Albania: Relations With Serbia Improve

A diplomatic initiative by Albania's ex-premier appears to have diffused growing tensions with Belgrade.

Albania: Relations With Serbia Improve

A diplomatic initiative by Albania's ex-premier appears to have diffused growing tensions with Belgrade.

Frosty diplomatic relations between Tirana and Belgrade over Kosovo's status seem to have experienced an unexpected thaw, following a surprise visit by former Albanian premier Ilir Meta to Belgrade last weekend.

Analysts believe Meta, a leading light in Albania's ruling Socialist Party, appears to want to become a moderator in the region, opening channels of communication aimed at decreasing tension between the Balkans' Albanian minorities and their respective governments.

The day before visiting Belgrade, Meta had talks with Hashim Thaci, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo and former Kosovo Liberation Army commander. Thaci opposes cooperation with Belgrade.

A fortnight before that he was in Skopje to meet Macedonia's Albanian politicians, urging them to respect the Ohrid agreement, which ended six months of fighting in the republic.

In Belgrade, Meta spoke to Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic and Yugoslav foreign minister Goran Svilanovic. While in Belgrade he also met leaders of the Albanian community in southern Serbia.

This flurry of shuttle diplomacy could be an attempt to impress European Union officials who meet in a month's time to decide on whether to begin negotiations on Albania's future integration into Europe.

During each trip Meta has been at pains to encourage ethnic Albanian leaders to abide by established peace agreements. He reminded Albanian community leaders in Belgrade that only by respecting the Presevo truce could the region become stable.

This turn around in relations is remarkable, given that only weeks ago Albania and Serbia appeared to be at loggerheads.

Ties between the two countries deteriorated in April after Albanian prime minister Pandeli Majko visited Kosovo. The Yugoslav foreign ministry lodged an official protest, complaining that Tirana had offered no prior notice of the visit. Belgrade clearly wished to press home its point that Kosovo is technically part of Yugoslavia and, as such, official visits should be approved by the federal foreign ministry in advance.

Nebosja Covic, Serbia's deputy prime minister and head of the government's Kosovo coordination committee, accused Tirana of deliberately trying to provoke the Yugoslav authorities.

Tirana dismissed the protests. It insisted Albania had abided by protocol in arranging Majko's visit. The government cleared the visit with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, and Majko's first meeting was with UNMIK chief Michael Steiner.

When the Albanian premier met his Kosovo counterpart Bajram Rexhepi, the Kosovo minister for agriculture and forestry, a member of the Kosovo Serb coalition, was also present.

UNMIK reacted to Belgrade's protest by saying that it was up to the authorities in Pristina to arrange such visits, not Belgrade.

Belgrade was again aggrieved when Albania's central bank signed an agreement with its Kosovo counterpart in April.

The issue of Kosovo's status has been a constant source of discord, due to renewed efforts by Belgrade to stress the province's status as part of Yugoslavia and Serbia. Albanian President Rexhep Meidani has consistently referred to Kosovo as an independent entity.

But Meta's diplomatic gamble appears to have diffused tensions for now, at least. "The governments of Serbia and Albania are totally determined to work for the establishment of stability in the Balkans," Djindjic said after his meeting with the former Albanian premier.

On Kosovo, Meta said Albania had encouraged Kosovo Albanians and Serbs to work together to build up new democratic institutions, adding that Tirana and Belgrade "should look only ahead and not backwards".

It is not clear what's next on Meta's agenda, but his peace initiative looks set to help Albania rally international support ahead of EU negotiations on integration.

Teodor Misha is publisher of Tirana-based Albanian Observer magazine.

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