EU urges Kosovo, ethnic Serbs to start ‘serious dialogue’ after vote boycott

BELGRADE (Reuters) – The European Union called on Kosovo’s government and ethnic Serbs to start a “serious dialogue” to bring them back into state institutions after they boycotted local elections to press demands for more autonomy.

The boycott underlined that a Western-backed plan verbally agreed to by the Kosovo and Serbian governments in March was not working. It aimed to defuse tensions by granting local Serbs more autonomy with Pristina retaining ultimate authority.

“These elections do not offer a long-term political solution for these municipalities,” EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano said on Monday, referring to a northern area of the 90% ethnic Albanian country where Serbs form a majority.

“There is an urgent need for a serious dialogue. It is imperative that we urgently restore a situation where Kosovo Serbs participate actively in local governance, policing and judiciary in the north of Kosovo,” he said in a statement.

Some 50,000 Serbs who live there have not recognised Kosovo state institutions since Pristina declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after a guerrilla uprising, instead seeing Belgrade as their capital.

Kosovo’s election commission said the turnout in Sunday’s local elections in the north was 3.47%. All four elected mayors were from ethnic Albanian political parties including two from the ruling Self-Determination Party of Prime Minister Albin Kurti. The only Serb candidate drew only five votes.

Serb officials in the north resigned collectively in November 2022 in protest at the Pristina government’s plan to replace Serbian car number plates dating to the pre-independence era with number plates with those of Kosovo.

They are demanding the implementation of an association of semi-autonomous Kosovo Serb municipalities that was agreed with European Union mediation a decade ago, before taking part in any election organised by Pristina.

Kurti accused the Serbian government of orchestrating “a threatening campaign” intimidating Serbs in the north who had been willing to vote.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic denied the accusations.

“We have witnessed a peaceful political uprising of Serbs in the north (on Sunday),” Vucic said. “I am afraid that this is just the start of a greater political crisis.”

Serbia has not recognised the independence of its former southern province, where NATO intervened during the 1998-99 conflict to protect ethnic Albanians from a fierce Serbian security crackdown replete with killings and ethnic cleansing.

(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac and Fatos Bytyci, editing by Mark Heinrich)