By Andrea Dudik and Jasmina Kuzmanovic ‎February‎ ‎16‎, ‎2019‎ ‎

  • Both nations pressed by EU and U.S. to reach a settlement
  • Thaci says in interview he wants agreement as soon as possible

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said 2019 will be the year his nation reaches a comprehensive agreement with Serbia to mend ties between the former foes and pave their path into the European Union.

“I want to believe that 2019 will be the year of the agreement,” Thaci said through a translator during an interview in Munich on Saturday. “This is the best way forward for our countries and for the whole western Balkans.”

The deal, first mentioned by his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic last year, should close “all outstanding issues between Kosovo and Serbia,” Thaci said, and should include a “border demarcation, defining the border between Kosovo and Serbia.”

Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo, a predominantly Albanian state that declared independence in 2008, a decade after NATO forces drove out warring Serb soldiers from its territory.

The carrot of EU membership juxtaposed with Russia’s keenness to maintain influence in the region are testing traditional ties in the Balkans. While Thaci and Vucic appeared to near a deal last summer, the mention that it may include a land swap in the region, scene of Europe’s bloodiest fighting since World War II, led to a push back from the international community. Angela Merkel’s government likened it to opening Pandora’s Box. The U.S. under Donald Trump, though, appeared more receptive to upending agreements it brokered.

Russia, China

Russia and China, which have sided with Serbia in its refusal to recognize Kosovo, now publicly vow to support any stance that the Balkan nation takes. Yet Russia is wary of supporting any deal that could speed Serbia’s EU membership and further reduce its already dwindling footprint in the Balkans. China may be more supportive as it sees its investments in the region as its way into Europe.

Relations between the two nations deteriorated late last year when Serbia blocked Kosovo’s entry into Interpol, the international police organization, and Kosovo introduced trade tariffs on Serbian goods, which remain in place.

Vucic seemed less optimistic on Saturday, saying talks were in “a stalemate,” but said he’ll do his best for the talks to continue.

When asked why he was optimistic that the differences can now be overcome, Thaci said there’s a “new momentum with increased focus and attention by the EU, the United States and other international partners to reach an agreement, especially the United States.”

Asked whether the pressure was on to have the deal ready before European Parliament elections in May, he said: “The sooner the better.”

That was echoed in Munich by EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who urged both sides “to strike a deal as soon as possible,” before the term of this Commission ends.