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Europe

Sovereignty question off limits in first direct talks

In a first-of-its-kind gathering, delegates from Serbia and Kosovo are in Brussels for two days of talks aimed at smoothing relations between the neighboring states three years after Kosovo's declaration of independence.

A montage of a Serbian and a Kosovo flag

Belgrade believes Kosovo belongs under Serbia's flag

After only getting under way late on Tuesday, senior officials from Serbia and Kosovo were to continue talks in Brussels on Wednesday. The two days of EU-mediated meetings are the first direct talks between the two sides since Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from its much larger neighbor.

A European Union source described Tuesday's talks as "constructive, friendly and frank, with no shying away from issues."

However, the two sides have agreed to sidestep the most contentious issue; Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence three years ago. Belgrade still regards Kosovo as a Serbian province, despite the fact that it has been recognized as an independent state by most of the member countries of NATO, the EU and the OECD.

Kosovo's lead negotiator, Edita Tahiri

Tahiri spoke of a 'positive spirit and a constructive approach'

Just how entrenched the two sides' positions are, was reflected in the terminology used when speaking to the press.

Kosovo's lead negotiator, Deputy Prime Minister Edita Tahiri spoke of talks between "the Republic of Kosovo and the Republic of Serbia." The top Serbian negotiator, Borislav Stevanovic, avoided all references to sovereignty, speaking instead of the start of a "dialog with Pristina."

The talks are focusing on a raft of practical issues affecting everyday life in Kosovo - such as customs procedures, air traffic control and land registers.

Serbia has continued to block Kosovo's trade and stops passengers with Kosovo passports or car registrations. Pristina also cannot get its own telephone country code or join many international economic bodies because of Belgrade's opposition. There are also disagreements over school curricula in Kosovo's Serb-dominated north.

Stefanovic told reporters that while he had high hopes for the talks, he did not expect miracles.

"We will try to use this agenda to have fast results to enable our region to continue on its European path," he said. "Of course it will not be easy, there will be many ups and downs."

Tahiri said that "creativity could help improve the lives of people, but also advance the European agenda for both states."

Serbia's lead negotiator, Borislav Stefanovic

Stefanovic had high hopes but didn't expect "miracles"

Serb reluctance

Kosovo broke away from Serbia in February 2008 and relations have remained frozen ever since.

Serbia has argued that the declaration was a "flagrant violation" of its territorial integrity.

Last year, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that Kosovo's independence was in line with international law, a verdict welcomed by Germany and the United States.

The 1998-99 war between separatist Kosovo Albanians and Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic's security forces ended when a NATO air campaign ousted the Serbs and established a UN protectorate. The conflict claimed several thousand lives, mostly ethnic Albanians.

Serbia's intransigence on Kosovo has halted progress on the country's accession to the European Union.

Author: Chuck Penfold, Darren Mara (dpa, AP, Reuters)
Editor: Michael Lawton

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