(Bloomberg) -- Serbia vowed to protect its ethnic kin in Kosovo after seeking Russia’s advice on how to respond to a spike in tensions, a move that risks escalating the East-West struggle for influence in the Balkans.
President Aleksandar Vucic asked Russian leader Vladimir Putin how to “confront violence and aggression" by Kosovo officials following Monday’s arrest and expulsion of Marko Djuric, Serbia’s chief negotiator in talks sponsored by the European Union, the Kremlin said late Wednesday. It added that the call was initiated by Vucic after the incident, in which police used tear gas and stun grenades to break up a protest when Djuric entered Kosovo without permission.
The conversation underscores the approach Vucic has taken as he tries to push Serbia toward EU entry next decade. While he has engaged with the bloc, he’s also kept strong ties with Russia and has refused to acknowledge Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, almost a decade after NATO warplanes forced Serb troops out of Kosovo. Djuric argued that Serbs in Kosovo were being denied their rights.
“Let no one be mistaken: Serbia will protect its people in Kosovo by all available means,” Djuric told reporters Thursday.
Five years after signing a pact aimed at normalizing ties -- which Serbia must do to join the EU -- the neighbors are still struggling to make it work, and Vucic has depended on Russia to help block Kosovo’s recognition in international bodies. For its part, Putin’s government is trying to counter the further expansion of the EU into former communist Europe and increase Russia’s influence through investment, military support and other means in the Balkans, the site of conflicts in the 1990s that were Europe’s bloodiest since World War II.
Following the clash Monday, ethnic Serbs in the Kosovo cabinet resigned in protest against Djuric’s "humiliating" expulsion. They called for Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj to step down, but he refused. The U.S. State Department condemned the events, saying that they "unnecessarily heighten tensions and threaten regional stability."
At the heart of the latest dispute is an EU-brokered agreement Serbia and Kosovo signed in 2013. One part of it would allow Serbs in Kosovo to form an association of municipalities that would give them some autonomy. The Serbs say they fulfilled their part of the deal but Kosovo hasn’t. Djuric said Serbs would wait until April 20, and if they received no response from the Kosovo government, the municipalities would form the association unilaterally. Haradinaj’s office said that would not be allowed.
"No initiative not based on the democratic laws and procedures of the Republic of Kosovo will be implemented or respected,” it said in a statement.
Vucic has morphed from a nationalist politician in the 1990s, when he served as information minister during the war with Kosovo, to one pledging to lead Serbia into the EU. The 28-member bloc has set 2025 as a possible date for entry. The president will postpone the announcement of a proposed solution by a month to late April or early May, the Belgrade-based Danas newspaper reported, citing sources it didn’t name. Still, Vucic said on Thursday that his main goal was to avoid conflict.
“Serbia wants to preserve peace, and that’s our most important goal and vital interest,” he said in a live broadcast after attending a military exercise.
More than four-fifths of Serbs would drop EU membership if it meant accepting the independence of Kosovo, considered the cultural cradle of their nation, according to a survey by the pollster Ninamedia.
“The only way out is dialog and a search for a solution, including the formation of the association of Serbian municipalities,” said Srdjan Majstorovic, the chairman of the European Policy Center in Belgrade.
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