Serbia will on Monday reject a European Union-brokered deal for its former province of Kosovo, the country's most powerful leader said — a defiant move that could jeopardize the Balkan country's EU membership aspirations and fuel tensions in the Balkans.
The European Union has given Serbia until Tuesday to say whether it would relinquish its effective control over northern Kosovo in exchange for the start of Serbia's EU membership negotiations.
Catherine Ashton, the EU's top diplomat, said after the eighth round of talks between Serbian and Kosovo officials last week in Brussels that she wanted a response from both sides and that the bloc's mediation was over.
Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia's most powerful governing party leader and the defense minister, said Monday the plan is unacceptable because it does not give more autonomy to minority Kosovo Serbs who together with Serbia reject Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence.
Serbia's nationalist-dominated government said it would give its official answer later Monday, but there was little doubt it would follow Vucic's lead and reject the deal.
Despite warnings that there will be no more EU-mediated negotiations, Vucic called for more talks with rival ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
"If there is a negative answer from (the EU), that would be bad news for Serbia, Kosovo and the EU," Vucic said. "If that happens, we would have to start thinking of what to do next."
"We don't want Serbia isolated from the world, but we have to protect our interests," Vucic said. "It is highly important that we reach an agreement."
If Serbia formally rejects the proposal, it would be a severe blow for its EU membership aspirations — including millions of dollars of promised accession funds — and would lead to more tensions in the Balkans, which still reels from the bloody wars of the 1990s when Serbia tried to prevent the breakup of the former Yugoslav federation by force.
While some 90 countries — including the United States and most EU nations — have recognized Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence, it has been rejected by Serbia and its Slavic ally Russia.
The most contentious issue in the talks was the status of northern Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs dominate the population and refuse to accept the authority of the ethnic Albanian-controlled government in Pristina. Germany has made giving up control of Kosovo's north the key condition for the start of Serbia's EU accession negotiations.
The stumbling block in the talks was a Serbian demand that ethnic Serbs, who represent about 10 percent of Kosovo's 2 million people, have their own judiciary and police force. But Kosovo officials have rejected that, saying it would be tantamount to a division of Kosovo into two separate entities.
In Serbia, there are increasing calls among nationalists that Serbia should turn to its ally Russia instead of becoming an EU member. There also are suggestions from the extremists that Serbia should use force to reoccupy Kosovo, which it surrendered after a three-month NATO bombing campaign that pushed out its troops in 1999.
Vucic, a former ultranationalist turned moderate, said a military solution is out of the question.
"I'm hearing some 'heroes' who were never brave who are giving us lessons on how we should stroll into Pristina," he said. "They should not tell us what our decisions should be."