Serbia's Vucic demands Kosovo concessions on autonomy for local Serbs before new vote
PHOTO CAPTION: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks to media, in Ohrid, North Macedonia March 18, 2023.REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
By Ivana Sekularac and Aleksandar Vasovic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia's president urged Kosovo on Friday not to organise new elections for mayors in its north until more autonomy had been granted to ethnic Serbs who form a local majority and boycotted a previous vote.
"All Serbs in the north think of Serbia as their country, not Kosovo. That's the reality," Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said in an interview with Reuters in Belgrade. "Someone needs to get a grip and organise a (new) election there."
Violence flared in Kosovo's north last week after ethnic Albanian mayors were installed in office in several Serb-majority municipalities after April local elections that drew a mere 3.5% turnout.
In response to the unrest, in which Serb protesters clashed with NATO peacekeepers, leaving dozens injured on both sides, Serbia placed its armed forces on highest combat alert and NATO sent reinforcements to its mission in Kosovo.
The European Union and United States, Kosovo's strongest supporters, have urged Pristina to organise new elections in the Serb-majority area to defuse tensions, and Serbia to drop its combat alert and move troops away from the boundary with Kosovo.
But Vucic said the authorities in Kosovo - a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008 after a 1990s uprising by majority ethnic Albanians - would need to make some concessions to ensure Serb participation in a new vote.
"We still don't have an association of Serb municipalities, there is still no withdrawal of (Kosovo Albanian) special police forces and mayors there," he said.
A decade-old, European Union-brokered deal provided for Serbs in the north to establish an association of self-governing municipalities in exchange for recognising Kosovo institutions, but the accord has never been implemented.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti has said that if given greater autonomy under an association of municipalities, the Serb majority area could organise a referendum to rejoin Serbia.
Vucic said: "Serbs (in the north) are always ready to talk, but you have to offer them something."
Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani told Reuters earlier this month that the country could hold fresh elections in the municipalities in question if 20% of voters signed a petition asking for them. She also accused Serbia of interference.
In response, Vucic said "it is terrifying what those people are talking about" and he accused Kurti of being unwilling to compromise. "I am sure (Kurti) will not invest a minute of his time nor a drop of his sweat to find a compromise solution."
He said Serbia was considering whether it to lower its combat readiness. "We will keep our troops on high alert, not the highest combat alert, because that costs a lot."
Vucic also told Reuters in the interview that Belgrade was in talks to purchase Rafale fighter jets from France and further bolster its military with Western weapons.
He said Serbia remains on the path to join the EU and had managed to balance its foreign policies to allow continued friendly relations with historical ally Russia and with China.
(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac and Aleksandar Vasovic; editing by Mark Heinrich)