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Oct 22, 2014 2:08 PM

Albania PM seeks to ease tensions with Serbia

The Associated Press

TIRANA, Albania (AP) Albania's prime minister said Wednesday that his nation and Serbia must try to end decades of hostility toward one another by focusing on major issues such as their mutual desire to join the European Union, not last week's dispute over a soccer match.

Edi Rama had been expected to make a landmark visit to Serbia on Wednesday the first by an Albanian leader in nearly 70 years as part of an effort to ease tensions left over from wars fought following the breakup of Yugoslavia.

But the trip was postponed until Nov. 10, after the two nations competed in a soccer match last week that descended into an on-field brawl after a drone carrying an Albanian nationalist banner flew over the stadium in the Serbian capital.

In an interview with The Associate Press on Wednesday, Rama, an ardent soccer fan, said international politics "cannot be driven by football (soccer) games."

"The peace we have achieved is still very fragile (and) we have to build on it," he said.

Albania and Serbia remain at odds over Kosovo, the Serbian province that declared independence in 2008, and has a majority of ethnic Albanian inhabitants.

Rama, who became prime minister following a landslide election victory last year, again urged Belgrade to reconsider its position on Kosovo.

"The sooner Serbia recognizes formally what I strongly feel and believe they have already recognized without saying so, that Kosovo will never be part of their country again, the better for Serbia (and) the region," he said.

Rama, however, insisted it is time for his country and Serbia to end decades of hostility and that their shared desire for EU membership could be a means to that end.

"We cannot go anywhere alone," Rama said. "Together we can make the EU understand that the Balkans is important for the EU today as much as the EU is important for the Balkans."

He also said his agenda in Belgrade next month will not include "revisiting the memories of a football game."

UEFA, Europe's governing body for soccer, plans to consider penalties against Albania and Serbia on Thursday over last week's match, which was abandoned goalless and in chaos.

Players fought on the field after the drone hovered overhead carrying a banner showing a so-called map of "greater Albania" including Greece, Macedonia and Serbia. Fans at the Belgrade stadium hurled broken seats and other objects as they ran toward the visiting team's dressing room.

The dispute quickly turned into a diplomatic spat, with Serbia accusing Albania of a deliberate provocation, while Tirana countered that its players had been insulted and attacked. Several ethnic Albanian businesses in Serbia were damaged after the game.

Rama acknowledged that the drone had set off an "explosion of something that was boiling up then and before then."

But he also said: "Greater Albania is a Serbian nightmare, not an Albanian project, neither in Albania nor in Kosovo. What should unite us is much bigger than what divides us. ... We want a greater Europe, not a greater Albania. That's what we are fighting for."

Rama, who will meet his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade, said he aims to address Serbian concerns over the soccer match, then go on to more important issues.


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