EU and U.S. envoys urge Kosovo and Serbia to resume dialogue to ease soaring tension

The envoys of the European Union and the United States urged Kosovo and Serbia to resume dialogue as the only way to de-escalate the soaring tension between the two nations

October 21, 2023 11:28 pm | Updated 11:28 pm IST - PRISTINA

In this photo provided by the Serbian Presidential Press Service, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, third right, welcomes European and U.S. officials in Belgrade, Serbia, on October 21, 2023.

In this photo provided by the Serbian Presidential Press Service, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, third right, welcomes European and U.S. officials in Belgrade, Serbia, on October 21, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

The envoys of the European Union and the United States urged on Saturday Kosovo and Serbia to resume dialogue as the only way to de-escalate the soaring tension between the two nations.

This is the first such visit since September 24 when nearly 30 Serb gunmen crossed into northern Kosovo, killing a police officer and setting up barricades, before launching an hours-long gun battle with Kosovo police. Three gunmen were killed.

EU envoy Miroslav Lajcak and his U.S. counterpart Gabriel Escobar, accompanied by top diplomats from Germany, France and Italy, met with Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti in the capital, Pristina, after which they will head to Belgrade.

“If there is no dialogue, there might be a repetition of escalation,” said Mr. Lajcak after meeting with Mr. Kurti.

Mr. Lajcak said they strongly denounced “the terrorist attack against Kosovo police by armed individuals (that) constitutes a clear and unprecedented escalation.”

He added that the attack also "very clearly underlined that both de-escalation and normalisation are now more urgent than ever.”

Both Serbia and Kosova want to join the EU, which has told them that they first need to sort out their differences.

Western powers want Kosovo and Serbia to implement a 10-point plan put forward by the EU in February to end months of political crises. Mr. Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic gave their approval at the time, but with some reservations that haven’t been resolved, mainly the establishment of the Association of the Serb-Majority Municipalities, or ASM.

The EU and U.S. are pressuring Kosovo to allow for the creation of the ASM, to coordinate work on education, health care, land planning and economic development at the local level.

A 2013 Pristina-Belgrade agreement on forming the Serb association was later declared unconstitutional by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court, saying the plan wasn’t inclusive of other ethnicities and could entail the use of executive powers to impose laws.

Pristina fears the new association is an effort by Belgrade to create a Serb mini-state with wide autonomy, similar to Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Mr. Lajcak urged Pristina “to move on the establishment of the Association of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo without further delay.”

“Without this, there will be no progress on Kosovo’s European path,” which both Kosovo and Serbia have set as a primary target.

In July, the EU imposed punishing measures on Kosovo for refusing the ASM, suspending funding of some projects and halting visits of top diplomats.

Following the failure of the September talks between Mr. Kurti and Mr. Vucic and the recent flare-up, it’s unclear when another round of meetings might take place, and the EU appears to have little leverage left.

The United States is the other key player in the process.

Kosovo has called on Europe to sanction Serbia which it blames for the September 24 attack, saying no talks could be further held and demanding higher security measures from Western powers for fear of an increased presence of Serb military forces along its border.

There are widespread fears in the West that Russia could use Belgrade to reignite ethnic conflicts in the Balkans — which experienced a series of bloody battles in the 1990s during the breakup of Yugoslavia — to draw world attention away from its war on Ukraine.

NATO has reinforced KFOR, which normally has a troop strength of 4,500, with an additional 200 troops from the U.K. and more than 100 from Romania. It also sent heavier armaments to beef up the peacekeepers’ combat power.

Serbia and its former province, Kosovo, have been at odds for decades. Their 1998-99 war left more than 10,000 people dead, mostly Kosovo Albanians. Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008 but Belgrade has refused to recognize the move.

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