Kosovo Serbs protest against a ban of the use of...

Kosovo Serbs protest against a ban of the use of the Serbian currency in areas where they live, in the northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica, Kosovo, on Feb. 12, 2024. A senior U.S. official on Wednesday March 13, 2024 reassured top officials in Kosovo that the burdens of normalizing relations with longtime rival Serbia would be borne by both sides. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar met with officials in Kosovo in the latest American effort to restart talks on normalizing ties between Kosovo and Serbia, after Kosovo made a controversial decision to ban ethnic Serbs in its territory from using the Serbian dinar. Credit: AP/Bojan Slavkovic

PRISTINA, Kosovo — A senior U.S. official on Wednesday urged Kosovo and Serbia to make tough decisions to restart talks and “move forward” on normalizing ties.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar met with officials in Kosovo in the latest American effort to restart the talks between the two countries after Kosovo made a controversial decision to ban ethnic Serbs in its territory from using the Serbian currency, the dinar.

The central bank's ban sparked new tensions and threatened to cause chaos in minority Serbian areas, where the dinar is widely used to pay pensions and salaries to staff in Serbian-run institutions, including schools and hospitals.

It has also fueled Western concerns about regional tensions escalating as a full-scale war rages in Ukraine.

Escobar has acknowledged that Washington and Brussels were struggling to get the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue “back on track.”

Brussels has warned both that refusal to compromise jeopardizes Serbia and Kosovo’s chances of joining the bloc, which is mediating a dialogue between the former foes. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s 2008 independence.

“Both sides need to move forward on the implementation of a historic normalization agreement,” said Escobar.

He also assured Kosovo that “it is not a unilateral effort" to get only Kosovo to make tough decisions required for “dialogue and law and agreement” to become a reality.

Kosovo has postponed implementation of the ban on the dinar by several months in response to international concerns.

The ban bars banks and other financial institutions in ethnic Serbian-dominated areas, especially in Kosovo’s north, from using the dinar in local transactions and requires them to use the euro, which is Kosovo's official currency.

Escobar also praised the “difficult but necessary” decision taken on Wednesday by Kosovo's government to recognize the land rights of a 14th century Serbian Orthodox monastery of Visoki Decani. The monastery is listed as an endangered World Heritage site and has been fighting for formal title to lands around its buildings for nearly a decade.

In 2016, Kosovo’s top court ruled that the monastery, located some 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of the capital, Pristina, is the rightful owner of the land, but local authorities resisted giving it formal title for years. The international community has pressed Kosovo’s government to legalize the land of the monastery.

EU ambassador to Kosovo Tomas Szunyog said the monastery land decision was “a welcome step, which showcases Kosovo’s commitment” to Europe.

Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti said implementation of the verdict on the monastery’s land title was the last condition set from the Council of Europe for Kosovo's membership.

That membership would “not only a historic victory but also a giant step” toward recognition from five more European countries, which would enable Kosovo to apply for "membership in NATO and the EU,” said Kurti.

Five EU members — Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia — do not recognize Kosovo, which was a former Serbian province until a 78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1999 ended a war between Serbian government forces and ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo and pushed Serbian forces out . Belgrade still considers Kosovo a Serbian province.

Kosovo is today recognized by 117 countries. Israel was the last country to grant recognition in 2020.

Pristina expects to get the Council of Europe membership by May but tensions have run high over the past year.

Last May, Kosovo Serbs clashed with security forces, including NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers, injuring 93 troops, in a dispute with Pristina over the validity of local elections in the Serbian minority-dominated part of northern Kosovo.

Kosovo has agreed to hold referendums in four Serb-majority municipalities on April 21 on whether to oust their ethnic Albanian mayors, whose election last year raised tensions between Serbia and Kosovo.

In September, a Kosovo police officer and three Serb gunmen were killed in a shootout after about 30 masked men opened fire on a police patrol near the Kosovo village of Banjska.

Escobar said Washington was “still very deeply concerned about the events of September 24th" and called on Serbia "to bring those who are responsible to justice and to have full accountability for that attack.”

___

Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.

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