The new Prime Minister of Kosovo once overturned trucks of Serbian goods that he did not want to see on Kosovar soil. Today, Albin Kurti says he is ready to abolish the punitive customs duties imposed on Serbian products by the previous government.
The chief of staff who took office in early February has the support of a good part of the 1.8 million inhabitants of the former Serbian province in this area, but he is walking on eggs.
Subjected to intense international pressure to raise customs tariffs and relaunch dialogue with Belgrade, he encountered hostility from former independence fighters who had gone into opposition after dominating political life since independence proclaimed in 2008.
The former student leader said he was "ready" recently on Facebook "to abolish the 100% taxes" imposed in late 2018 by former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, in retaliation for the blocking of the entry of Kosovo into Interpol by Belgrade, which still does not recognize its former province.
These taxes "will be replaced by the principle of reciprocity between the two states" in the political, economic and commercial fields, he declared.
This concept commonly used in international relations could lead, for example, to the banishment of Serbian plates from Kosovo, cars fitted with Kosovar plates being prohibited in Serbia.
The taxes "hurt Kosovo, scare away businesses and jobs," said Richard Grenell, the US envoy to Belgrade and Pristina, over and over.
- "National pride" -
Opposition guerrilla parties that fought against Serbian forces during the 1998-99 war, a conflict that left more than 13,000 dead, oppose any trade concessions.
The opposition is trying to obtain a quorum of a third of the votes needed in Parliament to call a special meeting and try to mobilize opinion.
Ramush Haradinaj asked the Prime Minister to give up despite "the temporary political gains you could get from the international community. We must be united against Serbia until mutual recognition". His party, the AAK, brandished the threat of street demonstrations.
Customs duties are a "reaction worthy of our state in the face of Serbian attacks", insists Kadri Veseli, leader of the PDK, the main opposition party.
For Shpetim Gashi, an analyst at the Council for Inclusive Governance, an American research firm, the subject goes beyond "customs barriers" and touches on "national pride".
"Albin Kurti will walk a tightrope by replacing them with" reciprocity "," he told AFP.
Both the European Union and Washington have made normalization of relations between the two neighbors a priority, in the name of economic development and future integration into the EU.
- "Not forever" -
Many Kosovars welcome the approach of the new Prime Minister. According to a survey by the Kosovar Center for Security Studies, 60% of those questioned are for the abolition of taxes against 35% of contrary opinion.
"I had supported the customs reprisals but it can't last forever," Ekrem Hoxha, a 40-year-old technician, told AFP.
Same story with Muhamet Sejdiu, 32-year-old grocer. "I understood the reasons behind the taxes, Serbia is going too far," he said. "But it's time to get back to normal. On my shelves, I have Bulgarian, Macedonian, Albanian, Montenegrin, European products (...) I wouldn't mind having Serbian goods".
Serbia exported to Kosovo some 400 million euros of goods annually and economists like Safet Gerxhaliu are also calling for normalization.
"We should open a concrete dialogue on the elimination of barriers and do business not only between Kosovo and Serbia but throughout the region," he said.
In exchange, Serbia is requested by Brussels as by Washington to stop its campaign to convince various capitals to revoke their recognition of Kosovo.
According to Pristina, Kosovo is recognized by more than 115 countries. If you believe Belgrade they are now less than 100.
Albin Kurti declares himself ready to reopen a dialogue "focused on mutual recognition". The former rebel seems in any case to have turned the page on his tumultuous past, he who knew the jails of Slobodan Milosevic, advocated the riot against Serbian tutelage then against Kosovar leaders "usurpers".
"It is clear that Albin Kurti is evolving," notes Agron Bajrami, editor of the respected Kosovar daily Koha Ditore. "The days of overturning Serbian trucks are over."
© 2020 AFP