US envoy urges Serbia, Kosovo to drop obstacles to talks

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U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, Ambassador Richard Grenell speaks during a press conference after a meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade, Serbia, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Grenell is meeting Serbian President Vucic in order to move the dialogue and normalize relations between the two sides.(AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — U.S. President Donald Trump’s special envoy for talks between Serbia and Kosovo said Friday that the two Balkan rivals must remove obstacles that have blocked negotiations for more than a year.

Kosovo must drop the 100% trade tax on Serbian goods, while Belgrade has to stop its campaign of trying to persuade countries in the world to revoke their recognition of Kosovo, Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, said in Belgrade.

Serbia does not accept Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, although its former province has been recognized by about 100 countries, including the U.S. and most European Union nations.

Grenell was appointed by Trump as the special envoy for Kosovo and Serbia in October. The EU-mediated negotiations that started in 2011, have been stalled since Kosovo imposed the tax in 2018.

“The tariffs must be dropped, that is unacceptable” said Grenell, who was in Kosovo before traveling to Belgrade, said after meeting Serb President Aleksandar Vucic. “I also have the same request here, which is: The de-recognition campaign must stop.”

Grenell added that the U.S. wants the two sides to focus on the economy, new jobs and prosperity for the nations. He insisted that “there are so many businesses that are ready to come in and … what we need to do is to get rid of what they view as a conflict.”

Vucic said Serbia so far has lost 435 million euros ($480 million) because of the taxes, while Serbian companies have been pushed out of the Kosovo market.

“We talked about establishment of a railway line between Belgrade and Pristina,” said Vucic. “It’s senseless to have a railway line and at the same time no goods traveling on those trains.”

Serbia’s brutal intervention against independence-seeking ethnic Albanians in 1998-99 prompted NATO to intervene to stop the conflict. Relations have remained tense ever since despite EU-led talks.

“We come here just to push the parties together,” Grenell said. “I have no grand agenda, I have no ideas of what you should do, I am not going to push you on specific ideas, I am going to push you to help the economies grow.”

Grenell said a meeting to discuss reviving railway links between Serbia and Kosovo will be held on Monday. U.S. officials brokered an agreement to resume air traffic earlier this week.

“We feel a sense of excitement and energy that we are beginning to talk and make some progress,” he said. “We are feeling some excitement right now and we are hopeful.”

Grenell toldKosovo newspaper Koha Ditore that Pristina and Belgrade had agreed in principle on resuming the railway link, similarly to the agreement on resuming air traffic, brokered earlier this week by U.S. officials.

Grenell said authorities in Pristina and Belgrade had agreed and would hold expert-level talks on Monday, according to the newspaper, considering it another positive step.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci hailed “the intention to restore the railway connection between Kosovo and Serbia, marking another important step towards full normalization.”

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Llazar Semini contributed from Tirana, Albania.

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