By Andrea Dudik and Marc Champion ‎February‎ ‎18‎, ‎2019‎ ‎

  • Deal ‘not as far as it looks,’ Serb president Vucic says
  • Tense encounter with Kosovo leader in Munich shows obstacles

Two decades into Europe’s biggest unresolved dispute, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic says it’s time for a deal on Kosovo.

After Greece and the ex-Yugoslav region of Macedonia settled a country-name clash, international pressure is shifting to Vucic to work for a deal with Kosovar leader Hashim Thaci. That would allow both sides to join the European Union and, at least in Kosovo’s case, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“We both know what we want,” Vucic, whose country is central to a region in a geopolitical struggle for influence between Russia and the West, said in an interview at a global security conference in Munich. “It’s not as far as it looks.”

A former disciple of the late Slobodan Milosevic, Vucic has no illusions it’ll be easy. Both leaders will have to explain to voters that neither side will get everything it wants, he said Sunday.

While Serbia’s vista is the potential economic boost of joining EU, Kosovo is looking to cement its independence and Europe wants to increase stability in the Balkans.

Almost a Deal

Thaci and Vucic had appeared close to a deal last summer, but the prospect that it might include a land swap in the Balkans, the scene of Europe’s worst fighting since World War II, prompted pushback. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it would open Pandora’s box and threaten years of efforts to break the blood-and-soil ties between ethnicity and national borders, though the U.S. has been more receptive.

Russia and China, which have backed Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo, now say they’d support whatever stance Belgrade takes. Even so, Russia is wary of supporting any deal that could speed Serbia’s EU membership and further reduce its dwindling regional footprint.

Thaci, speaking in an interview in Munich on Saturday, said he wants to believe that 2019 will be the year of the agreement.

“That is the best way forward for our countries and the whole western Balkans,” Thaci said.

Kosovo, populated mostly by ethnic Albanians, declared independence in 2008, nine years after a NATO bombing campaign forced out Milosevic’s troops. No Serbian government has accepted an independent Kosovo.

The obstacles came into focus when Vucic and Thaci sat down in Munich on Saturday for a rare public debate. At times, the conversation descended into recriminations about past killings and rapes during the two sides’ conflict. At least they were “absolutely open” with each other, Vucic said.

Relations deteriorated last year after Serbia blocked Kosovo’s entry into Interpol, the international police organization, and Kosovo introduced tariffs on Serbian goods.

While both leaders say they’re ready to resume talks, Vucic said the tariffs would have to be removed first and any deal requires free movement of goods and people.

Ending the dispute between Greece and what’s now the Republic of North Macedonia — another byproduct of communist Yugoslavia’s collapse into war in the 1990s — was easy by comparison, Vucic said.

“It’s going to be worse-than-hell difficult,” he said.