Brussels hosts the rival leaders of Kosovo and Serbia on Monday as the European Union turns up the pressure to reach a breakthrough deal it hopes will lead to a normalisation of ties between the foes.
Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence made in 2008, with periodic bouts of unrest erupting between Belgrade and its former breakaway province.
The two sides have admitted being increasingly squeezed by Western governments to hammer out an agreement after more than two decades of acrimony.
Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic were set to meet chief EU diplomat Josep Borrell at the bloc's headquarters Monday afternoon, where they will likely go over the details of a deal that could lay out the framework for a potential understanding.
The latest round of talks follow months of shuttle diplomacy in the renewed thrust to resolve long-simmering tensions, nearly 25 years after the war between ethnic Albanian insurgents and Serb forces triggered a NATO bombing campaign that ended the fighting.
Last week, Kurti told Kosovo's parliament that the deal currently in the works would pave the way for the territory's entry into a number of international institutions -- a long-sought goal for the government in Pristina.
"I think the next meeting will show how hopeful we can be for this year," Kurti told lawmakers, saying he was "very optimistic that there can be an agreement this year."
On the other side, Serbia's President Vucic has said his government was under the gun to come to an understanding.
In a televised address last month, Vucic said he had been handed an ultimatum from Western countries to normalise ties with Kosovo or face measures that would do "great damage" to his country.
"(They) said -- you must accept this plan, or you will face the interruption of the process of European integration, the halting and withdrawal of investments and comprehensive economic and political measures that will cause great damage to the Republic of Serbia," Vucic told viewers.
- 'Russian aggression' -
The mounting pressure comes as Western governments have reserved much of their diplomatic muscle for addressing the war in Ukraine, spurring fears that the Kremlin may use the Kosovo issue as a wedge to further divide Europe.
"Russian aggression in Ukraine has changed the dynamic. The West can't allow Russia to potentially open up a new front, and this region is volatile enough," said Aleksandar Popov, a political analyst with the Centre for Regionalism based in Serbia's Novi Sad.
On Friday, a senior EU official told journalists that Russia was actively trying to derail negotiations between the two sides.
Questions remain over how both leaders would be able to sell any potential agreement to their respective populations.
Kosovo remains an obsession among large swaths of the Serbian population, who regard the territory as their rightful homeland that witnessed pivotal battles over the centuries and is steeped in nationalist mythology.
Kosovo is home to an estimated 120,000 Serbs, many of whom remain largely loyal to Belgrade -- especially in northern areas near the border with Serbia where there are frequent bouts of unrest, demonstrations and occasional violence.
© Agence France-Presse
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