Serbs won't back Kosovo recognition for EU seat, president warns

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbs are unlikely to support full recognition of Kosovo as independent in exchange for EU membership, so only a compromise can stop Kosovo’s status from festering for decades in a “frozen conflict”, Serbia’s president warned on Friday.

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The European Union has told Serbia it could join the bloc by 2025, provided it carries out reforms at home and resolves its differences with Kosovo, a province which declared independence 10 years ago.

The bloc has not said explicitly what form an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo must take, but Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, told reporters in Pristina on Wednesday that Serbian “acceptance of Kosovo’s independence” was a condition.

Serbia’s leadership has been seeking a formula it can sell to the public in a referendum. Some commentators have suggested a deal under which Belgrade might stop short of recognizing Kosovo as sovereign, but accept it joining the United Nations, which Serbia’s veto-wielding ally Russia has so far blocked.

Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s president, a former Serb nationalist who has changed his views over the past decade to become pro-European, said any decision would have to be put to Serbian voters, many of whom consider Kosovo the cradle of their Orthodox faith.

“The people would decide; if you think that can get a majority, I’m not so sure,” Vucic told Reuters in an interview.

“We have to look at today’s reality and to understand relations in the world and relations in Kosovo and to understand that it (Kosovo) is not ours as we taught ourselves, but neither is it theirs as they try to show it,” he said.

“If there is no compromise we will have a frozen conflict for decades. We should not leave that to our children to deal with.”

Kosovo broke away from Serbia in 1999 when NATO bombed for 11 weeks to halt a wave of killings and expulsions of ethnic Albanian civilians by Serbian security forces waging a two-year counter-insurgency war.

It declared independence in 2008 and has been recognized by more than 100 countries around the world, including the major Western powers. However, five of the EU’s 28 members do not recognize Kosovo as sovereign, complicating the bloc’s ability to take a united stand.

On Tuesday, Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, told Reuters that he expected a deal with Serbia within the year and that it would result in Kosovo’s membership of the United Nations.

In exchange, some of Vucic’s allies, including his foreign and defense ministers, have called for Kosovo to be partitioned, with Serbia taking a northern slice populated by minority Serbs which Kosovo has struggled to integrate. Vucic declined to comment on such calls.

He insisted agreement was possible, but that it would require “political will in Brussels to reach a compromise, rather than continuing to put pressure on Serbia.”

Quoting the Serbian writer Borislav Pekic, Vucic said Serbia should look to the future: “We should not kiss the ground our ancestors walked on, but rather the ground our children will walk on.”

Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Matt Robinson and Peter Graff