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Serbian leader lashes out at the West over Kosovo vote

BELGRADE, Serbia — The Serbian president on Monday sharply criticized Western officials who are mediating talks on normalizing ties with Kosovo, calling them liars and frauds, and said the Serb minority in the former Serbian province will no longer tolerate foreign “occupation.”

Aleksandar Vucic spoke a day after local elections in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo that were overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb voters there. As a result, ethnic Albanians were elected.

Tensions in the Western Balkans, which went through a bloody war in the 1990s, have soared since the Russian aggression on Ukraine.

Vucic praised the vote boycott by the Kosovo Serbs, saying it represented “a peaceful political uprising” against their “occupiers.” Serbs are claiming harassment by Pristina authorities and demand autonomy for their region.

“Our people in Kosovo have shown in which country they want to live,” said Vucic, a populist leader known for his frequent anti-Western outbursts. He is apparently angry at the European Union and the U.S. for allowing Pristina to hold the vote when the Serb boycott, called by Belgrade, was expected.

The EU said on Monday that the elections were held in line with the legal framework of Kosovo and that efforts were undertaken for them to take place in a smooth and orderly manner.

“At the same time, the EU regrets that not all parties and communities made use of their democratic right to participate and vote in the elections,” the EU statement said. “The very low turnout, in particular among Kosovo Serb citizens, shows that this process is not and cannot be considered business as usual.”

The Kosovo government hailed “citizens for their courage and calmness” while taking part in the vote. It said the election was “a manifestation of democracy.”

“The threatening campaign orchestrated by Belgrade and executed through intimidation, pressure and blackmail by criminal groups … led to a low turnout of citizens in the elections,” Prime Minister Albin Kurti said.

Kosovo is a majority ethnic Albanian former Serbian province. The 1998-1999 war erupted when separatist ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbia’s rule, and Belgrade responded with a brutal crackdown. About 13,000 people died, mostly ethnic Albanians. In 1999 a NATO military intervention forced Serbia to pull out of the territory. Kosovo declared independence in 2008.

Tensions have simmered ever since. Kosovo’s independence is recognized by many Western countries, but it is opposed by Belgrade with the backing of Russia and China. EU-brokered talks have made little headway in recent years, although their leaders last month tentatively agreed on how to implement a EU-sponsored plan to normalize relations after decades of tensions.

Vucic said he will “probably” take part in the next round of EU-mediated talks with Kosovo’s Kurti, scheduled in Brussels on May 2, despite “expecting nothing” to come out of that meeting.

“I’m afraid that this is a prelude to a much deeper crisis,” Vucic said.

There are fears in the West that Russia, a Serb ally, could destabilize the Balkans through its proxies in the region, open another front in Europe and shift at least some international attention from the war in Ukraine.

Fueling those claims was a decision Monday by parties close to the Bosnian Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik, a staunch pro-Russian, to propose a series of measures that could lead to about half of Bosnia controlled by Serbs to secede from the joint state and become part of neighboring Serbia.

The move triggered a sharp reaction from the U.S., whose peace plan ended the 1992-1995 Bosnian war that killed more than 100,000 people and left millions homeless.

The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo said in a terse statement that Republika Srpska — the Bosnian Serb entity — is an entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, “does not exist outside (the country), and there is no right under (Bosnia and Herzegovina’s) constitution for an entity or any other sub-state unit to secede or unify with another state.”

“Milorad Dodik is wrong if he thinks that the United States will step aside while he pushes (Bosnia and Herzegovina) toward conflict,” it added. “The United States will protect Bosnia and Herzegovina and ensure it maintains its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and multiethnic character.”

Llazar Semini contributed from Tirana, Albania.

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