MITROVICA, Kosovo (AP) — Several thousand ethnic Serbs rallied in Kosovo on Sunday as a dispute over vehicle license plates heightened ongoing tensions between Serbia and its former province.
The government’s decision to gradually ban Serbia-issued license plates has angered Kosovo Serbs, most of whom do not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. Members of the ethnic Serb minority left their government jobs on Saturday in a protest over the directive.
The Serbian government, with support from China and Russia, also has refused to acknowledge Kosovo’s statehood. The United States and its allies recognize Kosovo as an independent country.
During Sunday’s protest in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica, Serb political leaders said the police officers, judges and other public employees would not return to their jobs unless Kosovo’s government reversed its license plate policy.
“We are on our land and we will not give up,” Serb politician Goran Rakic said. “There is no withdrawal. Long live Serbia.”
The issue of Kosovo’s independence sparked a 1998-99 war in which some 13,000 people died. Serbia launched a brutal crackdown to curb a separatist rebellion by ethnic Albanians. NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 to end the war.
Both Serbia and Kosovo have been told they must normalize relations in order to advance in their effort to join the European Union. However, EU-mediated talks have stalled. triggering concerns of instability more than two decades after the conflict.
Further dashing hopes of a quick resolution, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said Sunday that the country’s leadership has rejected the latest proposal. It reportedly offered Serbia a faster track to EU membership in exchange for Kosovo’s membership in the United Nations.
Dacic told pro-government broadcast Prva TV that proposal submitted by France and Germany “starts from the position that the independence of Kosovo is already a foregone conclusion.”
“Serbia cannot accept that,” he said.
Kosovo’s government previously postponed until Nov. 1 a requirement for vehicles holding old or Serbian license plates to replace them with Kosovar ones. Serbia has required the reverse for vehicles coming in from Kosovo for 11 years.
European Union and U.S. officials have stepped up efforts to bring Serbia and Kosovo closer to an agreement on fully normalizing their relations. The West fears Russia could try to destabilize the Balkans to avert at least some attention from its invasion of Ukraine.