Envoys from EU, U.S., meet Kosovo Serbs as differences resurface

By Thomson Reuters Aug 25, 2022 | 6:45 AM

Kosovska Mitrovica, KOSOVO (Reuters) – Envoys from the European Union and the United States met officials in Kosovo’s ethnically divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica on Thursday as long-standing differences between Belgrade and Pristina flared again, triggered by a dispute over car number plates.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. But Belgrade accuses Pristina of trampling on the rights of minority Serbs, who account for 5% of Kosovo’s 1.8 million population, which is 90% Albanian.

EU-sponsored talks in Brussels earlier this month failed to overcome differences which centre on a plan by Pristina to require local Serbs to switch their car number plates from Serbian to Kosovo ones.

On Sunday, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said minority Serbs working in Kosovo institutions would leave their jobs unless a deal is reached to end what he called their “persecution”.

After meeting Kosovo Serb representatives in the northern, predominantly Serb part of Kosovska Mitrovica, EU mediator Miroslav Lajcak said the talks focused on “hearing first-hand” about their position.

“Whatever decision is made, the Serbs who live there are at the center of that decision and every bad decision worsens their lives and a good decision improves it,” he said.

Lajcak and U.S. envoy Gabriel Escobar were expected to meet Vucic in Belgrade later on Thursday. They have also met senior Kosovo officials in Pristina.

Many Serbs in Kosovo have already changed their registration plates and identification papers, but some 50,000 living in the north, who see Belgrade in Serbia as their capital, created road blocks last month in protest at the requirement before NATO peacekeepers oversaw their removal.

The situation calmed after Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti agreed under U.S. and EU pressure to postpone the number plates rule until Sept. 1. Kurti and Vucic also agreed to continue discussions before Sept 1.

The row broke out more than two decades after NATO airstrikes forced Serbian forces to stop violence against majority Albanians in the former Serbia’s southern province, leading to Kosovo’s independence.

(Reporting by Branko FIlipovic, writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Angus MacSwan)