PRISTINA – The leaders of the Netherlands and Luxembourg on Tuesday said that normalizing ties between Kosovo and Serbia would serve not only regional peace and stability but also their prospects of future integration into the European Union.
Prime Ministers Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and Xavier Bettel of Luxembourg were on a trip to Pristina after a visit to Belgrade on Monday.
They both called on Kosovo and Serbia to de-escalate recent tensions that have threatened to push the Balkan region into instability as Europe faces Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
“We are here to listen. And we are here to try to build these bridges which are sometimes, between neighbors, not that easy to build,” said Bettel, adding “so we have to avoid every new crisis.”
“I believe this is necessary not only for peace and stability in the region, but also for the prospects of further EU integration," Rutte said.
Tensions between the two countries flared anew in May after Kosovo police seized local municipal buildings in Serb-majority northern Kosovo to install ethnic Albanian mayors who were elected in an April election that Serbs overwhelmingly boycotted.
Violent clashes injured 30 international peacekeepers and more than 50 ethnic Serbs, stirring fears of a renewal of the 1998-99 conflict that left more than 10,000 people dead, mostly Kosovar Albanians.
The U.S. and the EU have pressed Serbia and Kosovo to take steps to lower tensions. Normalization of relations is the key condition for the two countries to move forward in their efforts to join the 27-nation bloc.
Just four months ago, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti gave their tacit approval to a EU-sponsored plan to end animosity and help improve their ties in the longer term.
But the agreement unraveled almost immediately as both leaders appeared to renege on their commitments.
When EU envoy Miroslav Lajcak visited Pristina on Tuesday, Kosovar leaders gave a positive reception to the three requests from Brussels to lower tensions with Serbia. They include de-escalation efforts, fresh election in the four Serb-majority municipalities and return to the EU-facilitated dialogue on normalization of their ties.
After a long meeting with Kurti, Lajcak said they agreed to continue talks on the concrete steps toward de-escalation.
Belgrade and Kosovo’s Serbs want special police forces to leave the northern area, while Pristina says the number will be gradually reduced.
Belgrade also wants the release of Serbs detained for alleged violence against Kosovar police, journalists and international peacekeepers. The Kosovo government says a normal legal process will be held for them, inviting the EU to monitor.
On Wednesday Lajcak goes to Belgrade.
“I’m optimistic that good minds will prevail,” said Rutte, adding that de-escalating the latest tension was the first step to take and immediately “try to get back to a process, a step-by-step process to make it again.”
Serbia and its former province Kosovo have been at odds for decades, with Belgrade refusing to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence.
“We as politicians, we take the decisions, but the populations are the ones who will take benefits or suffer if we take the wrong decisions,” Bettel said.
Washington and most EU nations have recognized Kosovo’s independence, while Russia and China have backed Serbia’s claim on the territory.
The 1998-99 war erupted when separatist ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbia’s rule and Belgrade responded with a brutal crackdown. NATO's bombing campaign in 1999 forced Serbia to relinquish control, but the government in Belgrade has maintained that Kosovo remains part of Serbia.
Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.