The leaders of Serbia and Kosovo have held their first talks in 18 months on resolving one of Europe's most intractable territorial disputes on Friday, agreeing to a face-to-face meeting next week on the "very difficult" process.
Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence after the province broke away in the bloody 1998-99 war that was ended only by a NATO bombing campaign against Serb troops.
Kosovo's Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic held a video summit that was also joined by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
These discussions will be followed by more online talks on Sunday between Hoti and Vucic as well as EU officials, and then their meeting in Brussels on Thursday, Macron and Merkel said in a joint statement after the talks.
They encouraged Hoti and Vucic to "achieve substantial progress in the negotiations in the coming months," the statement said.
"There are very difficult perspectives for the outcome of this dialogue, but there is a commitment by everyone to proceed step by step," added a French presidential official, who asked not to be named.
Pressure over joining EU
Both Kosovo and Serbia have been facing mounting pressure from the West to resolve the impasse which is seen as crucial to either side joining the EU.
Talks between Serbia and Kosovo broke down in November 2018.
"The normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia is essential for the security and stability of the region and of great importance if the two countries are to join the EU," the statement by the French and German leaders said.
A senior EU official in Brussels who followed the talks echoed the sentiment that significant challenges remained, saying "This is the beginning of the story."
Hoti told the online summit that the normalisation of relations "can be achieved only if Kosovo and Serbia respect each other's statehood," his office said.
Speaking after the meeting, Vucic said, “we had really tough negotiations,” and that he told Macron and Merkel that if Kosovo's independence "is what they want to talk about, then these talks are completely meaningless.”
“We will not have an easy time in the future. I think we will be exposed to great, great, let me not say pressure, but expectations from our European partners," Vucic said.
"At the same time we are faced with a completely unrealistic approach from Kosovo Albanians who want it all, leaving Serbia without anything," he said.
More than 13,000 people died in the war, mostly Kosovo Albanians, who form a majority in the former province.
Vucic, who is facing a major crisis at home after protests over a new coronavirus lockdown in Serbia, had warned ahead of the talks that he did not expect a smooth ride and that "no one is going to cuddle us or give us a present."
The new push comes after Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci was charged last month with war crimes by prosecutors in The Hague.
Thaci's indictment led to the postponement of a White House summit between Serbia and Kosovo due to be held at the end of June.
European officials had bristled at the US initiative to deal with Thaci on its own – a strategy now torpedoed by the indictment – and the EU now appears newly determined to resolve the issue.
The French official acknowledged that this issue was a "test of European leadership."
Peter Stano, spokesman for EU on foreign affairs, denied that the issue was a "beauty contest" with the EU and US competing.
But he added, "The European Union has been there for Kosovo since the start, facilitating the dialogue since it started in 2011."
During the war, Thaci was the political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), but prosecutors in The Hague suspect him of being behind nearly 100 murders, as well as numerous cases of persecution and torture that he is alleged to have committed during the 1998-99 Kosovo war and its aftermath.
Thaci, who has denied the charges, has said he would be interviewed by prosecutors in The Hague next week.
With Thaci focused on his legal defence, the EU official said it was clear the main point of contact for Kosovo was now Hoti.