The hostilities that ended the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia -- Europe’s worst conflict since World War II -- remain unresolved, with its adversaries still locked in a territorial dispute. More than two decades after they stopped fighting, Kosovo is demanding recognition as an independent state, while Serbia refuses to let it go. The disagreement has thwarted their progress toward European Union membership and opened space for a geopolitical tussle, where the U.S., Russia and China are grappling for influence on the bloc’s southeastern frontier.

1. What’s the dispute?

Kosovo’s ethnic-Albanian majority is demanding recognition as a sovereign state after unilaterally declaring independence in 2008, almost a decade after a NATO bombing campaign led by the U.S. forced Serb troops from its territory. It won’t allow the return of Serb rule after suffering when late strongman Slobodan Milosevic tried to destroy its independence movement in the 1998-1999 war, which killed more than 10,000 people. Serbia vows never to agree to the secession of what it considers its historic heartland, which is home to ancient holy sites of the Serbian Orthodox Church. It also demands autonomy for the 100,000 Serbs still living in Kosovo. Neither side has budged from their position for more than two decades.

2. Why is this such a big deal?

Serbia and Kosovo need to mend ties to qualify for EU membership. The world’s biggest trading bloc, already reluctant to take in new members, won’t consider candidates with open territorial issues. Serbia is nominally on track to join, while Kosovo is striving to become a candidate. One hurdle is that while Kosovo, with U.S. backing, has won recognition from almost 100 countries, five of the EU’s 27 members don’t acknowledge it. Serbia is lobbying to block its neighbor from joining world bodies such as Interpol and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and has persuaded at least a dozen nations to revoke their recognition. The ultimate proof of statehood for Kosovo would be entry in the UN, but Serbia is relying on Russia and China to prevent that until a compromise is found. That gives the governments in Moscow and Beijing a foothold to increase their influence in the region.

3. Who are the key figures?

Years of EU-brokered talks to mend ties between the Balkan foes stalled in 2018 when Kosovo erected a punitive trade barrier against Serbia in retaliation against the Belgrade government’s lobbying campaign. Kosovo lifted the 100% tax on Serb imports in June as U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration stepped up its role as a mediator. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti signed economic deals at the White House in September after an earlier visit was canceled when the Kosovo Special Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague accused Kosovar President Hashim Thaci of involvement in nearly 100 murders and other crimes during the war. The accord in Washington also includes a one-year moratorium on Kosovo’s efforts to seek membership of international organizations, and Serbia’s campaign to prevent its recognition. Top officials involved in seeking a settlement include EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and the bloc’s Kosovo envoy, Miroslav Lajcak.

4. What are the stumbling blocks?

Kosovo’s political parties unanimously reject any deal that doesn’t include Serbian recognition. Serbia’s leverage is the ability to prevent Kosovo from gaining a UN seat. Any agreement would require ratification in both parliaments. Vucic has pledged a referendum if a deal is struck, but many Serbs and the Orthodox Church oppose letting go. That’s a potentially unsurpassable hurdle that Vucic hasn’t provided an answer to. The two sides also floated a land swap before talks collapsed in 2018, but Germany and other EU states said redrawing borders was out of the question.

5. What’s next?

Talks between Vucic and Hoti are slated to continue with moderation from the EU, which is taking the lead on trying to bring the two sides together politically. The Trump administration has focused on trying to improve economic ties, saying it will pave the way toward reconciliation, with U.S. influence bolstered by its support of the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into the region to shield it from Russian influence. But any deal normalizing ties would require support from other world powers, and no imminent breakthrough appears likely.

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