BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia could face international isolation and economic decline if it rejects a new Western plan for normalizing relations with its former wartime foe Kosovo, the Balkan country’s president Aleksandar Vucic said on Monday, in what appeared to be a shift from his previous hardline rhetoric.
Serbia received that warning last week during a visit by a group of U.S. and European envoys who have stepped up efforts to defuse longtime tensions in the volatile Balkan region amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Serbia must talk, take part in dialogue and continue its European road,” Vucic said. “We would be economically and politically lost without it and, as a president, I would not agree to lead the country that is alone and isolated.”
The dispute between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo has remained a source of instability in the Balkans long after the 1998-99 war, which ended with a NATO intervention that forced Serbia to pull out of the territory.
Kosovo in 2008 declared independence from Serbia, which Belgrade has refused to recognize, relying on Russia and China to help Serbia maintain its claim over the territory. The U.S. and most EU nations have recognized Kosovo, while Russia and China have not.
The new Western plan for normalizing Serbia-Kosovo relations has not been officially made public. Vucic said in his televised address that the plan stipulates that Serbia would not be against membership of Kosovo in international organizations, including the United Nations.
The U.S. and EU want to push forward an EU-mediated dialogue that has been stalled for months because they fear Russia, a Serbia ally, could try to stir instability in the Balkans to avert attention from the war in Ukraine.
“These talks were among the toughest in the past decade,” Vucic added, describing the meeting. “It was never like this.”
The West wants to defeat Russia and anyone standing in the way will be “swept away,” Vucic said.
“Europe is de-facto in war, whatever they may say,” said Vucic. “They (EU) want everything in their backyard — and Balkans is their backyard — to be the way they want it.”
Serbia, which has formally sought EU entry, has not gone along with EU sanctions against Russia, but that hasn’t spared Vucic from being criticized by the pro-Russian nationalist opposition in Serbia for saying he’s ready to consider the latest Western plan.
Despite the anti-Western and pro-Russian sentiment that prevails in Serbia since former ultranationalist Vucic came to power 10 years ago, he said a isolated Serbia would economically collapse without Western help and investments.
Vucic said Monday that “nothing will happen “in the next day or two” but that the country will face tough decisions in the near future. The first repercussion Serbia would face if it rejects the latest Western Kosovo plan would be abolishment of a visa-free regime with the EU, he warned.
“To be fair, the European Union is the biggest investor in Serbia,” he said. “We have to look at things in a fair and objective manner.”
Vucic previously said Serbia would never recognize the independence of Kosovo, which many Serbs consider the country’s historic heartland.
Last month, Western officials mediated in resolving a tense situation in northern Kosovo, where Serbs erected barricades on the main roads to protest the arrest of a former Serb police officer. And in the latest incident, Serb officials said Kosovo police wounded a Serb man on Monday in the Serb-dominated north of the country.