Serbia and Kosovo set for talks in Brussels amid tensions

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NATO chief calls for calm and says the organisation’s peacekeepers were ready to intervene if necessary.

The leaders of Kosovo and Serbia will join EU-mediated talks in Brussels on Thursday aimed at averting what Pristina says is a threat of renewed armed conflict, as ethnic Serb and Albanian residents of Kosovo say they see little hope of progress.

Long-running tensions flared anew this month after Kosovo said Serbs living in its northern region – who are backed by Belgrade and do not recognise Kosovo institutions – must start using vehicle licence plates issued in Pristina.

Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti told the Reuters news agency in an interview last week that Belgrade’s “aggressive policies” could turn into “an assault against Kosovo in one way or the other”.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (right) holds a joint news conference with Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium August 17, 2022 [Johanna Geron/Reuters]

Kurti, who will join Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic for the talks in Brussels, has agreed under Western pressure to postpone the licence plate regulation until September 1.

“I don’t expect anything tomorrow and both these men will not solve anything. Tensions are unavoidable between Kosovo and Serbia in the future,” Malush Bajraj, 41, an ethnic Albanian resident of Kosovo’s capital Pristina, told Reuters news agency.

The mood is similarly gloomy among ethnic Serbs who make up just 5 percent of Kosovo’s 1.8 million, mainly ethnic Albanian population.

“I am not optimistic that this round of the dialogue will be successful,” said Nenad Radosavljevic, editor in chief of RTV Mir, which broadcasts to Serbs living in northern Kosovo, citing the downbeat messages coming out of both capitals.

Escalating tensions

Kosovo, a landlocked Balkan nation, gained independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after an uprising against Belgrade rule.

Today both Belgrade and Pristina are seeking EU membership, but Serbia legally still considers Kosovo an integral part of its territory. With Russia’s help, it has blocked Kosovo from membership in various international institutions.

Thursday’s talks are expected to cover a range of issues from greater autonomy to municipalities in northern Kosovo with a Serb majority. Kurti has said such a step would contravene Kosovo’s constitution.

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday called for calm from all sides and said the alliance’s 3,700-strong peacekeeping force in Kosovo stood ready to intervene if stability was at risk.

“NATO will take any measure necessary to preserve safety and security for all communities. All must engage constructively in the EU-led Belgrade–Pristina dialogue,” he tweeted after his meeting with Vuvic in Brussels.

Stoltenberg said NATO-led troops stationed in Kosovo have strengthened their presence on Kosovo’s northern border with Serbia because of the current tensions.

“But of course, we will act when needed and we will act in a proportionate way because our main aim is to help to reduce tensions and to ensure all communities’ freedom of movement – the safety of all communities, including, of course, the Serbs in Kosovo,” Stoltenberg added.

Vucic said it was “a lie” that Serbia wants to intervene in Kosovo but added that a generation of new Serb “kids” living in there “do not consider Kosovo as an independent state and view it as a part of Serbia”.

“We are going to have difficult discussions tomorrow,” Vucic said. “We do not agree almost on anything.”

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