US calls for calm over Kosovo
The unfinished Church of Christ the Saviour, Pristina. Source: Wikimedia
Washington has called on Kosovo and Serbia to end “dangerous rhetoric” after the authorities in Pristina denied entry to a provocative Serbian train painted in the colours of the national flag along with the words “Kosovo is Serbia” in numerous languages.
Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci said Serbia was trying to seize northern Kosovo using the “Crimea model”, in a reference to the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s peninsula in 2014. Most of Kosovo’s ethnic Serb minority is concentrated in the north, near the Serbian border.
Kosovo Albanians make up more than 90 per cent of Kosovo’s 1.8 million population. Northern Kosovo is home to a Serb minority of 40,000 to 50,000.
Serb President Tomislav Nikolic said Kosovo clearly wanted war because it had deployed special police at the border to block the train. The train was due to travel to ethnic Serbian enclaves in what it regards as a breakaway province.
Kosovo, backed by the US and western Europe, formally declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
“Kosovo is a sovereign, independent country and we respect the right of Kosovo to manage who and what crosses its borders,” the US embassy in Pristina announced. “We urge all sides to avoid dangerous rhetoric and continue to work for the normalisation of relations.”
Serbia and its traditional ally, Russia, both refuse to recognise Kosovo.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said tensions were sharply rising in the Balkans and the west must help de-escalate the situation.
Symbolic of tensions between the neighbours is the unfinished Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour on the campus of Pristina University. Construction began in the mid-1990s under Slobodan Milosevic’s presidency and his efforts to consolidate Serbia’s grip over the province. The building was abandoned by the Serbs while only part-finished.
During a protest last year students sat in front of the church and read books to suggest the area should be used for studying.
Nato air strikes on Serbia forced it to withdraw in 1999 after an estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanian civilians had died. Around 5,000 Nato troops are still stationed in Kosovo.
Nikolic met the US ambassador to Serbia and afterwards said Washington had caused “trouble” in the former Yugoslavia and expressed hope that Donald Trump would be more supportive to Serbian interests.
Relations between Kosovo and Serbia came under renewed strain on January 4 when ex-Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj was arrested on charges of war crimes in France on a warrant from Serbia.
Normalising diplomatic ties is a key requirement for both countries to progress towards EU membership.