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Flare-Up Between Kosovo And Serbia After Liberian Gaffe

A man stands in front of a screen displaying the Kosovo flag in Pristina.
A man stands in front of a screen displaying the Kosovo flag in Pristina.

When Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia a decade ago, the tenderfoot government in Pristina began a staunch duel with Belgrade to be recognized by the world.

With 53 countries recognizing Kosovo's long-sought statehood in the first year after the 2008 proclamation on statehood, official acknowledgements from around the world dwindled to two in 2017 and just one, Barbados, so far this year.

Serbia has vowed many times it will not recognize Kosovo as an independent state and has actively tried to dissuade -- along with powerful friend Russia -- other countries from formally doing so.

So there was great glee in Belgrade upon hearing Liberian Foreign Minister Gbehzohngar Milton Findley say in Belgrade on June 20 that his country was reversing its decade-old decision to recognize Kosovo. In a further slight, he described it as "the province of Kosovo."

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic (file photo)
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic (file photo)

The apparent diplomatic blow to Europe's newest state was arguably more stinging because it was coming from the first African colony founded by outsiders to have declared independence, in 1847.

"The essence of what my friend and brother said is that the Republic of Liberia, which recognized Kosovo in 2008, has now taken the decision to annul the note on recognition...until the negotiations within the EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia end," Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said. "For us, this decision is very important, good, and positive, because it shows that this dialogue process continues and this is, in a way, our contribution to the...dialogue in Brussels, which will resume on [June 24]."

Pristina was quick to challenge the idea that Findley had withdrawn recognition.

Kosovar Foreign Minister Behgjet Pacolli said on June 20 that he had spoken with the Liberian government and that they had "confirmed" that Liberia "has not revoked the recognition of Kosovo."

He added that the "news...spread by Serbian media is fake and part of the fake news attempts by Serbian FM Ivica Dacic."

Kosovar parliament speaker Kadri Veseli told RFE/RL on June 21 that "I do not want to waste energy on Serbia's efforts, which are disappointing."

Indeed, whatever the Liberian foreign minister intended to say in the Serbian capital, the Liberian Foreign Ministry "reaffirmed" its bilateral ties with Kosovo in an official statement on June 22. It refuted the "reports in some international and social media of its revocation of diplomatic relations with the Republic of Kosovo."

Kosovo currently says it has received official recognition from 117 countries (see list) and has also been accepted into many international sports bodies, including FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Serbia is known to lobby countries that have already recognized Kosovo in hopes of getting them to reverse their decisions.

Kosovar parliament speaker Kadri Veseli (file photo)
Kosovar parliament speaker Kadri Veseli (file photo)

Dacic predicted during a visit to Argentina in November that the number of countries to have recognized Kosovo's statehood would eventually dip to "less than 100."

"At first glance, [the diplomatic effort to get nonrecognitions] looks like a Sisyphean task," Dusan Janjic, president of the Forum for Ethnic Relations NGO in Belgrade, told RFE/RL. "Obviously, the idea is not to reach the top of the hill, but to simply roll the stone."

Janjic said Serbia is trying to prove to its people that "we are persistent, we fight, we accomplish what we can and...somewhat complicate Kosovo's path toward UNESCO and the UN."

The Liberian muddle is not the first instance of Belgrade asserting that a country was annulling its recognition of Kosovo's independence.

In late 2017, Serbian officials said both Surinameand Guinea-Bissau had withdrawn their recognition of Kosovo.

Two months ago, it claimed that Burundi had done likewise.

Pristina responded by saying it had not received any official notification from those countries that they no longer recognize Kosovo's independence.

The reports of Suriname's alleged reversal emerged after its foreign minister, Yldiz Pollack-Beighle, had met in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

A pedestrian walks past a wall painted in the colors of the Serbian national flag with a map of Kosovo in the middle, in Belgrade on February 12, 2018.
A pedestrian walks past a wall painted in the colors of the Serbian national flag with a map of Kosovo in the middle, in Belgrade on February 12, 2018.

Analyst Janjic said Moscow's support is crucial for the anti-Kosovo independence battle.

"I think it’s mainly about the assistance, in a diplomatic sense, on the part of so-called friends of [the countries that Belgrade is trying to get to annul their recognition of Kosovo], with Russia being one of the most important partners," he said.

Janjic added that Belgrade uses a combination of "lobbying with money," intelligence, and political connections -- including ties from Yugoslavia's decades as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement -- to try to convince countries not to recognize Kosovo, its former province, as an independent state.

Despite Serbia's efforts to ruin Kosovo's ongoing drive for recognition, Kosovar parliament speaker Veseli is not worried.

"We will get even more recognitions," he says, "because Kosovo is going to join the UN, and then the number of specific [country] recognitions will be irrelevant." Ljudmila Cvetkovic

Kosovo's independence, he says with confidence, is an "irreversible reality."

With reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondents Amra Zejneli and Ljudmila Cvetkovic.

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