Serbia-Kosovo Flights to Resume Under U.S.-Brokered Deal

Serbia-Kosovo Flights to Resume Under U.S.-Brokered Deal

BERLIN — Serbia and Kosovo agreed on Monday to restore flights between their capitals for the first time in more than two decades, in a step toward reconciliation brokered by the United States at a time when the European Union is urging the two Balkan countries to resume talks.

The deal will open passenger and cargo flights between Belgrade and Pristina by the German-owned carrier Eurowings. It came after months of intense shuttle diplomacy by Richard Grenell, the United States ambassador to Germany, who was named special envoy for Serbia-Kosovo relations by President Trump last year.

Mr. Grenell said the key to reaching the agreement signed on Monday was ignoring the longstanding political conflicts between the two countries and focusing instead on the potential for economic ties.

“What we heard from the business community in Kosovo and from the business community in Serbia is we want a more normalized commerce structure and we need a flight,” Mr. Grenell said. “It’s the reason why we went after trying to figure out how do we make a direct flight for the first time in a generation.”

In 1998 and 1999, Serbian forces brutally suppressed an uprising by ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo, which was then part of Serbia, until a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, led by the United States, forced Serbia to give up on the war.

Kosovo gained autonomy after the war and in 2008 it formally declared independence, but its relations with Serbia have remained tense. About half of the world’s nations recognize Kosovo’s independence, including the United States and most of its Western allies, and about half do not, including Serbia and its most powerful ally, Russia.

The resumption of flights is a step toward normalization, however small, at a time when a new European Union leadership is eager to resolve the simmering dispute between Kosovo and Serbia as part of its overall effort to instill peace in Europe’s historically turbulent southeastern flank.

Since the end of the Balkan wars in 2001, the deadliest conflict in Europe since World War II, integrating the former combatants into the European Union has been a central part of fulfilling the longstanding vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace. Two nations created from the breakup of Yugoslavia, Slovenia and Croatia, have joined the bloc, while the others — Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Montenegro — are being considered for membership.

The new foreign policy chief for the European Union, Josep Borrell Fontelles of Spain — a country that has not yet recognized Kosovo as independent — said one goal of his term in office will be to revive talks between leaders in Pristina and Belgrade.

Previous negotiations lasted several years without much progress before stalling in 2018, after the government of Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj of Kosovo imposed 100 percent tariffs on imports from Serbia and passed legislation to form an army.

Mr. Haradinaj resigned in July, after he was summoned for questioning about crimes against ethnic Serbs during and after the 1998-99 war, in which he served as an officer in the Kosovo Liberation Army. His departure triggered an early election, held in October.

Since then, Kosovo has been without a government, hindering the resumption of any progress on negotiations. In a call last week to Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, Mr. Borrell stressed the need for a new government to be in place for negotiations to be able to proceed. Mr. Borrell also spoke by telephone with Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia.

On Monday, Mr. Thaci nominated Albin Kurti of the nationalist Vetevendosje, or Self Determination, party as prime minister, three months after the election failed to deliver a majority.

The agreement on flights was signed by Milun Trivunac, state secretary of Serbia’s Ministry of Economy; Eset Berisha, director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Kosovo; and Michael Knitter, the chief operating officer of Eurowings, a budget carrier owned by Lufthansa.

Following the signing at the American embassy in Berlin, Mr. Knitter said that flights would begin after both countries removed regulatory hurdles. It takes only 25 minutes to fly between Belgrade and Pristina, compared with more than five hours by road, including going through a border check, he said.

Eurowings has a plane and a crew stationed in Pristina and already flies from there to several destinations in Germany and Austria. Lufthansa flies in and out of Belgrade.

There was no schedule set for when flights might resume, Mr. Knitter said.

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