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article imageKosovo president seeks final deal with Serbia in 2018

By Nicolas GAUDICHET (AFP)     Feb 1, 2018 in World

Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci hopes to strike an "historic agreement" with Serbia in 2018, 10 years after his country made a declaration of independence that Belgrade still rejects.

"I think that 2018 is a crucial year and should be a decisive one. Otherwise, we will drag on for decades," Thaci said in an interview this week with AFP in Pristina.

On February 17, Kosovo will celebrate a decade of independence. Supported by the United States and most European Union members, it has won recognition from more than 110 countries -- but not from Serbia or Russia.

The unilateral declaration came 10 years after a 1998-1999 war between Serbian troops and ethnic Albanian rebels in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), of which Thaci was political leader.

But as Kosovo approaches its landmark anniversary, it awaits the first indictments from an EU-backed court set up to try KLA members suspected of committing war crimes in the conflict.

Speculation is rife that Thaci, who denies any wrongdoing, could be among those indicted. He says he is ready to respond to the tribunal "at any moment, under any circumstances" and "with all my capacity".

"I have nothing to hide," he said.

- 'Historical injustice' -

Thaci nevertheless describes the court as an "historical injustice", pointing out that it prosecutes members of only one ethnic group.

"Kosovo has not attacked anyone. It was only defending itself from the genocide of Slobodan Milosevic," Thaci said, referring to the late Serbian strongman.

The Kosovo war left 13,000 people dead, most of them ethnic Albanians, and came to an end after a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, forcing Milosevic's troops to retreat from the southern province.

Several top Serbian officials were sentenced for war crimes in the conflict by another international tribunal.

The new court, based in The Hague for witness protection but operating under Kosovan law, is specifically investigating the disappearance of around 500 civilians, mostly ethnic Serbs.

Dozens of Kosovo's lawmakers made a failed bid late last year to revoke the law allowing the tribunal's work to go ahead, citing concerns of bias.

The move sparked a strongly-worded rebuke from Western countries, warning of profound "negative consequences" if there were renewed efforts to block the tribunal.

"Under no circumstances will we allow anything to derail the partnership of Kosovo with the Western world," Thaci told AFP.

He said he "personally pushed" for the establishment of the court, which was wanted by Western allies, and "I have not changed my mind".

- 'Only way forward' -

For the president, there is only "one vision" for the future of Kosovo: EU and NATO membership.

But this integration also depends on progress in EU-brokered talks to "normalise" relations between Belgrade and Pristina, which began in 2011 but have stalled for almost two years.

One of the main stumbling blocks is the establishment of an association of Serb-run municipalities, granting more powers to Kosovo's Serb minority.

Most of Kosovo's 1.8 million people are ethnic Albanians.

"I believe definitely that dialogue is the only way forward for Kosovo and Serbia," Thaci said.

"And I hope that 2018 will be the year for a final historic agreement."

Although the talks are at a standstill, Thaci sees several reasons to be positive in the Serb-dominated north of Kosovo.

Since the launch of the dialogue, "we have Kosovo police on the border with Serbia, customs officers, freedom of movement, courts operating in the north," he said.

"Nowadays, Serbs are in the parliament and the government," he added, noting landmark local and national elections in the north, in 2013 and 2017.

- Post-murder calm -

People pay homage to assassinated prominent Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic  killed in Mitrov...
People pay homage to assassinated prominent Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, killed in Mitrovica on January 17 in an as yet unresolved crime

Tensions remain high in Mitrovica, an ethnically-divided northern city where prominent Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic was assassinated in mid-January.

But after the crime, which remains unsolved, Thaci and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic "calmed the situation down", he said.

"Imagine if this had happened three or four years ago -- the situation would have exploded."

When the talks with Belgrade began, Mitrovica was "blocked, isolated, overwhelmed by crime," the president recalled.

"We had 20 years of darkness in that part of Kosovo. Whoever expected a magical solution was wrong."

Thaci admits that Kosovo's most pressing challenge is job creation to tackle a "social crisis". Large numbers of citizens move abroad to escape an unemployment rate of around 30 percent.

The country also seeks visa-free travel in the EU, which other Balkan neighbours enjoy -- but this is conditional on Kosovo finalising a contentious border agreement with Montenegro.

"We have to do our part," Thaci said. "If not, it will be our fault."

He expressed hope that the EU's upcoming strategy on Kosovo and its neighbours would be "optimistic" and "concrete."

"The EU is late with Kosovo and the Western Balkans," the president said.

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