Serbia and Kosovo meet in Brussels for EU-backed talks

Independence anniversary celebrations in Pristina. 17 Feb 2011 Kosovans celebrated the third anniversary of their declaration of independence last month

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Serbia and Kosovo have begun their first high-level talks since Pristina declared independence three years ago.

Kosovo's declaration of independence is rejected by Serbia, but both sides have agreed to the EU-sponsored talks.

The meeting in Brussels is due to focus on issues vital to Kosovo's daily life, including telecoms and airspace.

Correspondents say progress is likely to determine whether Belgrade and Pristina can move towards eventual EU membership.

The Serbian delegation is being led by Borko Stefanovic, while Kosovo's chief negotiator is Edita Tahiri.

"The objective of the talks is to improve the lives of people in the region, to improve co-operation within the Balkans as a whole and bring (them) more in line with European standards," a senior EU official was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority fought an insurgency against Serbia in the 1990s, a conflict in which more than 10,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes.

Analysis

The initial topics of these talks will be technical matters: for example, the fact that Serbia does not allow Kosovo-registered cars to enter its territory or planes that want to land in Kosovo to fly through Serbian airspace. Kosovo also blocks some Serbian cars from entering its territory.

Further down the line they will discuss more contentious issues: the fact that in the Serb-dominated north of Kosovo people simply won't accept any trappings of Kosovan independence.

The head of the Serbian negotiating team says Serbia will never recognise Kosovo's independence. He says that will perhaps be the "elephant in the room" during these talks although that should not stop them discussing other issues that can improve the lives of people on the ground.

It will be a long and difficult process but the European Union feels that by dangling the carrot of eventual EU membership in front of both parties, it can persuade the former foes to reach a historic compromise.

Kosovo was placed under UN administration and unilaterally declared independence three years ago.

So far it has been recognised by 75 countries, including the US and most of the EU.

Serbia continues to block Kosovo's trade and routinely stops passengers with Kosovo passports or car registrations.

Kosovo does not recognise new Serbian registration plates issued in Serbian areas of Kosovo.

Among other issues, Kosovo also cannot get its own telephone country code or join many international economic bodies because of Belgrade's opposition.

Mr Stefanovic has cautioned against any dramatic progress being made although he hoped that some of the key issues would be resolved by the end of the year.

Ms Tahiri, Kosovo's Deputy Prime Minister, has said that she wants the talks to contribute to the normalisation of relations. Issues surrounding independence and sovereignty would not be discussed, she said, as they had already been "irrevocably settled".

The initial two-day meeting in Brussels is being chaired by EU diplomat Robert Cooper and the aim is for the two sides to reconvene frequently over the coming months.

The BBC's Mark Lowen in Belgrade says that while neither side will back down from their fundamental position on Kosovo's status, the goal of eventual EU membership might just persuade them to reach a compromise solution.

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