BELGRADE, Serbia -- Kosovo on Friday rejected a call from Western governments to let its ethnic Serb minority vote in a referendum of neighboring Serbia, as it had done in Serbian elections until now, in what could fuel tensions in the volatile part of the Balkans.
A joint statement by Kosovo's top authorities said the Serbs can cast ballots only via mail or at a liaison office, without following the past practice of setting up voting stations in Serb-dominated areas.
Kosovo laws “do not recognize the right of one state to hold a referendum in the sovereign territory of another state,” said a statement from Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani’s office. “The practices applied so far since 2012 have been unconstitutional.”
The decision is likely further strain relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move that Belgrade has refused to recognize.
A delegation of Kosovo Serbs on Friday discussed the issue in Belgrade with Serbia's populist President Aleksandar Vucic.
The referendum on Sunday focuses on amendments that Serbia's government says would boost the independence of the Balkan country's judiciary as part of reforms needed for the country to move closer to European Union membership.
In a joint statement earlier on Friday, the United States, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the EU welcomed the Serbian referendum, saying “it is important for eligible voters everywhere to be able to vote in elections and referenda.”
“We note with regret that the Kosovo government has not allowed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to collect ballots of eligible voters living in Kosovo for the upcoming referendum in accordance with past practice,” said the statement by the Western powers.
“We call on the Kosovo government to allow Serbs in Kosovo to exercise their right to vote in elections and electoral processes in accordance with this established practice,” it added.
Serbia has insisted that Kosovo remains part of the country, despite its declaration of independence following a 1998-99 conflict that killed some 13,000 and ended after NATO bombed Serbia to stop its crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanians.
Serbia has maintained a strong influence in Serb-dominated areas of Kosovo although it formally has no authority in the territory since it was forced to relinquish control in 1999. Tens of thousands of Serbs live in Kosovo, mostly in the north, next to Serbia.
In a statement issued after a meeting of top officials with the ambassadors of the five Western countries and the EU, Kosovo’s president, Parliament speaker Glauk Konjufca and Prime Minister Albin Kurti insisted that “the issue is not the role of the OSCE, but the role of Serbia and its parallel and illegal structures in Kosovo.”
The statement added that “prior to OSCE collection of the votes, a completely illegal process of opening of polling stations and ballot boxes in the territory of the Republic of Kosovo for a referendum of another state, namely Serbia, would be held.”
The dispute between Serbia and Kosovo remains a cause of tensions in the Balkans. EU-mediated negotiations aimed at normalizing relations have produced little progress, although both Kosovo and Serbia have been told to resolve their differences in order to move forward in their bids to join the EU.
Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this story.