Albanian leader's Serbia visit signals progress and challenges

Edi Rama arrived in Serbia on Monday, becoming the first Albanian leader to visit the former Yugoslav republic since communist dictator Enver Hoxha in 1946.

Albanian leader's Serbia visit signals progress and challenges

World Bulletin/News Desk

Albania's prime minister paid an unprecedented visit on Tuesday to ethnic kin in part of Serbia that was the site of a 2001 fighting, a trip symbolic of how far the region has come since the wars of the 1990s.

A heavy police presence highlighted how sensitive the visit was for Serbia, which is striving to join the European Union but continues to struggle with the integration of ethnic minorities that complain of discrimination.

Tirana's Prime Minister Edi Rama arrived in Serbia on Monday, becoming the first Albanian leader to visit the former Yugoslav republic since communist dictator Enver Hoxha in 1946.

But what had been billed as marking a new chapter in Balkan history descended into a public spat between Rama and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, over the independence of Kosovo, a former Serbian province populated mainly by ethnic Albanians.

While Rama's visit reflected the progress made over the past 15 years, the row demonstrated the depth of differences that remain between the two nations as they each seek to join the EU.

"All Serbs should know that my prime minister is Edi Rama, not Vucic," said Zija Saqipi, a 51-year-old ethnic Albanian who works as a driver in Switzerland but said he had returned to Serbia just for Rama's visit to the southern town of Presevo.

He and the mayor of Presevo, Ragmi Mustafa, both complained that police had removed Albanian flags hung out to welcome Rama. Police also closed a nearby highway, but crowds of people still turned out to greet Rama, chanting his name.

Kosovo broke away in war in 1998-99, with the help of NATO air strikes to halt a wave of Serbian ethnic cleansing. The next two years saw ethnic Albanian resistance in neighbouring Macedonia and the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia.

Western diplomacy ended the fighting, but the effort to integrate tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians in the Presevo Valley has been slow. Many have sought work in Western Europe.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and is recognised by over 100 countries, including Albania and most Western powers, but not Serbia or its big-power backer Russia.

Last Mod: 11 Kasım 2014, 14:00
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