The leaders of Serbia and Kosovo are holding talks on Monday on European Union proposals aimed at ending a long series of political crises and setting the two on the path to better relations and ultimately mutual recognition.
Tensions have simmered between Serbia and its former territory since Kosovo unilaterally broke away in 2008; a move recognized by many Western countries but opposed by Serbia, with the backing of Russia and China.
Recently, those tensions flared over seemingly trivial matters like vehicle license plate formats, or the arrest of an ethnic Serb police officer, triggering renewed concern among Western leaders that a new Balkan conflict might break out just as Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its second year.
At meetings in Brussels, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti are expected to discuss ways to put the European proposals into action. Both leaders have already discussed the plan, which hasn't been made public, and EU officials are confident of progress.
A senior EU official said before the talks that “we need to break the vicious circle of crisis.” He said the proposals are “not the end of the road” when it comes to normalizing ties between Belgrade and Pristina, but that given recent tensions, the EU plan is the “maximum achievable at this point.”
The official briefed reporters on the condition that he not be named because of the highly sensitive nature of the meetings. Previous talks between Vucic and Kurti have degenerated into arguments and mutual recrimination, but this time both leaders have already endorsed the proposals “in principle,” he said.
Vucic said Sunday, before the meetings supervised by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, that he’s “ready to work on the concept and implementation of the proposed plan with clearly defined limitations.”
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He didn't specify the “limitations,” but he has repeatedly said that they include the refusal to recognize Kosovo as an independent state as well as agree to it becoming a U.N. member.
The EU has mediated negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo since 2011, but few of the 33 agreements that have been signed were put into action. The EU and the U.S. have pressed for faster progress since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
Earlier this month, hundreds of Serbian nationalists gathered in Belgrade to demand that Vucic reject the EU plan and pull out of the talks.
Shouting “Treason” and carrying banners reading “No surrender,” the right-wing protesters blocked traffic as they gathered near the Serbian presidency building. The protesters are also strongly pro-Russia, and one banner read: “Betrayal of Kosovo is betrayal of Russia!”
In recent months, U.S. and EU envoys have visited Pristina and Belgrade regularly to encourage them to accept the new proposals, and the two leaders met with senior EU representatives on the sidelines of a major security conference in the German city of Munich earlier this month.