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Dutch, Luxembourgish PMs push Serbia, Kosovo to defuse tensions under Ukraine war’s shadow

The prime ministers of the Netherlands and Luxembourg on Monday urged Serbia and Kosovo to act to defuse recent tensions that have threatened to push the Balkan region into instability as Europe faces Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

Dutch PM Mark Rutte and Xavier Bettel, the Luxembourg PM, spoke after meeting Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade. Rutte and Bettel travel to Kosovo on Tuesday for meetings with top officials there.

“We cannot, both of us, emphasize enough how important it is that both Serbia and Kosovo take steps toward de-escalation and ultimately normalization of their relations through the EU-led dialogue,” said Rutte.

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“This is crucial for the two countries themselves, first and foremost, but also for the entire region and Europe as a whole,” he added. “With a war raging between Russia and Ukraine on our continent, it’s more important than ever that we act together.”

Serbia and its former province Kosovo have been at odds for decades, with Belgrade refusing to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. Western efforts to resolve the crisis have increased recently, to avert possible instability in the Balkans as war ravages Ukraine.

Xavier Bettel, Mark Rutte and Aleksandar Vucic

Luxembourgish Prime Minister Xavier Bettel (left) and Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte (center) met with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (right) on Monday in hopes of helping Belgrade strengthen diplomatic relations with Kosovo. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Tensions between the two countries flared anew in May after Kosovo police seized local municipal buildings in Serb-majority northern Kosovo to install ethnic Albanian mayors who were elected in an April election that Serbs overwhelmingly boycotted.

Violent clashes injured 30 international peacekeepers and more than 50 ethnic Serbs, stirring fears of a renewal of the 1998-99 conflict that left more than 10,000 people dead, mostly Kosovar Albanians.

The U.S and the EU have pressed Serbia and Kosovo to take steps to lower tensions. Normalization of relations is the key condition for the two countries to move forward in their efforts to join the EU.

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Bettel, too, called on the two sides to act.

“Words are good, actions are better,” he said. “And we need to advance on these topics and to show also that there is a wish of de-escalation.”

Vucic expressed hope that the two prime ministers’ visit to Serbia and Kosovo would help. “I promised that Serbia will do all it can to preserve peace and stability,” he said.

Washington and most EU nations have recognized Kosovo’s independence, while Russia and China have backed Serbia’s claim on the territory.

The 1998-99 war erupted when separatist ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbia’s rule and Belgrade responded with a brutal crackdown. NATO bombing in 1999 forced Serbia to relinquish control but Belgrade has maintained Kosovo remains part of the country.

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