EU-brokered talks between Kosovo and Serbia have become so one-sided that they have reached a dead end, Kosovo’s prime minister has said.
More than a decade of European-led mediation efforts, most recently in Moldova and Brussels, have failed to normalise relations between the two countries, and Belgrade still refuses to recognise Kosovo’s independence, declared in 2008 under a UN-sponsored plan.
On Sunday, tensions rose again after the killing of a police officer and the wounding of another in northern Kosovo, in the first violence in the region for months.
The prime minister, Albin Kurti, said in an interview with the Guardian given before this weekend’s violence that continuing instability had made the region “a playground for the geopolitical games of the Russian Federation and People’s Republic of China”.
Kurti described the latest abortive meeting on 14 September between him and the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, as a debacle and said the EU special envoy, Miroslav Lajčák, had “lost neutrality”.
According to Kurti’s account, Lajčák failed to pass on Serbia’s written negotiating position to the Kosovans before the meeting and it was only presented to them after the talks had broken up. Kurti said the position paper was more than six months old.
“There is no moving further with this method,” Kurti said. “The 14 September [meeting] showed the limits of old methods.”
He accused Vučić of hurling insults at him during the talks, which he said had become a regular occurrence with no effort by the mediators to stop it.
“He offends and curses in Serbian quite often throughout these two years,” Kurti said. “I asked the mediators to stop him and to condemn it but that never happens.”
At another summit, in Moldova on 1 June, attended by France’s Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Olaf Scholz and the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, Vučić aimed slurs at Kosovo’s president, Vjosa Osmani, according to her office.
“He addressed the president of Kosovo and her accompanying staff with the derogatory and dehumanising term ‘rats’,” said Blerim Vela, Osmani’s chief of staff. “Vučić’s tantrums reflect his personality and his inability to accept different opinions.”
One source said that although Macron and Scholz could not understand what he was saying, Vučić’s “body language showed he was irritated” and did not want to be in the room with the Kosovans.
Kurti would not specify what epithets the Serbian president allegedly used against him, but Kosovan diplomats said one of the offensive words used in earlier meetings was “shiptar”, an ethnic slur in Serbian to refer to Albanians.
“It feels like a school bully who is being given honours by the school administration, except that in this case the school bully committed genocide and is a staunch ally of [Vladimir] Putin,” Kurti said.
Serbia’s presidential office did not respond to requests for comment.
Ethnic slurs have a particular impact in the region as they echo the rhetoric that accompanied the brutal counterinsurgency and campaign of ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces in the late 1990s under the then president, Slobodan Milošević. More than 10,000 people were killed, the overwhelming majority of them from Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority.
European mediators thought they had achieved a breakthrough in February when Vučić and Kurti met in Brussels and agreed a “path to normalisation”.
Under the agreement, both countries would recognise each other’s passports, flags and symbols, Serbia would not object to Kosovo’s membership in any international organisation, and Kosovo would “ensure an appropriate level of self-management for the Serbian community in Kosovo”.
Despite verbally approving the Brussels document and an implementation annexe the following month at a separate meeting on North Macedonia’s Lake Ohrid, Vučić refused to sign either and backtracked soon after, fuelling mistrust in Kosovo.
After EU officials hailed Lake Ohrid as a success, Vučić appeared on Serbian television to reassure his followers he had signed nothing because “I have excruciating pain in my right hand”, adding: “That pain is expected to continue for four years.”
Not long after that, in April, Belgrade directly violated the Ohrid agreement by opposing Kosovo’s membership of the Council of Europe.
Since the war in Ukraine broke out, Kosovo believes the priority has changed to ensure Serbia does not fall further under the influence of Russia. It claims the EU and the US have instead focused their criticism on Kurti’s government for not establishing an association of Serb-majority municipalities to give Serb areas more autonomy.
It was unclear where there was a substantial difference between the EU and Serbian positions. Both require Kosovo to act first on the Serb municipalities as a precondition for progress. Kurti refuses to make that move without corresponding steps from Serbia, pointing out that nothing in Vučić’s record suggests he can be trusted.
Edward P Joseph, a former deputy head of mission in Kosovo of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, argued Kurti was justified in being cautious.
“He’s not wrong to demand real specificity and real guarantees from the US and EU about the implementation on the Serbian side of this deal,” said Joseph, now a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “It’s a strategic question. He would be giving autonomy to a separatist group that is controlled by a much larger, hostile neighbour.”
Kurti said he went to the latest meeting on 14 September with proposals on how Kosovan and Serbian steps could be sequenced. According to his account, Lajčák, the EU envoy, said the proposals would not work as they clashed with Serbia’s position. When the Kosovan prime minister asked to see Serbia’s position paper, Lajčák said it had been given to Kurti’s deputy before the meeting.
However, the deputy said he had received nothing, so Kurti went to confront Lajčák, who then said his team were still “trying to retrieve the document” from their files.
According to Kurti, the missing document turned out to have been drafted by Serbia even before the March agreement, and it insisted there could be no progress until Kurti created the Serb municipality association, Kurti said. In his eyes, Lajčák had adopted Serb conditions unquestioningly.
“That’s why I was appalled. I was shocked,” Kurti said. “I think the EU27 are not informed about this. They have outsourced this very important job to this person who has lost neutrality.”
Lajčák’s office decline to comment on the record about Kurti’s version of events.
The lead spokesperson for EU foreign affairs said Kurti’s account “does not reflect the truth and is inaccurate”. He said the 27 member states had restated their full support for the dialogue, for Borrell leading the talks and for Lajčák. He criticised Kurti for breaching confidentiality.
“The EU27 member states also reminded Mr Kurti of the responsibility to uphold the principle of confidentiality in the dialogue, which is a key component of any politically sensitive negotiation process,” said the spokesperson.
The US and the EU approach has drawn criticism elsewhere. In August, a group of prominent western politicians including the chairs of the US, German and British parliamentary foreign affairs committees wrote to US and EU leaders to urge a change in what they said was a Serbia-centric approach.
In a strongly worded letter, they urged that the “international community learns from our past and ensure we do not adopt a Belgrade-centred policy for the Balkans”.
Aleksandra Tomanić, the executive director of the European Fund for the Balkans, a pro-democracy advocacy group, said the EU meetings were becoming meaningless and even counterproductive.
“‘Facilitation’ of a dialogue where both sides have completely opposite goals is not enough,” Tomanić said. “To provide the office space and cookies and to continue ‘dialogueing’ for years will lead to more frustration, further increase of distrust and eventually tensions, as we see now.”
Donika Emini, who runs a Kosovo NGO coalition called CiviKos Platform, agreed that through his “miscalculations” Kurti had “lost the Serbs in the north and it will take a long time to repair this relationship”.
However, she said Kurti was right not to set up an association of Serb municipalities without solid guarantees from the EU and US on progress towards normalisation with Serbia.
Otherwise, Emini said, “they would be another layer of governance, Kosovo will be more dysfunctional internally, and it won’t move anything internationally or in relation to Serbia.”
Emini added: “I think they are over-optimistic that Vučić will turn towards the west if they put pressure on Kurti and accommodate Serbian demands towards Kosovo.”
Joseph argues the west will have no leverage on Serbia while four Nato members – Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain – still do not recognise Kosovo, mostly out of fears of the precedent it would set for secessionist regions in their own countries.
As a way around the impasse, he argued that Ukrainian recognition of Kosovo could provide the catalyst for persuading the four European holdouts to follow suit. Kurti said he raised the issue when he met the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
He added: “I believe that the recognition by Ukraine would be a profound understanding and solidarity with one another against authoritarian aggression.”