Prime Minister Albin Kurti of Kosovo. Their agenda included endorsing a declaration on people who remain missing from the 1998-99 war in Kosovo, which was a Serbian province with an armed pro-independence movement at the time.
A statement issued not long after the start of the meeting described the missing persons issue “as a humanitarian one” and noted “the urgent need for additional efforts to alleviate the human suffering of the families” craving closure after so many years.
“Resolving the issue of missing persons is not only a humanitarian obligation. It is also a crucial enabler for reconciliation and trust between people,” Borrell said in a statement.
The governments of Kosovo and Serbia agreed to create a joint commission, monitored by the EU, “to resolve the fate of the remaining missing persons.” The agreement sets outs details on identifying search locations, exchanging documentation and other procedures.
Kurti and Vucic also discussed a draft on the establishment of an association of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo, which is another delicate issue.
Their views were “quite apart on the nature of the association," said Borrell, adding that the parties agreed to start negotiations "in the near future.”
Vucic was “very worried” with no solution in sight, complaining that “Pristina does not want to fulfil its obligation from ten years ago.”
Kurti said the draft was incompatible with Kosovo's constitution and also with he European values of minorities' rights.
The two leaders met in February, when they gave tacit approval to the EU's 11-point plan, and during a March summit in North Macedonia, where both leaders tentatively agreed on how to implement the plan.
Borrell urged Belgrade and Pristina “to continue using this framework to push this process forward. And this is directly linked to the European future of both Serbia and Kosovo.”
Kurti complained that Serbia had violated eight out of 11 points of the EU-backed plan since it was agreed on in February.
“The international community will pressure both Prime Minister Kurti and President Vucic to continue with a constructive approach, because that is the only way forward,” Kosovar analyst Artan Muhaxheri said.
The EU has spent 12 years facilitating negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but Serbia does not recognize its statehood.
Miroslav Lajcak, Borrell's envoy to the negotiations, said Tuesday's meeting was “a crucial step forward and it’s important to avoid any actions that could worsen the atmosphere.”
Brussels and the United States often intervene to calm down tensions between Belgrade and Pristina, more so in the past year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The war in Kosovo erupted when separatist ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbia’s rule, and Belgrade responded with a brutal crackdown. About 13,000 people died, mostly ethnic Albanians. NATO’s military intervention eventually forced Serbia to pull out of the territory.
Earlier Tuesday, Kurti posted on social media a call for justice for the deaths of 116 Albanian civilians executed by Serb forces in May 2, 1999 in Studime, a village, 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of the capital, Pristina. Kurti demanded “punishment for war crimes and justice for the victims.”
Kosovo also accuses Serbia of hiding the locations where the bodies of 1,621 people still listed as officially missing are buried.
The EU rule of law mission in Kosovo, or EULEX, says it is difficult to find the bodies of as many were buried in small, unmarked graves or even in cemeteries, in an effort by the perpetrators to make the search for the missing more difficult and to hide evidence. Most of the missing are ethnic Albanians, while a few are Serbs.
To move forward normalizing ties, Serbia insists Kosovo must implement a 2013 agreement to establish an association of the municipalities in northern Kosovo with Serb-majority populations. The association would coordinate work on education, health care, land planning and economic development at the local level.
Kosovo’s Constitutional Court later declared the plan unconstitutional, ruling it wasn’t inclusive of other ethnicities and could entail the use of executive powers.
Serbia says no progress is possible in the talks before the association is tackled.
Local elections were held last month in Serb-dominated communes in northern Kosovo after Serb representatives left their posts last year. Ethnic Serbs overwhelmingly boycotted the vote.
Borrel expressed “grave concern” that “with the very low turnout ... this election does not offer a long-term political solution.”
“They have the potential to lead to escalation and to undermine the implementation of the agreement,” he said. “It is not what we want to happen. I hope nobody wants it to happen, but it is a big risk and therefore I have urged both parties to find a solution that enables Kosovo Serbs to strengthen and return to the institutions they left in November last year. ”
Semini reported from Tirana, Albania; Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade. ___ Follow Llazar Semini on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lsemini