U.S. calls on Kosovo to drop restrictions on Serbians

PRISTINA (Reuters) - The United States criticized on Wednesday a move by Kosovo making it harder for Serbians to enter the country, despite its removal of 100% tariffs on goods produced by its neighbor.

Under pressure from the European Union and the U.S., which last month halted $50 million in economic aid to Kosovo, prime minister Albin Kurti said the tariffs would be removed from April 1, with an evaluation of the situation on June 15.

But trucks and cars with Serbian license plates will now need temporary ones to enter Kosovo, Serbians will need a special permit as their documents will not be recognized and all trade documents should treat Kosovo as an independent country.

The U.S. Embassy in Kosovo said it opposed the new measures because they will create more problems.

“Kosovo should drop all tariffs and not create new barriers because these policies hurt the people of Kosovo and strangle Kosovo’s own economy,” it said in a statement.

Kosovo introduced the tariffs in 2018 after Serbia blocked its former province’s membership of international organizations including Interpol and UNESCO, prompting Belgrade to walk out of EU-mediated talks with Pristina aimed at normalizing relations.

The measures reciprocate those applied in Serbia to travelers from Kosovo, a country Belgrade still considers part of its territory having refused to recognize its independence.

Marko Djuric, head of the Serbian government office on Kosovo, said the new restrictions were unacceptable.

“(The measures) are distancing us from the normalization process and creating obstacles for the people and the economy to function properly on a day-to-day basis,” Djuric told Reuters.

The European Union welcomed the removal of import tariffs with High Representative Josep Borrell Fontelles saying “regional cooperation is key, as is maintaining flow of goods, in particular in times of crisis”.

The new measures introduced by Kurti have, however, angered his coalition partner, leading to the government losing a confidence motion in parliament last week.

Kosovo also said it would lift tariffs on goods from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; additional reporting by Fedja Grulovic in Belgrade; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Alexander Smith