EU fails to defuse tense situation between Serbia and Kosovo

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s top diplomat held eight hours of fruitless talks Monday with the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo and blamed them for their failure to settle a dispute over vehicle license plate.

Amid rising tensions between the Balkans neighbors, the EU’s high representative, Josep Borrell, invited Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to Brussels for emergency talks.

Borrell said after the meeting that both leaders had the responsibility “to urgently de-escalate” but that both parties had shown “unconstructive behavior” and a lack of respect for their international legal obligations.

“And this goes in particular for Kosovo,” he said. “This sends a very negative political signal.”

“Unfortunately they did not agree to a solution today,” he said.

The EU-backed Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, which is aimed at normalizing relations between the neighbors and former foes in the Western Balkans, has been at a virtual standstill for years. The EU warned Serbia and Kosovo last week that they are on the edge of a precipice and must resolve their dispute or face the prospect of a return to their violent past.

Long-simmering tensions between Serbia and its former province mounted again in recent weeks over the Kosovo government’s decision to ban Serbian-issued license plates, matching Serbia’s earlier ban on Kosovo license plates.

Under the ban, about 6,300 ethnic Serbs owning cars with number plates deemed to be illegal in Kosovo were to be warned until Monday, then fined for the following two months. Beginning on April 21, they would only be permitted to drive with temporary local plates.

On Nov. 5, 10 Serb lawmakers, 10 prosecutors and 576 police officers in Kosovo’s northern Mitrovica region resigned over the move.

Borrell said he put forward a proposal that was only accepted by Vucic and pledged to keep trying hard for a solution.

“I now expect Kosovo to immediately suspend further stages related to the re-registration of vehicles in north Kosovo,” Borrell said, adding that he asked Serbia to suspend issuing new license plates with acronyms of Kosovo cities.

Kurti blamed Borrell for focusing solely on the license plates instead of the full normalization of ties between the neighbors.

“I am ready to come back and talk based on the same agenda: final agreement on fully normalizing ties, which at the center has the bilateral recognition, and other current issues of different character, like the case of the number plates,” Kurti told journalists. “One cannot do without the other.”

Vucic said Kurti was responsible for the failure of the meeting.

“Sleepless nights are ahead of us,” he said.

The issue of Kosovo’s independence sparked a 1998-99 war in which about 13,000 people died. Serbia launched a brutal crackdown to curb a separatist rebellion by the territory’s ethnic Albanians. NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 to end the war.

Kosovo unilaterally broke away from Serbia in 2008. The Serbian government, with support from China and Russia, has refused to acknowledge Kosovo’s statehood. The United States and most of its European allies recognize Kosovo as an independent country.

With the resignations this month of the ethnic Serbs, there are fewer than 50 Kosovo-Albanian police officers manning police stations in the Mitrovica region, Borrell said.

“This leaves a very dangerous security vacuum — a vacuum on the ground — in an already very fragile situation,” he said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed disappointment at the meeting’s failure and called for “pragmatic solutions” in a message posted on Twitter. Stoltenberg said “escalation must be avoided,” adding that the NATO-led mission in Kosovo, known as KFOR, “remains vigilant.”


Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this story.