Serbia hints EU deal on Kosovo a no-go

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Senior Serbian leaders indicated Sunday that their government will reject a European Union-mediated plan for reconciliation with Kosovo Albanians that would pave the way for Serbia’s eventual membership in the bloc, but that Serbia will ask for more negotiations.

The EU has given Serbia until Tuesday to say whether it would relinquish its effective control of northern Kosovo in exchange for the start of Serbia’s EU membership negotiations.

Talks between Serbian and Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leaders on the issue broke down this past week in Brussels, and Serbian leaders have since been debating whether to accept or reject the deal, which Serbian nationalist President Tomislav Nikolic described as “an ultimatum.”

“We hit a wall,” Nikolic told reporters. “The negotiations turned into talks on (Kosovo’s) independence, and no one in Serbia has the right to do that.”

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who is the country’s most powerful politician because he leads the country’s ruling party and is also the defense minister, was even more specific. He told Belgrade’s Pink TV Sunday night the he will not approve the agreement without more negotiations.

“We have to reach a deal and my proposal is that we ask for the continuation of the dialogue and demand more guarantees” for Serbs in Kosovo, Vucic said. “It has to be clear that we want a deal.”

While some 90 countries — including the United States and most EU nations — have recognized Kosovo’s independence, Serbia has not. The most contentious issue is the status of northern Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs dominate the population and refuse to accept the authority of the ethnic Albanian-controlled government in Pristina.

Serbian officials have said the stumbling block in the talks was their demand that ethnic Serbs, who represent about 10 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million people, have their own judiciary and police force. But Kosovo officials have rejected the demand, saying it would be tantamount to a division of Kosovo into two separate entities.

Nikolic said the Serbian leadership will on Monday formally declare whether it accepts or rejects the proposed deal. He added that more negotiations will be sought “to correct” the proposal.

If Serbia rejects the proposal, it would be a severe blow for its EU membership aspirations and would lead to more tensions in the Balkans, which still reels from the bloody wars of the 1990s.

The recent meeting was the eighth face-to-face gathering between Serbian and Kosovo officials, all under EU mediation. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a written statement after the talks broke down that it was the last formal meeting she would call between the parties.

Nikolic suggested that the EU should stay out of any future negotiations.

He said the talks should be mediated “under some organization we are members of” — a clear call for the U.N. to get involved. That would be rejected by the Kosovo Albanians because they would want to leave Serbian ally Russia out of the process.

Despite Nikolic’s and Vucic’s remarks, some other Serbian officials voiced more conciliatory stands on the proposed plan.

Tuesday is “not the D-day” for Serbia, said Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic. “Belgrade hopes the dialogue with Pristina will not be stopped so a mutually acceptable solution is found.”

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