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Russia hits back as US takes lead in Kosovo-Serbia peace talks

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, shakes hands with Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic after a joint press conference in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, June 18, 2020
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, shakes hands with Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic after a joint press conference in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, June 18, 2020   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic
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Russia has warned it would need to approve any solution reached in peace talks between Kosovo and Serbia in Washington later this month.

The warning by Sergei Lavrov comes after the United States invited the two former wartime foes for a meeting at the White House on June 27.

Lavrov noted that the European Union has the mandate to mediate in the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia. And he said that any agreement between Serbia and Kosovo must be approved by the UN Security Council, where Russia has veto power.

"We will not allow attempts to rewrite the history of either the Second World War or the events that took place in the Balkans 25 years ago," Lavrov said during a joint press conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

"And, in every possible way, we will advocate such approaches that will not infringe on the interests of Serbia, which plays an important and positive role in ensuring peace and stability in the region at this stage."

For almost a decade, the European Union has been in charge of a dialogue to normalise relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008 but Belgrade has refused to recognise it.

Lavrov's comments make it clear that Moscow too wants a say in what happens in the Balkans. His visit to Belgrade was his first foreign trip since the start of the coronavirus crisis.

"We are now undoubtedly in a great power competition. For the United States, Southeastern Europe is a unique strategic space," says Jelena Milić, director of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies (CEAS).

US President Trump's envoy Richard Grenell invited Kosovar and Serbian top officials to meet in the White House after getting confirmation from Serbia it would temporarily pause its campaign for countries to withdraw recognition of Kosovo, which itself agreed to pause efforts to win more international memberships.

On Thursday, Serbia's Vucic also insisted that any decision on Kosovo would need the consent of Russia.

Ongoing EU diplomatic efforts

Vucic said that while he accepted Grenell's invitation, the talks in Washington are not meant to undermine the EU’s mediation effort.

The EU talks are set to resume after Kosovo recently lifted trade sanctions – and Belgrade, in turn, agreed to halt a de-recognition campaign of its former province.

"The EU has sidelined itself. You have great power competition and you have some kind of competition obviously among allies, between the EU and the current U.S. administration. And I hope that NATO will resolve the issue, peacefully this time," said Milić.

Kosovo was a region within Serbia until a political change in Belgrade and an armed uprising by the ethnic Albanian majority population in 1998-1999 triggered one of Europe's most violent conflicts. In 1999, NATO ended the conflict in Kosovo with a bombing campaign against Serbia.

Now, two decades later the United States, NATO’s biggest contributor, is trying to seal a potential peace deal.

The proposal features $200 million (€180 million) in loans but also the threat of pulling US troops – part of NATO’s KFOR peacekeeping force – out of Kosovo, which has prompted NATO to react.

"I'm confident that NATO allies will stay committed to the KFOR mission. At the same time, we will then strongly support efforts to restart the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue," said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.