U.S. Pressures Kosovo Over Stalled Talks With Serbia

(Bloomberg) -- Kosovo’s insistence to keep punitive trade tariffs against Serbia has undermined Washington’s support for Europe’s youngest nation and must be ended, U.S. officials said in a letter to the government in Pristina.

Talks to repair ties between the Balkan states, who fought a 1998-1999 war that ended after a NATO-led bombing campaign against Serb forces, shuddered to a halt last year when Kosovo imposed a 100 percent levy on its neighbor’s imports. It was a reaction to Serbia blocking its bid to join the global policing organization Interpol -- part of a campaign to deny recognition of Kosovo in international bodies also backed by Russia and China.

Last week, U.S. diplomats urged both sides to avoid missing “the best opportunity for an entire generation” and strike a deal this year that includes joint recognition. This week, Washington, which has backed Kosovo’s struggle for independence from Serbia, stepped up pressure on Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj to lift the import tax, saying his actions had undermined the relationship.

“It is incredible that after all we have done together, Kosovo values our friendship so lightly as to ignore our advice,” U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Palmer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper and John Erath, principal director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, said in the letter published in Kosovo media. “We will be looking carefully at other aspects of our cooperation and reviewing if they should also be curtailed.”

Following the letter, which was confirmed as genuine by the U.S. embassy in Pristina, Haradinaj said he may consider suspending the trade barrier, the Koha Ditore newspaper reported, citing Hardinaj adviser Donjeta Gashi.

The paper said the prime minister asked the U.S. for "understanding" in his stance to stick with the tax. He has refused to lift it until Serbia, which claims Kosovo as its territory, stops blocking its recognition. Belgrade has rejected resuming talks until the tariff is abolished.

The U.S. has led the international drive to grant Kosovo statehood, but the actions now that hinder dialog “undermine the United States’ ability to continue to collaborate with you,” the officials said in the letter. “The first step on this road must be suspending the tariffs. Until you have done so, we cannot restore our relationship to our previous robust level.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.