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October 31, 2012

US, EU Presses Kosovo to Integrate Ethnic Serb Population

by Scott Stearns

U.S., European, and Kosovo officials are working to better integrate ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, an area where the Serbian government operates separate security and judicial systems.  Improving conditions for ethnic Serbs is central to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's ongoing dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.

"It is about normalizing life so that the people who live in the north can go about their daily lives feeling part of a community, feeling part in their lives of a society," Ashton said on Wednesday during a trip to Pristina, where she and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held talks with  Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci.

Clinton said the United States is working closely with the European Union to address the concerns of Kosovar Serbs through this political dialogue.

"The United States urges all parties to continue to work to implement the agreements reached to date, to reach agreements in new areas, and to advance concrete measures to normalize relations," Clinton said. "Normalization of relations is key to future progress for both Serbia and Kosovo."

Belgrade has refused to recognize Kosovo since its unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.  The United States and most European powers backed the move by ethnic Albanians and have worked to resolve the status of Serbs in northern areas of Kosovo, where Belgrade operates a parallel network of hospitals, schools, and courts for about 60,000 ethnic Serbs.

Prime Minister Thaci says there has been extraordinary success in integrating Serbs in the south, but clear challenges remain in the north.  Following talks with Ashton and Clinton, he spoke through an interpreter.

"I am the prime minister of all citizens, both citizens in the north and the south, and I guarantee that I will serve all," Thaci said.

The EU dialogue does not require Serbian recognition of Kosovo, and Clinton says the Obama administration understands the political and constitutional difficulties of doing so.  But she made clear there is no questioning Kosovo's "clear and set" boundaries.

"The United States is firmly committed to Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to seeing the rule of law extended throughout Kosovo," Clinton said. "We oppose any discussion of territorial changes or reopening Kosovo’s independent status.  These matters are not up for discussion."

Kosovo and Serbia each aspire to membership in the European Union, and resolving the issues of Serbs in northern Kosovo is part of the process.  Prime Minister Thaci made that goal clear, in remarks translated by an interpreter.

"Today Kosovo is still not the Kosovo of our dreams," he said. "But we are persistently working for a European Kosovo.  For a Euro-Atlantic Kosovo.  We are conscious that we need to do more in terms of rule of law, combating corruption and organized crime and powerfully including minority communities in the public and institutional life of Kosovo."

Ashton said there are many things that need to be done to qualify for membership in the European Union.

"But they are worth doing because at the end of it you will have a country that is stronger economically, stronger politically, where the rule of law is observed correctly, where human rights are fully respected," she said.

For her part, Clinton siad the United States supports the aspirations of Kosovo and its neighbors to become fully integrated into the European Union because that offers the surest path to long-term stability, prosperity and peace for people throughout the Balkans.