BRUSSELS (AP) — Kosovo and Serbia on Thursday failed yet again to make progress in talks aimed at improving their long-strained relations, and the European Union's top diplomat warned that the lack of progress could hurt their hopes of joining the bloc.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who supervised the talks in Brussels, blamed the latest breakdown on Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s insistence that Serbia should essentially recognize his country before progress can be made on enforcing an agreement they reached in February.
Serbia and its former province of Kosovo have been at odds for decades. Their 1998-99 war left more than 10,000 people dead, mostly Kosovo Albanians. Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008 but Belgrade has refused to recognize the move.
“Unfortunately, after quite a long meeting, Prime Minister Kurti was not ready to move forward on … a credible process,” Borrell said. “He insisted instead on formalizing de-facto recognition as the first step.”
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic also blamed Kurti. Vucic had his own ideas about how things should be done, but he eventually accepted a compromise offer tabled by Borrell and his team.
“Kurti did not want to accept it and the meeting ended,” Vucic told reporters. “I hope we will be able to find some solutions in the future, because this way we are heading not only into a dead end, but also something unknown.”
Kurti, for his part, blamed Vucic for “sabotaging” the talks. The Kosovo leader also criticized Borrell and the EU delegation, accusing them of siding with Serbia.
Things were already tense enough. In May, in a dispute over the validity of local elections in the Serbian part of northern Kosovo, Serbs clashed with security forces, including NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers working there, injuring 93 troops.
Last week, KFOR commander Maj. Gen. Angelo Michele Ristuccia warned that his forces “are living a time frame of constant crisis management.” He said that tensions between Belgrade and Pristina are so high that even “the most insignificant event can create a situation.”
The latest set-back comes just a day after the European Commission announced that it wanted to pave the way for countries to join the 27-nation EU more swiftly. Kosovo and Serbia both want in, but Borrell warned that they could both be standing at the back of the line.
“Without normalization, there will not be a European future for either Kosovo or Serbia. Kosovo and Serbia are risking to be left behind when other regional partners are moving quicker towards Europe,” he said.
Borrell said he would report back to EU member countries about what happened and work out what steps to take next.
“I am sorry to say we are running out of time,” Borrell said, and he urged both parties to work toward easing tensions and allow new elections in northern Kosovo as soon as possible, saying: “we cannot sit and wait for the next crisis.”
Kurti — a long-time Kosovo independence activist who spent time in prisons in both Serbia and Kosovo — has frustrated the Europeans and proven difficult for negotiators to work with since he became prime minister in 2021.
At the same, pressure has mounted for the EU to be tougher on Vucic.
In August, senior lawmakers from the United States — the other diplomatic power in the process — warned that negotiators aren't pushing the Serbian leader hard enough. They said that the West’s current approach shows a “lack of evenhandedness.”
Vucic, a former ultranationalist who now claims to want to take Serbia into the EU, has maintained close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has refused to impose sanctions on Russia over its war on Ukraine.
There are widespread fears in the West that Moscow could use Belgrade to reignite ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, which experienced a series of bloody conflicts in the 1990s during the breakup of Yugoslavia, to draw world attention away from the war.
Jovana Gec in Belgrade and Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania contributed.