Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci on Tuesday reiterated that senior Serbian officials had told him they eventually would recognize his country's independence.
"In Belgrade, there are opinions related to recognizing Kosovo, and that goes up to the highest officials of the state," Mr. Thaci said, adding: "This will not happen in a time frame of days."
His comment, after an address at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), backed up his earlier remarks to the Serbian weekly NIN. He said he had received "informal confirmation that Belgrade would one day recognize Kosovo," which one Serbian official immediately dismissed as "nonsense."
Since Kosovo formally declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, after almost nine years under U.N. receivership, it has been recognized by 69 U.N. member states — including the U.S. and most other Western nations.
But Serbia has waged a fierce diplomatic campaign to bring the breakaway province back into its orbit, earning support from states such as China, Russia and Spain, who face their own secessionist movements.
"Unfortunately, there are still countries that behave with Kosovo as if it does not exist," Mr. Thaci said Tuesday. "However, our message is clear: Kosovo exists, and it is a functioning state. It existed yesterday, today, tomorrow and forever."
Mr. Thaci's remarks come two days before the release of the International Court of Justice's long-awaited advisory opinion on the legality of Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence.
He said he was "very optimistic" that the court would rule in Kosovo's favor, but declared that even an unfavorable opinion would not turn back the clock.
"Regardless of the verdict, the independence of Kosovo is irreversible, and the freedom of my people is eternal," Mr. Thaci said.
The proclamation puts Kosovo on a collision course with Serbia, whose officials have shown no signs that they would respect an unfavorable court opinion.
"The UDI — the unilateral declaration of independence — is something that Serbia is not going to accept," Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told a small group of reporters in Washington on June 30.
"This is the truth — and it's a truth that it is not going to change. We're a democratic country, and our position on the UDI is based on our constitution, it's based on the binding decisions of the Serbian national parliament, and it is supported by the vast majority of our citizens inside a democratic system."
But USIP's Daniel Serwer, a former Balkans envoy who introduced Mr. Thaci at the event, told The Washington Times that he — like the prime minister — had spoken to "high-level people in the Serbian government" who were quietly preparing for a future without Kosovo.
"I've heard it personally — that they understand reality, and that they will adjust to reality," he said. "That's what you hear."
With renewed ethnic violence in northern Kosovo, large swaths of which have a majority of ethnic Serbs, some have speculated that Belgrade might seek a face-saving compromise under which it would let Kosovo go in return for the cession of Serb-dominated areas north of the Ibar River.
But Mr. Thaci, whose government has sought recently to assert its authority in the north, ruled out any such compromise and accused Belgrade of stoking tensions there.
"Unfortunately, full integration of the Serbs north of the Ibar River is hindered due to the destructive role of Serbia," he said.
Ruling out any discussion on Kosovo's territorial integrity or basic independence, Mr. Thaci laid out several domains in which he said dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade could prove fruitful — such as border demarcation, economic cooperation, law enforcement and the return of refugees.
"We are ready to discuss and solve these issues," he said. "But the question is whether Serbia is ready, too."
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