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Serbia And Kosovo Launch Talks Under EU Auspices


Serbia and Kosovo have begun their first direct negotiations since Pristina declared independence in 2008.

Pristina hopes the EU-mediated talks in Brussels force Belgrade to recognize its independence, although the negotiations will focus mainly on practical issues.

The talks are unlikely to yield any major breakthrough on the thorny issues of Kosovo's independence, which Belgrade firmly rejects.

The talks have been welcomed nonetheless by all sides as a first step toward resolving some issues important in day-to-day life such as air traffic control and land registers.

Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told RFE/RL that they would hopefully advance Serbia and Kosovo closer toward eventual EU membership.

"The main objective of the talks is to improve the lives of the people on the ground but also the western Balkans as a whole, and to bring both Serbia and Kosovo closer to the EU and to European standards," Kocijancic said.

Despite Serbia's opposition, some officials in Kosovo are confident the talks will lead Belgrade to recognize its independence.

Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said on March 7: "I have full confidence that this process will end with the mutual recognition of Kosovo and Serbia as independent countries."

Serbian chief negotiator Borko Stefanovic, however, voiced more cautious optimism on March 6.

"There are no timeframes. We will try to resolve some key issues between us by year's end and we are optimists, though miracles should not be expected," Stefanovic said.

EU Desires

Belgrade, although keen to speed up its path to EU membership, has made it clear it will not budge on its refusal to recognize Kosovo's independence.

The talks in Brussels will instead focus on practical issues such as trade agreements, border controls, and property records.

Kosovo is recognized as a sovereign state by 75 countries, including the United States and most EU members. Russia and China do not recognize its independence.

Serbia's refusal to recognize Kosovo has led to a number of practical difficulties for the 2 million people living in the impoverished province, which broke away from Serbia in 1999 following a NATO bombing campaign to halt the killings of ethnic Albanians, the dominant population of Kosovo.

Belgrade's opposition means Pristina cannot get its own telephone country code, for instance, and there are disagreements over the school program in Kosovo's Serb-dominated northern regions.

The dispute also hurts Kosovo's trade and prevents its residents from seeking work in Serbia, which does not recognize diplomas handed out by Kosovo universities.

Kosovo's envoy to the European Union, Ilir Dugolli, says the lack of bilateral agreements also restricts the free movements of Kosovo residents.

"Albanians living in Serbia cannot get employed with their [university] documents," Dugolli said. "Serbs from Kosovo traveling to Serbia need to change their car plates when they cross the border simply because car plates are not recognized. And we are talking here not only about car plates issued by Kosovo institutions but also about car plates that were issued by the United Nations' administration for 10 years. There's really a plethora of things of this nature that do not function."

Serbia, in turn, has been demanding more control over the regions of Kosovo inhabited predominantly by Serbs, and its negotiator in Brussels said he will seek clarification on the status of Serbs who have remained in Kosovo. His delegation will also push for the right of Kosovo Serbs who fled the province during the conflict to lawfully return to their homes.

written by Claire Bigg in Prague, with reporting from RFE/RL's Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels and agencies
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