Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic will on Wednesday become the first Serbian government head to visit Albania, aiming to improve the fragile relations between the two Balkan nations. His visit comes six months after that of Albania's Prime Minster Edi Rama to Belgrade, the first visit to Serbia by a Tirana government head for 68 years. In Tirana on Wednesday, Vucic will have talks with his counterpart before speaking the following day at an economic forum in which regional country leaders will participate.
Relations between Serbians and Albanians are strained over the question of Kosovo, a territory with an ethnic Albanian majority that declared independence from Serbia in 2008, with the support of the United States, but remains unrecognised by Belgrade and its ally Russia, as well as others. Bilateral tensions have also been fuelled by claims of the ethnic Albanian minority in Serbia for more autonomy or even a unification with Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority.
"We want to deepen collaboration with Serbia and advance together on the path of peace, cooperation and integration in the EU," Rama told AFP ahead of the visit. "I am convinced that Albania and Serbia, Albanians and Serbs, could together do for the Balkans what France and Germany did for Europe after World War II," he said. Vucic said he was looking forward to the visit with optimism, stressing that the differences could only be solved through dialogue. For Serbian analyst Dusan Janjic "the improvement of relations between Tirana and Belgrade is the key for the stability in the Balkans." Albanian political analyst Skender Minxhozi said that though the visit was an encouraging sign it alone "could not erase decades of hostilities and chill." The relations between Serbs and Albanians have also remained strained because Belgrade fears a "Great Albania," a nationalist project seeking to unite all Albanians in one state, including Kosovo and parts of Macedonia and Serbia where they make majority.
A war between Serbian armed forces and pro-independence guerrilla movement in Kosovo in 1998-1999 was followed by a NATO bombing campaign to stop the crackdown of late president Slobodan Milosevic's regime against ethnic Albanian population. The Serbian army and police were eventually forced by NATO to leave Kosovo, which in 2008 proclaimed independence. Serbia has ever since denounced what it claims to be a Tirana-sponsored "Great Albania" project, although both Albanian and Kosovo authorities assure that no such plan exists. Last November, during his visit to Belgrade, Rama called on Vucic to recognise the reality of Kosovo's independence, provoking angry responses from his host and the Serbian public. Rama's visit had been delayed for three weeks following trouble at a mid-October football match in Belgrade, a Euro 2016 qualifier between Serbia and Albania that had to be abandoned. Serb fans invaded the pitch and attacked Albania's players after a pro-Albanian flag with a map of a "Great Albania" was flown over the stadium by a drone. Despite the friction, the two men agreed to continue with their contact and carry on working towards an improvement in relations between the two countries. Wednesday's visit by Vucic comes at a time of tension elsewhere in the Balkans. Two weeks ago Macedonian police clashed with an ethnic Albanian armed group, most of whose members were from Kosovo. Eighteen people were killed, including eight police officers.