Serbia could become ‘pariah’ over Kosovo, president warns

Serbia could become ‘pariah’ over Kosovo, president warns

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) – Serbia’s populist president warned during a chaotic parliamentary session Thursday that the Balkan nation could become a European “pariah” state if it rejects a Western plan to normalize relations with Kosovo.

President Aleksandar Vucic faced a hostile reception from the right-wing opposition, which urged parliament to reject the plan and accused him of betraying Serbia.

The plan has not been officially made public, but Vucic said it stipulates that Serbia will not oppose Kosovo’s inclusion in international organizations, including the United Nations, although it will not have to formally recognize its citizenship.

“I have not signed anything. I said that we will continue with the talks”, said Vucic. “People need to understand … Would we become a European pariah? Yes, we would.”

The session included pushing and shoving, and shouting matches between Vucic’s ruling party and opposition lawmakers. They chanted “Treason, betrayal” and “We will not give up Kosovo” and demanded Vucic’s resignation.

Vucic responded by shouting at the protesting lawmakers that they are “thieves and traitors”.

The sovereignty of Kosovo, a former province of Serbia that declared independence in 2008, is not recognized by the Serbian government.

The dispute between Serbia and Kosovo has been a source of tension in the Balkans since the 1998-99 war that ended when a NATO bombing campaign forced Serbia to withdraw from the former Serbian province. The United States and the European Union have recently stepped up efforts to resolve the problem, fearing instability as Russia’s war rages in Ukraine.

In Kosovo on Thursday, Prime Minister Albin Kurti set conditions for the formation of an association of municipalities with a Serbian majority, which is supported by both the USA and the EU. Kurti said that the association can only be formed as part of a general agreement on the normalization of relations, which Serbia has rejected in the past.

Kosovo authorities fear that a community of Serb-dominated municipalities – first agreed in EU-led talks in 2013 – would eventually undermine the country’s citizenship with Belgrade’s help. Kurti instead asked Belgrade to dismantle any Serbian-backed institutions among the Kosovo Serb community, who overwhelmingly oppose Kosovo’s independence.

Vucic said Western envoys told him last month that Serbia’s EU accession process would be halted and economic investment halted if Belgrade decided to reject the latest Western offer to reach a settlement.

As Vucic spoke in parliament, right-wing lawmakers held placards accusing the Serbian president of betraying Kosovo, which many in Serbia consider the cradle of national identity.

Pro-Russian opposition lawmakers in parliament described the Western plan for Kosovo as an “ultimatum”. They said that this means that Serbia will have to recognize Kosovo’s independence as a condition to finally join the European Union.

“We don’t see a single reason why we should accept this Western ultimatum,” said Bosko Obradovic of the far-right Dveri party, urging the assembly to vote to reject it.

Serbia has relied on the support of Russia and China in its rejection of Kosovo’s independence. This is one of the reasons why Belgrade has not imposed any sanctions on Moscow for the war in Ukraine.

Vucic said that it is of “vital interest” for Serbia to continue with the EU accession process, but reiterated that the country will not join NATO. Rejecting Western efforts would result in “total isolation”, he warned. “You can’t function alone.”

Decades-long tensions between Serbia and Kosovo occasionally erupt into violence, especially in the north of the country, which borders Serbia and is populated mostly by ethnic Serbs.

War broke out in 1998-99 when separatist ethnic Albanians launched a rebellion against Serbian rule and Belgrade responded with a brutal crackdown. About 13,000 people died, mostly ethnic Albanians.

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Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia and Lazar Semini in Tirana, Albania contributed to this report.

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