BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Wartime rivals Serbia and Kosovo are holding high-level crisis talks on Thursday which the European Union mediators hope will de-escalate growing tensions in the Balkans where Russia has been trying to further increase its influence amid the war in Ukraine.
Hopes that the rare face-to-face meeting between Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, to be held in Brussels, could produce a major breakthrough are slim.
But Western officials overseeing the decades-old deadlock between the two neighbors hope that at least it could eliminate increasing warmongering rhetoric by both sides.
“All open issues will be addressed and should be addressed through the EU-facilitated dialogue,” European Commission spokesperson for foreign affairs Nabila Massrali told reporters. “Both parties must end their hostilities at this point” and “act responsibly.”
The latest tensions between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo soared late last month when Kurti’s government declared that Serbian identity documents and vehicle license plates would no longer be valid on Kosovo territory. Under apparent pressure from the West, Kurti postponed the start of the implementation of the measure for a month to Sept. 1.
Minority Serbs, who live mostly in northern Kosovo, reacted with anger, putting up roadblocks, sounding air raid sirens and firing their guns into the air and in the direction of Kosovo police officers. No one was injured.
The Kosovo government accused neighboring Serbia of instigating the riots in order to destabilize the country, which declared independence in 2008 after a NATO intervention that stopped Serbia’s bloody crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists in 1999.
Kosovo Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla accused Serbia and its ally Russia of triggering and supporting the rioting.
“We see direct involvement of Belgrade, not just in their rhetoric ... but also in direct involvement of groups from Serbia, including their security agencies,” he told the Associated Press. “This is inflated and imported from Serbia and Russia, their so-called bigger brother, to incite violence in Kosovo.”
Serbian officials accused Kosovo authorities of planning to chase all the remaining Serbs out of Kosovo, saying Belgrade will use “all available means” to stop the “pogrom.”
As the EU appealed for calm, Vucic visited Serbian army headquarters in Belgrade in what was seen as a thinly veiled warning that all options — including military action — were on the table. There are about 3,800 NATO-led peacekeepers stationed in Kosovo and any military intervention there, Serbian or Russian, would almost certainly create a wider conflict.
Russian officials and their propaganda, which are very active in Serbia, were quick to join the pro-Serbian narrative, claiming the Serb minority in Kosovo is being oppressed and subjected to violence by majority ethnic Albanians — the same narrative used as an excuse by Moscow for invading Ukraine.
There are fears in the West that Russia could use Serbia to destabilize the Balkans and thus shift at least some attention from its war in Ukraine. Raising the stakes, Russian officials recently started advocating establishing a military base in Serbia, which is surrounded almost entirely by NATO member nations.
“Russian introduction of the idea of a military base into the public space of a country surrounded by members of the European Union and NATO also has internal consequences in Serbia, where Russia’s influence is undoubtedly strong,” former Serbian diplomat Srecko Djukic told Serbian media.
Serbia, Russia and China don’t recognize Kosovo’s independence, which is supported by the United States and most other Western states.