Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s PM Albin Kurti are set to meet in Brussels on February 27 to discuss the latest EU proposal on the normalisation of their relations, with high expectations that the 10-point plan will be accepted.
However, there have been warnings that Russia is seeking to prevent a deal, as resolution of the conflict would remove much of the leverage that Moscow — which has long backed Belgrade on the issue and blocked Kosovo’s entry to international organisations — currently has over Serbia.
One senior official said that Russia is trying to ruin negotiations between two Balkan foes, which are intended to lead to de facto recognition of Kosovo.
The unnamed official said, as reported by AFP, that Russia's ambassador to Serbia had been 'hyperactive' in giving interviews and attempting to disrupt the negotiations amid geopolitical tensions in the wider region.
Among the claims made by Russian ambassador Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko are that the West is “blackmailing” Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia. More recently he said he had warned Vucic that the EU proposal was a “threat” and urged him not to agree to it.
Red lines for Serbia
Vucic has stated that there are ‘red lines’ for Serbia regarding the European proposal, which cannot be crossed. They are the recognition of Kosovo's independence and admission of Kosovo to the United Nations.
Additionally, the priority for the leadership in Serbia appears to be the formation of the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM) in northern Kosovo.
This is something that Kurti is not willing to accept fearing that this could lead to creation of a mini-state within Kosovo. He argues that Serbs in Kosovo enjoy sufficient rights.
Vucic’s address on January 23 signalled a shift in Serbian policy regarding Kosovo. Vucic said at the time that international representatives told him that Serbia must accept the French-German proposal on solving the dispute with Kosovo and if not, the country's EU integration process will be halted.
Serbian diplomats have said that the outcome of the talks is uncertain, and they say unequivocally that Belgrade is in a difficult position.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic made a similar point, saying on February 26 that the Brussels meeting will not be an easy day for Vucic or for Serbia.
Serbia has been in talks on EU accession since 2014, but it remains neutral towards Nato, which bombed the country in 1999 to end the Kosovo conflict. Despite the challenges, Vucic has emphasised that it is in Serbia's interest to become part of the EU.
Some of the Serbian opposition have rejected the European proposal. Dveri, Zavetnici (Oathkeepers) and the NADA coalition said before the Monday’s meeting that for them the European proposal is an unacceptable ultimatum.
At a small demonstration by pro-Russian right-wingers on February 24, protesters carried a banner with the slogan “Who Signs Dies” – a chilling message to Vucic ahead of the talks with Kurti.
EU High Representative Josep Borrell and EU envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Miroslav Lajcak will hold separate meetings with Vucic and Kurti, starting at 3 pm on February 27, after which a joint meeting will follow.
Lajcak, speaking about the February 27 meeting, made clear that the EU's proposal is not negotiable.
“The plan, which I believe will be accepted on Monday, will be binding for both parties. It is not a temporary arrangement. After that, the process of comprehensive normalisation of relations will continue, which must end with the signing of a comprehensive agreement, before Kosovo and Serbia become members of the EU,” Lajcak said last week, according to Kosovo's Reporteri.
Lajcak also warned that Pristina and Belgrade will have negative consequences if they say 'no' to the European proposal, which so far has been hidden from the public.
"Rejecting the proposal would mean rejecting a normalisation of relations and the European path, and the US, EU and the international community would react to this,” Lajcak said.
Kurt also mentioned last week that the European proposal is not a product of negotiation. According to him, Kosovo's allies have designed the European proposal as a package that will advance Kosovo's membership in the international system.
European and US officials have sought to convince both sides to accept the proposal, as the tense relationship between Serbia-Kosovo has risen up the international agenda following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On February 25, Vucic received a letter jointly signed by the French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian PM Giorgia Meloni ahead of the meeting in Brussels but the content has not been revealed.
“Serbia and Kosovo should reach a comprehensive agreement through dialogue. We believe that normalised relations should ultimately be aimed at mutual recognition. Progress in the dialogue will open the door to European integration and is essential for security and stability in Western Balkans,” media published a statement from the State Department.
“The US supports a constructive meeting that affirms both parties’ commitment to the EU proposal,” US foreign policy advisor Derek Chollet said in a tweet ahead of Monday’s meeting.
US and EU officials have also repeatedly said that previous agreements between Serbia and Kosovo, from which the formation of ASM stems, must be respected.