Representatives of Serbia, Kosovo, the US, and Lufthansa Group signed a milestone agreement on January 20 to establish an air link between Serbia and Kosovo.  The rather unusual signing venue was the US Embassy in Berlin because the US Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, has been working for months in two capacities both as Ambassador to Germany and as the Trump Administration’s Special Envoy for Kosovo and Serbia, in which capacity he crafted the agreement. His posting to Berlin made it simpler to enlist a German airline to handle the flights.

The new agreement will reopen the Belgrade-Pristina air route, closed since hostilities began in 1998-99, reducing today’s five-hour land journey to a mere 25 minutes.

The symbolic significance of restarting a Belgrade-Pristina route cannot be denied. The airport was the scene of a major incident in June 1999, during the Kosovo War, involving Russian and NATO forces. The Russians, who backed their traditional ally Serbia in the conflict, had occupied the airport ahead of a planned NATO deployment which resulted in a tense stand-off that nearly led to open hostilities breaking out between Russian and NATO forces. The situation was, however, eventually resolved peacefully after both sides eventually agreed that Russian troops would deploy throughout Kosovo, but independently from NATO’s peacekeeping forces.

Details of the agreement

The recent deal was signed by Milun Trivunac, State Secretary of Serbia’s Ministry of Economy, and the Director-General of Kosovo’s Civil Aviation Authority Eset Berisha.

The CEO of Lufthansa subsidiary Eurowings Michael Knitter was a critical participant in arranging the deal. Upon signing the agreement, Knitter declared that Eurowings would be launching flights between Pristina and Belgrade “as soon as further regulatory hurdles have been removed by both countries.”

Kosovar President Hashim Thaci described the development “an important step for the movement of citizens and normalisation process,” and thanked both Ambassador Grenell and US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien for facilitating the process.

The director of the Serbian government’s Office for Kosovo, Marko Djuric, said Belgrade and Pristina “could soon be connected by an airline, for the first time in 20 years.”  Djuric reminded however that Kosovo must still withdraw its 100% tariff levy on Serbian goods and that the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina would have to resume before the air link can open.

Eurowings established in Kosovo in 2019

Eurowings opened an operating base in Kosovo in June 2019. At that time, Pristina became the second Eurowings base outside Germany and Austria.  Eurowings already serves eight destinations in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland from Pristina, all areas with large Kosovar populations. Belgrade will become its ninth route from Pristina.

Up to now, Eurowings has been notably absent from Serbia. The airline has announced plans to launch a single seasonal route between Belgrade and Stuttgart in May.

US engagement has changed the Balkan aviation map

Like it or not. it is clear that US diplomatic engagement is a key driving force in reshaping the aviation map of Southeastern Europe. The new Pristina-Belgrade air link is the second major change for the region following the reopening of direct Athens-Skopje flights in November 2018, a result of the Prespes Agreement that resolved the Name Dispute between Greece and the nation now known as North Macedonia.

The only question remaining is whether one is willing to give Washington direct acknowledgement and credit for the sustained American diplomatic engagement with Athens and Skopje or opts to filter this through the United Nations, where Ambassador Matthew Nimetz, a former US State Department official, led the UN-sponsored negotiations to their conclusion through nearly three decades.