President Hashim Thaci says that after years of talks, Kosovo and Serbia are entering a “new phase of dialogue” as they look to sign a comprehensive agreement to benefit both countries on the path of European integration.
“The new phase of dialogue foresees the definite ending of this process with a comprehensive, political agreement which will open a safe Euro-Atlantic perspective for Kosovo, so we become a part of NATO and the EU, but will as well speed up the integration process for Serbia,” Thaci told RFE/RL's Balkan Service in an interview on July 6.
Thaci and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, were in Brussels earlier this week, where they held informal meetings with European Union foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini to iron out a path to normalize relations.
Kosovo declared independence without Serbia's consent, and Belgrade and Moscow have yet to recognize it as a separate country. The United States and most of Europe are among the more than 100 countries that recognize Kosovo's independence.
A 2011 EU initiative, however, led to a cooperation framework between the two states.
Several incidents have since undermined that spirit of cooperation, including an incident in January when a train painted in Serbia's national colors and bearing the words "Kosovo is Serbia" turned back before reaching Kosovo, where special police units had been deployed to prevent it from reaching its stated destination, the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo.
Relations have been strained since June 11 elections in Kosovo, a country of 1.8 million people, 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanian.
Two potential prime ministers, Ramush Haradinaj and Albin Kurti, have said in the past that they don't support the current format of the dialogue.
But Thaci told RFE/RL that he foresees a full normalization of relations between Pristina and Belgrade and reconciliation of their people, including the affirmation of rights of Kosovo Serbs.
“We have to be sincere; we have many open questions between Kosovo and Serbia to discuss and normalize,” Thaci said, noting he could not predict how long the final stage of talks would last but saying he didn’t think it would be a matter of years.
“We cannot say that we can behave with Serbia as with some other country with which we were not in war. We had a war with Serbia, there was unprecedented violence, but now we have to fix what is fixable," Thaci said. "The world also wants that normalization and reconciliation between Kosovo and Serbia. We cannot go forward with a European future with tense relations.”
Part of any reconciliation includes bringing to justice those accused of war crimes during the 1998-99 conflict that preceded Pristina’s declaration of independence.
A new Hague tribunal, called the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, has been set up after pressure from the European Union on the government in Pristina to address alleged war crimes committed against ethnic Serbs by the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK).
The establishment of the tribunal, which will operate under Kosovar law but use international judges and prosecutors, is investigating allegations made in a Council of Europe report that senior UCK commanders ran detention centers after the Kosovo war where Serbs and other civilian captives were killed and their organs sold on the black market.
On the other side, Serbian forces were accused of massacring ethnic Albanian Kosovars in a counterinsurgency campaign before they were driven out by NATO air strikes and the UCK in 1999.
Thaci told RFE/RL that Kosovo has fulfilled all its political and institutional obligations for the court and that justice should be allowed to run its course.
“I, as a former [prime minister] and former foreign affairs minister, led the process of the creation of the court with the full assurance that it will preserve and cultivate relations with the United States, NATO, and the EU,” he said.
“I was aware that this was an unjust, mono-ethnic court, but we had to swallow that for the sake of the Euro-Atlantic perspective and interests of our country and our people.”