September 9, 2017 / 6:19 PM / 3 months ago

New Kosovo PM pledges dialogue with Serbia, graft fight

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Kosovo’s newly-elected prime minister, ex-guerilla commander Ramush Haradinaj, pledged on Saturday to maintain dialogue with a former foe Serbia and put an end to endemic corruption.

Haradinaj was chosen to form a new government on Thursday after his coalition struck an agreement with a smaller party, paving the way for them to take power.

Lawmakers endorsed his appointment on Saturday with 61 votes in the 120-seat parliament - ending a political deadlock that has persisted since elections on June 11.

“There is no alternative to dialogue with Serbia,” Haradinaj told parliament.

Despite “a tragic history, we can not change the fact that we are neighbors,” he said.

Haradinaj’s coalition comprises parties made up of former guerrillas who fought Serbian forces in 1998 and 1999. That campaign led to accusations of war crimes against him, but he was acquitted twice by a United Nations war crimes tribunal.

His arrest in France in January on a Serbian arrest warrant for war crimes soured relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

Haradinaj said his new government would fight corruption that has been deterring investors since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

“We have an endemic corruption in all institutions,” he said, ahead of an expected vote on his new cabinet in parliament where his party will command a slim majority.

On Saturday, Belgrade officials gave support to 10 Serb deputies who have pledged to vote for Haradinaj’s government in parliament in return for three ministerial posts.

But opposition lawmakers criticized Haradinaj for relying on votes of Serb deputies who they say would seek Belgrade’s approval for any decisions they take.

“It is unfortunate that after all these years the creation of Kosovo institutions is entirely in the hands of Belgrade. This is a catastrophic cabinet,” Avdullah Hoti of the opposition Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) said.

Opposition MPs left the chamber as the vote took place.

Central bank governor Bedri Hamza was appointed finance minister and Behgjet Pacolli, whom media refer to as the richest man in Kosovo, as foreign minister.

The new government will have the difficult task of tackling 30 percent unemployment, and improving relations with Serbia, a precondition for the neighbors to move forward in their efforts to join the European Union.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after NATO air strikes drove out Serbian forces that had been accused of expelling and killing ethnic Albanian civilians in a two-year counter-insurgency.

Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Ros Russell

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