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First Flag: Kosovo's Would-Be PM Takes Serbian Heat For Favoring Albanian Banner


Kosovar politician Albin Kurti often likes to display Albanian nationalist symbols at interviews and other events. (file photo)

When Albin Kurti and his Self-Determination (Vetevendosje) party declared victory in Kosovo's snap elections earlier this month, it was unclear how the dramatic rise in Pristina of a 44-year-old Albanian nationalist might affect Kosovo's biggest international challenges.

Primary among them are stalled negotiations on normalizing relations with neighboring Serbia, whose resolution could boost Kosovo's decade-long pursuit of full recognition in the United Nations and eventual membership of major European institutions.

Even with Kurti still locked in coalition talks with counterparts from the second-place finisher in the vote, the center-right Democratic League (LDK), he has reiterated the importance of a deal to secure Serbia's recognition of Kosovo.

That could prove challenging, despite Kurti's indications that he's willing to drop the controversial tariffs on Serbian goods that derailed EU-mediated talks with Belgrade last year. He has also said he'll seek "reciprocity" in relations with Serbia, hinting at new obstacles to restarting the negotiations.

Then there was a reminder of Kurti's insistence on displaying Albanian national symbols and his repeated calls in the past for a referendum on Kosovo's unification with Albania.

An October 14 Facebook post by the Self-Determination party showed Kurti in a meeting the same day with British Ambassador Nicholas Abbott -- with an Albanian flag the only visible state symbol.

Kurti's defenders have insisted that despite his criticisms of the Kosovar flag -- he says the same lawmakers who backed the independence declaration in 2008 made a mistake by choosing a flag without a public vote -- Kurti never avoided Kosovar state symbols in parliament or during trips abroad in his capacity as a lawmaker.

And the meeting, they noted, took place at the offices of Kurti's party, where Albanian flags are the norm.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (file photo)
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (file photo)

Enter Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who along with other Serbian officials has publicly sought to influence the electoral fortunes of Kosovar's ethnic Serb parties.

"The question for the U.K. Ambassador in Pristina: Which elections did Kurti win, in what country? And the flag you stand in front of with him belongs to which country, your Excellency?" Vucic tweeted next to an image of the Kurti-Abbott meeting.

The U.K. Embassy appeared to take note of the query, albeit indirectly, acknowledging that the photo had "attracted attention regionally."

"It is the Embassy's job to engage with leading political actors in Kosovo," the British Embassy added via Twitter. "We did not choose how our interlocutor, acting in a party capacity, arranged his rooms."

"Thank you for a clear answer @UKinKosovo," Vucic fired back. "We all understood it perfectly."

A defiant response to Vucic's objection came from Kurti's Self-Determination party, which in a statement to RFE/RL's Balkan Service rejected the "imposition of one's identity or symbols" and "censorship of the political will of a subject."

It went on to chide Serbia for an "intense arming process, failure to recognize Kosovo's independence, and Serbia's failure to deal with its criminal and cleansing past."

The exchange was a stark reminder that it will take at least two to tango if the Serbian-Kosovar dialogue is to bear fruit -- as U.S. and European officials have urged -- and that emotionally charged distractions could still stand in the way.

Agron Bajrami, editor in chief of the daily Koha Ditore newspaper in Kosovo, called Vucic's tweet "bizarre if not funny for dealing with these kinds of things."

"It was also weird to people because, if he's annoyed by an Albanian flag, does that mean that he'd like to see a Kosovo flag there, which he doesn't recognize?"

Belgrade-based analyst Bosko Jaksic called the flag kerfuffle a "small diplomatic incident that doesn't deserve all this public attention."

"We know who needs this exaggeration and why: It's necessary to prove the attitude, the firmness, the willingness to respond to everyone, at every opportunity, if something is violated. Undoubtedly, diplomatic etiquette has been violated, but it doesn't deserve that much attention."

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