US delegation pledges support to Serbia, Kosovo after deal

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — A U.S. delegation pledged Tuesday to move forward with helping to boost business and investment between Serbia and Kosovo after the former war foes agreed at the White House this month to work together to normalize economic relations.

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American officials visited Serbia’s capital of Belgrade after traveling to Kosovo on Monday, in what is seen as a sign of growing U.S. interest in Europe's tense southeastern Balkan region. The U.S. delegation brought together representatives from the Serbian and Kosovar business chambers and met top government officials later Tuesday.

“What we did in Washington seems big and it is big,” Richard Grenell, U.S. President Donald Trump's special envoy for talks between Serbia and Kosovo, said at a news conference held at the American ambassador's residence in Belgrade. “We are not finished. That symbolism is important, but it’s all about job creation.”

Serbia and former province Kosovo have been locked in a decades-long territorial dispute that exploded into a a war in 1998-99. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Belgrade does not recognize the split. The issue remains a source of tension in the Balkans, a volatile area with ambitions to join the European Union and where Russia and China are also vying for influence.

Washington recently stepped up efforts to help unlock the dispute by focusing on the economic progress. The two sides agreed to boost economic ties in a deal with Trump, an action that some analysts viewed as an attempt to demonstrate foreign policy success ahead of November's U.S. presidential election.

“We would not be here if it were not for President Trump who believed that something different can happen," Grenell said.

He said the makeup of the U.S. delegation, which included officials from the energy and commerce departments, USAID, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation and the Export-Import Bank of the United States shows that Kosovo and Serbia “have the total attention of the United States government.”

“We want the people of Serbia to hold us to account that words on paper are not enough until there are massive job creation, economic development, hope and families that stay in this region and build their families in the next generation.”

The U.S. led a NATO intervention in 1999 that stopped Serbia's crackdown against Kosovo's ethnic Albanian separatists and forced Belgrade to pull out of the territory. Relations between Washington and Belgrade have been sour for years over the bombing and the U.S. recognition of Kosovo's independence.

Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic agreed at the White House to normalize economic ties, that Serbia would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and would have mutual recognition with Israel.

“I think we have opened the door of an old friendship with the United States,” Vucic said Tuesday at a news conference with the visiting American officials. “This is a good day for Serbia.”

U.S. and Serbian officials also inaugurated the opening of a regional office in Belgrade of the International Development Finance Corporation. Chief Executive Adam Boehler said projects worth “billions of dollars” were under evaluation.

“The opening of the office today is not symbolic. It’s an office that will stand, that will be permanent,” Boehler said, hailing a “new era of U.S.-Serbian relationship.”

Most Western nations have recognized Kosovo’s independence, but Serbia and its allies Russia and China have not. The European Union has mediated political talks aimed at normalizing relations between the two rivals.