PRISTINA – Kosovo on Monday accused neighboring Serbia of trying to destabilize the country by pressuring members of the ethnic Serb community to resign from their posts for not accepting Pristina’s decision to change illegal vehicle license plates.
Prime Minister Albin Kurti said Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, has been in close coordination with Russia and China and is trying to “sabotage” the European Union-mediated dialogue.
Ten Serb parliamentarians, 10 prosecutors and 576 police officers in the northern Mitrovica region handed in their resignations following their political leaders' decision on Saturday.
The government’s decision to gradually ban Serbia-issued license plates has angered Kosovo Serbs, most of whom don't recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. Members of the ethnic Serb minority left their government jobs on Saturday in a protest over the directive.
“Serbia is obviously interested in sabotaging dialogue and any agreement,” Kurti said.
In the first three weeks in November, about 6,300 ethnic Serbs owning cars with illegal number plates will be warned, according to Kurti. For the next two months they will be fined, and for three other months until April 21, they will drive only with temporary local plates.
The Serbian government, with support from China and Russia, has refused to acknowledge Kosovo’s statehood. The United States and its allies recognize Kosovo as an independent country.
Serbia's foreign minister, Ivica Dacic, said Sunday the country’s leadership has rejected the latest proposal offering Serbia a faster track to EU membership in exchange for Kosovo’s membership in the United Nations.
Dacic told pro-government broadcaster Prva that the proposal submitted by France and Germany “starts from the position that the independence of Kosovo is already a foregone conclusion.”
“Serbia can't accept that,” he said.
Trouble brewed this summer over Serbia’s and Kosovo’s refusal to recognize each other’s identity documents and vehicle license plates. Kosovo Serbs in the north put up roadblocks, sounded air raid sirens and fired guns into the air.
In August, EU and U.S. envoys negotiated a solution to the travel documents problem, allowing the situation to calm down.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted that he had spoken by phone with Vucic and Kurti, urging both “to refrain from any unilateral action that can trigger escalation. Dialogue is the only way forward. NATO KFOR remains vigilant.”
EU spokesman Peter Stano also said Brussels was appealing “on the responsibility of the leaders in Serbia and Kosovo to prevent further escalation.”
“If there is something done locally or erupting locally, it will inevitably have consequences for the region. This is something Europe cannot afford, Serbia and Kosovo cannot afford, the region cannot afford,” Stano said.
The government in Pristina also decided to postpone to Nov. 1 the decision to require vehicles holding old or Serbian number plates to replace them with Kosovar ones. That also meant that vehicles entering from Serbia had to replace Serbian license plates with Kosovo ones.
For the past 11 years, the reverse was required by Serbia for vehicles coming in from Kosovo.
The EU has told Kosovo and Serbia that they must normalize ties if they want to advance toward membership in the 27-nation bloc. Brussels and Washington recently have stepped up mediation efforts, fearing uncertainties over Russia's war in Ukraine and Serbia’s close ties with Moscow could aggravate matters.
Belgrade lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after NATO bombed the country to stop its brutal crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatist rebels.
NATO peacekeepers say they are ready to keep the country’s situation calm, especially in northern Kosovo where most ethnic Serbs live.
Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania. Follow him at https://twitter.com/lsemini and Florent Bajrami at https://twitter.com/florent_bajrami