PRISTINA (Reuters) - Kosovo on Wednesday named its first envoy to Serbia since the 1998-99 war which split the two countries, part of a fresh push by the European Union to resolve relations between the Balkan neighbors and cement stability in the volatile region.
Serbia and its former province have agreed in EU-mediated talks to exchange liaison officers tasked with improving communication five years after Kosovo declared independence with the backing of the West.
Kosovo’s government said Lulzim Peci, currently Pristina’s ambassador to Sweden, would become its “ambassador” to Serbia.
Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo as a state, is expected to name its envoy within days, though Belgrade insists neither representative will have diplomatic status. They will work out of the EU offices in Belgrade and Pristina.
The step is part of a push by the EU to nudge the two towards functional, neighborly relations, and for Serbia to drop its grip on a Serb-populated pocket of northern Kosovo.
Progress in talks mediated by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will decide how quickly the EU moves ahead with Serbia’s bid to join the bloc, with Belgrade aiming to clinch a date for the start of accession talks in June.
Mired in recession and spurred by the prospect of wartime foe Croatia joining the EU in July, Serbia’s six-month-old ruling coalition has offered to recognize the authority of the Kosovo government over the Serb-held north, in exchange for autonomy for the Serb minority.
Talks between Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and his Kosovo counterpart, Hashim Thaci, resume in February.
Dacic told lawmakers this month that Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo was “practically non-existent”, and they should focus on securing autonomy for tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs still living there.
“I see an attempt by the Serbs to try to solve this issue with Kosovo,” the EU’s envoy to Kosovo, Samuel Zbogar, told Reuters.
“Because they see in the long run the situation of Serbs in Kosovo is not sustainable unless there is a solution found of how to live one next to the other, one with the other, Kosovo and Serbia.”
Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after 11 weeks of NATO air strikes to halt the killing and expulsion of Kosovar Albanians by Serb security forces waging a brutal counter-insurgency war.
The impoverished country of 1.7 million people, 90 percent of them ethnic Albanians, has been recognized by more than 90 states, including the United States and 22 of the EU’s 27 members.
But Serbia retained de facto control over the northern, largely ethnic Serb pocket, in an ethnic partition that NATO peacekeepers and an EU police and justice mission have struggled to reverse. Tensions still spill over into violence.
Talks in Brussels have so far yielded agreement on border controls, customs, identification papers and other issues, though implementation has sometimes been patchy.
Editing by Matt Robinson and Jon Hemming