U.S. presses Kosovo on municipal body in Serb-majority areas

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — United States officials on Monday pressed Kosovo to allow an association of ethnic Serb-majority municipalities as a “critical element” in its road as an independent country.

Derek Chollet, counselor of the Department of State, and Gabriel Escobar, special envoy for the Western Balkans, published an op-ed as part of U.S. and European Union efforts to promote “a healthy, peaceful, and sustainable relationship between Serbia and Kosovo.”

During the past weeks U.S. and EU envoys have visited Pristina and Belgrade to encourage them to accept a new proposal for the two countries to normalize relations, and boost their EU accession bids.

The proposal’s details have not yet been made public.

Pristina has been reluctant to accept the creation of the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities, or ASM, fearing that could lead to the creation of a state within a state — like Republika Srpska in multi-ethnic Bosnia Herzegovina.

The ASM's establishment was agreed in Brussels in 2013, and the details in another agreement in 2015, and also approved in the Kosovo parliament. But later Kosovo’s Constitutional Court deemed it unconstitutional because it was not inclusive of other ethnicities and could entail executive powers.

An EU-mediated Kosovo-Serbia dialogue has been ongoing since 2011, but few of the 33 signed agreements have been implemented.

The U.S. envoys said the ASM would coordinate the work of the Serb-dominated municipalities on education, health care, urban and rural planning, and local economic development “to improve the everyday lives of people.”

“Kosovo’s commitment to create the ASM does not undermine its constitution or threaten its sovereignty, independence, or democratic institutions,” they wrote, adding that Washington “strictly opposes the creation of any entity resembling Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

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, supported by Russia and China. The U.S. and most EU nations have recognized Kosovo.