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Normalization Talks Between Kosovo, Serbia Hit Snag Over Tariff Dispute

The EU's Federica Mogherini (middle), Kosovo's Hashim Thaci (right) and Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic meet.
The EU's Federica Mogherini (middle), Kosovo's Hashim Thaci (right) and Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic meet.

An attempt by the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo to move closer to an agreement on long-standing disputes that would further their bids to join the European Union has sputtered after less than an hour of talks.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told reporters after the EU-sponsored talks in Brussels broke up late on November 8 that for his negotiations with Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci to continue, Kosovo must first reverse its recent imposition of tariffs on Serbian and Bosnian imports.

"There is no dialogue until Kosovo withdraws its decision on customs of 10 percent" tariffs, he said.

Vucic later told Serbian national broadcaster RTS that "none of our people will show up here until they withdraw their illegal decisions."

Vucic then referred not only to the 10 percent tariff on Serbian agricultural imports but to Kosovo's vow -- which Serbian media attributed to Kosovo's Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj -- to begin forming an army within a month.

The Serbian president told RTS that the tariffs violated the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), while he maintained that Haradinaj's plan to build an army -- and particularly to deploy a garrison in the Serb-dominated north of Kosovo -- breached earlier agreements.

Vucic also spoke out against Pristina's aspirations to join Interpol at the organization's general assembly later this month.

"Serbia is always ready for dialogue, but before that one has to behave responsibly, fulfill one's obligations, not to threaten Serbs by sending troops, not to introduce new tariffs contrary to the CEFTA agreement," Vucic told RTS.

"From any agreement we are miles, miles away," he said.

Thaci after the talks accused Serbia of being "aggressive and arrogant."

"If Belgrade thinks it will be easy with the Kosovar side, it is wrong," he said. "These are difficult topics, but the interest of both countries is that dialogue ends with an agreement that ensures mutual recognition."

The EU's top diplomat and mediator in the normalization talks, Federica Mogherini, said in a statement after the talks that the two sides are expected to swiftly deliver on their commitment to reach a binding agreement.

Mogherini said she urged Serbia and Kosovo at the meeting to "refrain from words, actions, and measures that are contrary to the spirit of normalization." She added that "they discussed the necessary steps for the way forward."

It was "decided to remain in constant contact in the coming days to assess the follow-up of today's meeting," Mogherini said.

Kosovo, with a 90 percent Albanian majority, declared independence from Belgrade a decade ago. The United States and more than 110 other countries -- including all but five EU member states -- have recognized Kosovo.

But Serbia refuses to acknowledge the independence of its former province and is -- with the help of its ally Russia -- blocking it from UN membership.

Still, Serbia has agreed to try to normalize ties with Kosovo as part of an EU-brokered process, which if successful would enable Belgrade to begin EU accession talks. Kosovo's prospects for joining the EU also have been linked to reaching agreement with Serbia on their outstanding disputes.

Now Brussels is pressuring both sides to reach a binding agreement in order to allow both to move closer to membership.

Vucic's lashing out after the talks on November 8 follows a break in the talks in September after he refused to hold face-to-face talks with Thaci.

With reporting by dpa and AP

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