Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti on rising tensions and his rebuke from Washington

Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti on Thursday criticized “harmful” statements by Washington and other allies blaming his government for raising tensions in the country’s Serb-majority areas, but said he would meet with President Serbian, Aleksandar Vucic, amid efforts to de-escalate.

The meeting, on a date not yet specified, was organized by the head of foreign policy of the European Union, Josep Borrell, Kurti said. His comments in a video interview with The Washington Post came as Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated a call for both Kosovo and Serbia to take steps to reduce tension.

Germany and France also called on Kosovo to hold new elections in areas of the Serb-majority north that have been the focus of unrest, including clashes that left more than 30 NATO peacekeepers injured. The scenes of violence have fueled concerns of a return to more intense conflict in Kosovo, where the 1998-1999 war claimed more than 10,000 lives.

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US officials have expressed deep frustration with Pristina over the events of recent days. Blinken said last week that Kosovo’s decision to use police to forcibly install ethnic Albanian mayors in four majority-Serb municipalities escalated tensions “abruptly and unnecessarily”. As punishment, Washington barred Kosovo from participating in planned military exercises, while threatening to end international lobbying for the country’s recognition.

It represents a thorny turn for relations between Washington and Pristina. The United States has been a strong supporter of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, declared in 2008, a move Belgrade never recognized. Other recognition awards include five EU countries: Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain.

“The United States of America is our indispensable ally, friend and partner,” Kurti said. “We are eternally grateful and grateful for their role, for our liberation and independence, for our security and defense, for our development and democracy. But now is also the time to speak our democratic truth to the authoritarians in power.”

Kurti said he understands that the West just wants to keep the peace: “But when you’re dealing with the extreme right, with ultranationalists and very dangerous authoritarian regimes, the statements that are meant to keep the peace continue to encourage the authoritarian figures.”

Kosovo blames Serbia for encouraging the “violent mob” that demonstrated against the installation of the mayors. Officials say that among those arrested was a Serbian policeman.

Kurti said Kosovo had no choice but to install the mayors, although one came in with just over 100 votes after a Serbian boycott meant turnout was less than 4 percent. “Who else can go to these offices?” he said

But the United States saw the move as a provocation. “We have been very clear about our concerns about some of the recent actions that have been taken,” Blinken said during a trip to Oslo on Thursday. “We have told this directly to the leaders involved, including Prime Minister Kurti.”

On Thursday, Vucic called for the removal of the “imprisoned mayors” from their posts. Arriving at the European Political Community summit in Moldova, he said removing them would be a “powerful step” in resolving the crisis.

Vucic met with Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani during the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron told a news conference on Thursday. France and Germany are calling for repeat elections in the four municipalities, said Macron, who described his mandate as “obviously illegitimate”.

In his interview before the request of Germany and France, Kurti admitted that they are mayors “with a small m”. He said he foresees “no way” they will see out his two-year term, but has rejected his impeachment, saying he “cannot surrender” to the demands of a “fascist militia”.

For early elections to be held, there also needs to be “rule of law”, he said, adding that a new vote is likely to face a similar boycott.

Germany and France are also demanding a solution to the issue of increased autonomy for ethnic Serb-majority areas, which Pristina agreed a decade ago and has not implemented, one of the reasons for the boycott.

“Now each party will consult on its side and come back with clear answers next week,” Macron said.

Kurti says the deal is unconstitutional, but that Kosovo is willing to work towards an “adequate level of self-governance” for the Serbian community, as outlined in an EU proposal for normalization this year .

Kurti has been pushing for a greater NATO peacekeeping presence in the country since the start of the war in Ukraine, amid concerns that Moscow is using its strong ties with Serbia to foment unrest on a different front. in Europe After clashes late last month, NATO sent 700 more troops to Kosovo, which has had a peacekeeping presence for nearly 25 years.

Kurti said he will not bow to international calls to withdraw police from municipal buildings until protesters are dispersed or arrested.

“If these violent mobs are out in Serbia or in prison, we could decrease,” he said, suggesting the number of police could be reduced to “single digit” numbers.

Beatriz Rios in Brussels contributed to this report.

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