Serbia and Kosovo Move To Resume Flight Link 21 Years After War

(Bloomberg) -- More than two decades after a war split them apart and created one of the biggest national rivalries in Europe, Serbia and Kosovo took a step toward renewing flights between their capitals.

In a U.S.-brokered deal, Serbia, Kosovo and carrier Deutsche Lufthansa AG signed a letter of intent Monday that puts in place conditions for the flights to resume.

“It was clear that the business community wants economic development and new markets,” Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany and President Donald Trump’s envoy for Kosovo, said by phone. “The lack of a direct flight was a real problem for many businesses to grow, and yet the politics of the day was the problem.”

Since they fought a 1998-1999 war and Kosovo declared independence in 2008, the two neighbors have been locked in a diplomatic standoff that has at times threatened to boil over into violence. It has blocked progress on their efforts to join the European Union, even after 11 other former-communist states secured membership.

‘Southern Province’

EU-brokered talks stalled in 2018, when Kosovo imposed a 100% tax on imports from Serbia in retaliation against Serbia lobbying against its international recognition.

Marko Djuric, Serbia’s official in charge of relations with Kosovo, said that the flights may resume once Kosovo drops the tariffs.

In line with the government’s stance that Kosovo is still part of Serbia, he added: “In addition to the 12 buses that regularly connect Belgrade with Pristina, in the future it could also be an airline that would bring the capital of our southern province closer to Belgrade.”

Kosovo president Hashim Thaci welcomed the agreement, thanking Grenell and Trump National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. While Kosovo has repeatedly said it won’t lift the tax regime until Serbia stops blocking its recognition, neither side made clear whether the issue will play a role in the resumption of flights.

“This event marks another step in our efforts to normalize relations between the Republic of Kosovo and Serbia,” Thaci wrote on his Facebook page. He said the agreement should “ease the free movement of people and goods in the future.”

Normalization Process

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, whose organization has authority in the airspace over Kosovo, also welcomed the agreement and said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s KFOR force will remain involved “through the long-standing Balkans Aviation Normalization Meeting process, which we lead.”

Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence, which Pristina declared with backing from the U.S. and most European governments. Russia and China have backed Serbia’s efforts to oppose Kosovo’s membership in international bodies, including in the United Nations.

Lufthansa’s low-cost Eurowings subsidiary said this month it would station an Airbus A319 in Pristina starting on June 19, part of the company’s strategy to expand into eastern Europe. The carrier didn’t specify possible flights to the Serbian capital, Belgrade.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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