Kosovar President Hashim Thaci says the country’s politicians need to look at the broader picture as they consider what to do about a retaliatory tax levied on imports of Serbian goods.
In a thinly veiled warning to the Balkan nation’s politicians, Thaci told RFE/RL in an interview on January 31 that no agenda should be put ahead of the interests of the strategic partnership Kosovo has with the United States and other Western countries.
“I haven't proposed, nor asked for a suspension of, the tax,” the 50-year-old Thaci said during the interview as he shuttled between meetings with officials to discuss the issue.
“I am just encouraging our institutions and political leaders to look toward the future, toward strategic steps that are essential for our state and bolster it in the eyes of our partners, especially the U.S. and the EU. Kosovo can go forward and can be successful only in close coordination with those two,” he added.
Both Brussels and Washington have pressed Kosovo to repeal a 100 percent tariff on imported Serbian and Bosnian goods that has strained international efforts to broker a deal between the former foes.
Kosovo imposed the import tax in November in retaliation for what it called Belgrade's attempts to undermine its statehood, such as spearheading a campaign to scupper Pristina’s bid to join Interpol.
Belgrade has not recognized the independence of its former province, proclaimed in 2008 after a 1998-99 guerrilla war.
More than 10,000 were killed in the war, which prompted NATO to launch an air campaign in the spring of 1999 to end the conflict.
The possibility that Serbia and Kosovo might end their long-running dispute through a land swap was briefly floated last year.
But the proposal was immediately abandoned following a firestorm of criticism from rights groups as well as Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, who is against ceding any territory to Serbia and recently said the fate of the tax shouldn’t be linked to relations with Belgrade.
“The tax is the sovereign decision of the government, and we do not condition the dialogue with the decisions of the Serbian government,” he said on January 31 after a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador Philip Kosnett, Thaci, and Kosovo’s parliamentary chief, Kadri Veseli, on January 31.
Haradinaj has proposed an international conference to work out a final deal for his country and Serbia to normalize relations.
Such a deal, he said, would allow for the immediate suspension of tariffs that Kosovo has imposed on Serbian goods, though it cannot include border changes that could potentially revive old enmities in the Balkans.
Other conditions to a final accord include visa-free travel for Kosovar citizens to the EU, the full implementation of an energy treaty signed between the two countries in Brussels, Serbia’s removal of all nontariff barriers on goods coming from Kosovo, and for Belgrade to publicly state it won’t act against "the aspirations of Kosovo as a sovereign state," Haradinaj said.
“There are no conditions for the dialogue. It can continue but without conditions. The tax will remain until the recognition of Kosovo. Remember that!” he said on February 1 in the city of Klina.
Thaci told RFE/RL that to any solution to the impasse needs to be “balanced,” respecting the sovereignty of Kosovo “while at the same time understanding that there is another side at the negotiating table.”
“It’s up to the Kosovo delegation to talk about concrete and clear issues, and what can be discussed and how to find a creative, elegant solution that both sides will agree on,” Thaci said.
But he did put one caveat on finding a solution: no Russian participation.
"We do not need to create circumstances that would bring Russia to the table. We need to trust in the EU and the U.S. without involving other parties that have not recognized Kosovo's independence and are not excited about Kosovo's future in NATO and the EU,” Thaci said.
Serbia and Russia have long shared close cultural and economic ties, including Slavic cultural and Orthodox affinities.
Moscow has helped block international recognition of Kosovo as a sovereign state while trying to assume a role in the mediation of the dispute.