Kosovo election winner in no rush to restart Serbia talks

EU Election Observation Mission headed by Chief Observer Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, center, address media during a press conference in Kosovo capital Pristina on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. More than 100 EU election observers monitored Kosovo's Sunday snap vote when opposition parties won to overcome the former independence fighters who have governed the country since its war 20 years ago, considering the vote as "well-administered and transparent." (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

PRISTINA, Kosovo — A left-wing party leader poised to become Kosovo's next prime minister said Tuesday he isn't in any rush to restart formal talks intended to normalize relations with Serbia and won't lift the previous government's 100% tariff on Serb imports.

In a general election held Sunday, Albin Kurti's Movement for Self-the Determination, or Vetevendosje, defeated center-right political groupings formed by former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters who had governed since 2007.

Kosovo, a former Serbian province, declared independence in 2008, a decade after an insurrection by KLA fighters and Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic's bloody crackdown launched a 1998-99 war.

While most of the world recognizes Kosovo's independence, Serbia still considers the country part of its territory. Five EU member nations, Russia and China back Serbia's position.

The European Union, which is facilitating talks between the two countries, has said neither will be allowed to join the EU without normalized relations.

But Kurti told The Associated Press in an interview the Pristina-Belgrade negotiations aren't at the top of his agenda.

"It cannot be top priority on day one of me as a new prime minister," he said.

Kurti said that a sticking point in getting the talks going again - the 100% tariff on Serb goods - would not go away under his government.

"Only after the principle of reciprocity has been put in place, we can lift the tariffs," he said, referring to 33 deals signed between Kosovo and Serbia since the 2011-started dialogue.

Kurti's party has used tear gas and other methods to stop Parliament from working on deals with Serbia.

Kurti said he is curious to meet U.S. President Donald Trump's new special envoy for Kosovo-Serbia negotiations, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, in Kosovo on Wednesday.

Kurti served more than 2 ½ years jailed in Serbia for his pro-independence activities. He was released in 2001 following Western pressure on Belgrade.

"It's very sad to see how Belgrade is not facing its own past," said Kurti.

EU election observers said the election was "well-administered and transparent," although they criticized intimidation of ethnic Serbs by the main party representing the country's Serb minority.

Kurti's party did not garner enough votes to govern on its own and has asked the ex-opposition Democratic League of Kosovo to form a coalition.

The Belgrade-backed Serb List party won the 10 seats in Kosovo's 120-seat Parliament that are reserved for ethnic Serbs, the country's largest minority group. Another 10 seats are set aside for other minority groups.

Kurti illustrated his hard stance on Serbia when he was asked about a Serb representative serving as a minister in his government, which the Constitution requires. He said he preferred "a Serb minister who comes from those Serbs who recognize the independence of Kosovo."

"Unfortunately, they are representing rather the official Belgrade than the Kosovo Serbs," he said of the Serb List party.

Kurti's comments brought a scathing rebuttal from Belgrade.

Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin called Kosovo politician "scum." The Serbian official dealing with Kosovo, Marko Djuric, accused Kurti of being an "extremist" who was "stomping" on the democratic rights of Kosovo Serbs.

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Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade.

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