The European Union’s foreign policy chief has warned of “escalation and violence” after emergency talks between Kosovo and Serbia failed to resolve their long-standing dispute over license plates used by Kosovo’s ethnic Serb minority.
In light of increasing tensions between neighbours in the Balkans, EU High Representative Josep Borrell invited Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to Brussels on Monday for emergency talks.
“The two parties did not agree on a solution today,” Borrell said in a statement to the media after eight hours of unsuccessful discussions.
“I think that both heads of state and government bear an important responsibility for the failure of today’s talks and for any escalation and violence that could occur on the ground in the following days.”
Kosovo tried this year to require its Serbian minority to change their old car number plates from before 1999, when Kosovo was still part of Serbia, in line with the previous ban on Serbian number plates in Kosovo.
The Serbs in the north of the country have resisted, sometimes violently, but Kosovo has announced that it will impose fines starting Tuesday.
“Sleepless nights are right in front of the nose”
Borrell said an EU proposal could have avoided increased tensions, but Vucic accepted the proposal but Kurti did not.
He added that he would inform EU member states of the two countries’ “lack of compliance with their international legal obligations,” and warned that given their commitment to join the bloc, they should act accordingly.
“I now expect Kosovo to immediately suspend further steps related to the re-registration of vehicles in northern Kosovo,” said Borrell, adding that he had asked Serbia to suspend issuance of new number plates with acronyms of cities in Kosovo.
Kurti, meanwhile, accused Borrell of focusing exclusively on license plates instead of completely normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina.
“I’m ready to come back and talk on the same agenda: a final agreement on the full normalization of relations, which focuses on bilateral recognition, and other topical issues of different nature, such as the case of license plates,” Kurti told reporters. “One cannot do without the other.”
However, Vucic said the Kosovo leader was responsible for the failure of the meeting.
“Sleepless nights are ahead of us,” he warned.
NATO and USA call for calm
Hundreds of police officers, judges, prosecutors and other government officials from the Serbian minority in Kosovo quit their jobs this month after the government in Pristina decided that local Serbs must finally replace the license plates of Serbian city authorities in northern Kosovo, which are loyal to Belgrade, with those of the Kosovo state.
NATO, which still has around 3,700 peacekeepers stationed in the former Serbian province to prevent violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, said on Monday that “an escalation must be avoided.”
“Now is the time for responsibility and pragmatic solutions,” tweeted NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
I spoke to @JosepBorrellF. We are disappointed that it was not possible to resolve the license plate dispute. Now is the time for responsibility and pragmatic solutions. Escalation must be avoided. @NATO_KFOR remains vigilant.
— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) November 21, 2022
The United States also urged both sides to exercise restraint.
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Washington had joined the EU and called on Kosovo to “immediately suspend all planned measures that would escalate tensions, including imposing fines on vehicles.”
almost two years, the dispute over license plates has led to tensions between Serbia and its former breakaway province, which declared independence in 2008 and is home to a Serbian minority in the north, which is supported by Belgrade.
The declaration of independence came a decade after a war between ethnic Albanian fighters and Serbian armed forces that killed 13,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians.
Serbia, backed by its allies Russia and China, does not recognize the statehood of its former province, but most Western countries, including the US, do.
Around 50,000 ethnic Serbs who live there refuse to recognize Pristina’s authority and still regard themselves as part of Serbia.