PRISTINA - A few years ago, the newly elected Kosovo prime minister overturned Serbian trucks. But Albin Kurti now says he is ready to revoke tariffs introduced by his predecessor on Serbian goods.
Kurti, who took office in early February, is backed by most of 1.8 million inhabitants of the former Serbian province for such a move but is nonetheless walking on eggshells.
Under intense international pressure to abolish tariffs and resume stalled talks with Serbia, Kurti also faces a fierce backlash from veterans who fought for independence and dominated politics for decades.
The former student leader wrote recently on his Facebook account that he was ready to “abolish the 100 percent tariffs” on Serbian goods.
Principle of reciprocity
They were introduced in late 2018 by Ramush Haradinaj as retaliation for a Serbian blockade of Kosovo’s Interpol membership. Belgrade still refuses to recognize the independence declared by the breakaway territory in 2008.
The tariffs “will be replaced by the principle of reciprocity between the two states” in political, economic and commercial affairs, Kurti said.
The concept, commonly in use in international relations, could mean for example a ban for Serbian license plates in Kosovo, as Kosovar plates are prohibited in Serbia.
U.S. envoy for Belgrade-Pristina talks Richard Grenell urged Pristina to abolish tariffs as “it hurts Kosovo and chases businesses away from creating jobs.”
But opposition parties that emerged from the guerilla movement that fought Serb forces during the 1998-1999 war that claimed 13,000 lives, are against commercial concessions.
To mobilize the public, the opposition is trying to collect a third of the votes in Kosovo’s 120-seat parliament to call an extraordinary session on the issue.
Haradinaj urged the new prime minister to refrain from removing tariffs “for some temporary political points you might gain from the international community.
“We have to stand united in opposing Serbia until mutual recognition,” he said. His AAK party threatened to hold street protests against the move.
The tariffs are a “response to Serbia’s constant attacks against Kosovo,” said Kadri Veseli, leader of the largest opposition party PDK.
For Shpetim Gashi, analyst at the American think-thank Council for Inclusive Governance, the issue goes beyond tariffs and is now a question of “national pride.”
“Kurti will be walking on a tightrope when replacing it with reciprocity,” Gashi told AFP.
The European Union, like Washington, made normalization of ties between Serbia and Kosovo a priority for the sake of economic development and future integration into the EU.
A recent survey by the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies showed that about 60% of those questioned backed the move while 35% were against it.
“I supported my government’s decision to retaliate with the tariffs, but it cannot last forever,” Ekrem Hoxha, a 40-year-old technician told AFP.
Muhamet Sejdiu, a 32-year-old grocery store owner, echoed his words.
“I understand what brought the tariffs. Serbia really has gone too far,” he said. But “I think it is time to return to normalcy. On the shelves I have goods from Bulgaria, (North) Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Europe. ... I don’t mind having among them goods from Serbia.”
Serbia’s exports to Kosovo amount to around 400 million euros ($433 million) annually and economists like Safet Gerxhaliu call for normalization between the two neighbors.
“It is time to think about opening up a dialogue on eliminating barriers and doing business, not just between Kosovo and Serbia, but also in the whole region,” he said.
In exchange, Brussels and Washington are asking Belgrade to end its campaign to persuade other countries to withdraw their recognitions of Kosovo’s independence.
According to Pristina, Kosovo is recognized by more than 115 states, although Belgrade claims the number is less than a 100.
Kurti said he was ready to resume a dialogue “focused on mutual recognition.”
The former rebel seems to have turned the page on his tumultuous past when he was prisoner of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime and rioted against Serbia’s rule and later the Kosovo establishment by spraying the parliament with tear gas.
“It is clear that Kurti is evolving,” said Agron Bajrami, editor in chief of prominent Koha Ditore daily.
“The time for overturning Serbian trucks has passed.”