BRUSSELS (AP) — Senior lawmakers from the United States and Europe are calling for a change in the Western diplomatic approach toward Serbia and Kosovo amid concern that tensions between the two could rapidly spiral out of control.
In the letter, signed by U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his counterparts in Germany, the U.K., Ukraine and other countries, the lawmakers said U.S. and European Union negotiators were not putting enough pressure on Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
Serbia and its former province of 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 refuses to recognize the move.
“It is hugely underestimated how serious the situation is that the EU and allies have brought themselves into with the continued appeasement of autocrats in the region like Vucic and (Bosnian Serb leader Milorad) Dodik,” one of the letter’s signatories, Dutch EU lawmaker Thijs Reuten, told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
The letter, addressed to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, highlights a series of incidents, including attacks on NATO peacekeepers, since Serbs living in the north of Kosovo boycotted municipal elections there in April.
“All point toward a rapidly deteriorating situation which not only threatens the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, but regional peace itself,” the lawmakers wrote. They said recent finds of hidden weapons in northern Kosovo and cross-border arms smuggling “highlight the risk of further escalations.”
Borrell and his team lead a Belgrade-Pristina dialogue aimed at normalizing ties, and the U.S. is the other major player. In June, emergency talks with Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to defuse tensions ended without producing a clear result.
The two refused to meet face-to-face and Borrell, who held talks separately with both men, conceded that they have “different interpretations of the causes and also the facts, consequences and solutions.”
In their letter, the lawmakers warned that “the current approach is not working. We would ask that the international community learns from our past and ensure we do not adopt a Belgrade-centered policy for the Balkans.”
They noted a “lack of pressure on Serbia” over the attacks on peacekeepers and the detention of Kosovo police and said the West’s diplomatic response “highlights the current lack of even-handedness in addressing such flashpoints.”
Borrell’s team confirmed he received the letter. Spokesman Peter Stano underlined that “the EU is a neutral facilitator” in the normalization dialogue and that both Serbia and Kosovo’s governments were being asked equally to help ease tensions.
“The EU is currently closely monitoring Serbia’s compliance to the EU’s requests and stands ready to take measures in case of non-compliance to these requests,” Stano said.
Vucic told reporters Tuesday that even though the letter was “directed against” him personally, “it is actually directed against Serbia.” He said the lawmakers who signed it think he’s “guilty” because he does not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence.
“I’m causing instability in the region because I’m advocating for the rights of the Serbian people in Bosnia and Montenegro,” Vucic said. “It is my fault and I’m proud of that.”
Vucic, a former ultranationalist who now claims to want to take Serbia into the EU, has maintained close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has refused to impose sanctions on Russia over its war on Ukraine.
There are widespread fears in the West that Moscow could use Belgrade to reignite ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, which experienced a series of bloody wars in the 1990s during the breakup of Yugoslavia, in an effort to draw world attention away from the war.
At the same time, Kurti, a longtime Kosovo independence activist who served prison time in both Serbia and Kosovo, has proven a thorny interlocutor for negotiators to work with. Little progress has been made on improving ties since he took office as prime minister in 2021.
Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade contributed.