PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Serbia’s president asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for advice Wednesday on how to counter Kosovo’s “violence and aggression” against Serbs — a development that could complicate Western attempts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in the Balkans.
Aleksandar Vucic’s office said in a statement that he informed Putin about the “brutal attack” by Kosovo police on Monday against a senior Serb official who was arrested and expelled after entering the country without an official permit.
The statement also said that Vucic sought Putin’s counsel “because it’s perfectly clear that (Kosovo) Albanians have wide support of numerous Western states for their unilateral declaration of independence” a decade ago.
The statement didn’t say whether Putin had offered any specific guidance, but Vucic later told a Serbian TV station that after the conversation he concluded that Serbia can count on “full and crucial help from the Russian Federation.”
NATO troops have been stationed in Kosovo since 1999 when the alliance intervened to stop a Serb crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists. Serb military involvement in Kosovo would create a major crisis with the West, especially if there is indirect support from Russia.
The Kremlin said in a statement that Putin and the Serbian president discussed the issue of Kosovo “in the context of the provocative action by Pristina authorities” against Marko Djuric, the head of the Serbian government office for Kosovo, who was briefly arrested and expelled on Monday after an intervention by Kosovo police.
While Russia supports Serbia’s claims over its former province, the U.S. and most Western states have recognized Kosovo’s independence. Russia has been trying to expand its influence in the Balkans mainly through its traditional Slavic ally Serbia.
Involving Russia in the Serbia-Kosovo conflict could complicate an EU-mediated effort to find a peaceful solution, and stall both countries’ proclaimed membership goals. Kosovo and Serbia must normalize ties in order to join the EU. Although Serbia formally seeks EU membership, it has lately been developing close political and military ties with Russia.
Kosovo’s Serb minority on Wednesday demanded that the country’s interior minister and police chief resign over the arrest and expulsion of Djuric, which refueled tensions between the Balkan foes.
Monday’s actions angered Serbia and Kosovo Serbs, who don’t recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia. The incident also has fueled fears of renewed instability in the region. The U.S. and the European Union have been trying to help resolve the disputes stemming from the Balkan Wars in the 1990s.
During Monday’s incident, Kosovo police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse protesters, and Djuric later said he was roughed up and humiliated by Kosovo police, and appeared at a news conference in Belgrade on Tuesday with bandaged hands. Kosovo Serbs say that more than 30 people were injured in the police intervention during Djuric’s arrest.
The Kosovo Serb minority also said that if Kosovo doesn’t launch an association of Serb-dominated municipalities within three weeks, they will form their own local administrations throughout Kosovo where Serbs live.
The association was envisaged in an EU-mediated deal in 2013 but was never carried out by Kosovo authorities.
Kosovo’s Cabinet considered the ultimatum as “a wrong approach.
“The association is an obligation that Kosovo has undertaken during the Brussels process and which is to be implemented in the near future,” it said.
The U.S. has condemned the “events in Mitrovica, which unnecessarily heighten tensions and threaten regional stability.” The U.S. State Department statement Tuesday also urged all parties to avoid further escalation and resolve disputes peacefully.
Dusan Stojanovic reported from Belgrade, Serbia. Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, and Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed to this report.