A torn poster of Putin with Serbian President Vucic on the Serbian side of Mitrovica, Kosovo. Photo: Pierre Crom/Getty Images

In an interview with Axios Wednesday, Kosovan Foreign Minister Behgjet Pacolli accused Russia of aiding in a Serbian effort to coerce African countries to revoke diplomatic recognition of Kosovo.

The big picture: Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and has since been recognized as an independent state by 117 countries, including the U.S. and most of the EU. Serbia bitterly opposes Kosovo’s independence and has undertaken a covert effort to convince countries to change course. The goal is to bring the total number of countries that recognize Kosovo to below 97, or half the membership of the UN.

Zoom in: The most recent flare-up came when Serbia's foreign minister claimed the Central African Republic (CAR) had derecognized Kosovo.

Pacolli claimed in an interview that this is part of a pattern of "fraud" in which Serbia has been drafting diplomatic letters and convincing officials to sign them, often through acts of "criminality."

  • In the case of the CAR, local media report that the foreign minister of the poor, conflict-ridden country was paid around $375,000 to sign a document purporting to derecognize Kosovo. Pacolli claims the document has no legal standing and says the CAR has not changed its official position.
  • In a previous instance, Pacolli said he traveled to Liberia after being told it had decided to derecognize Kosovo, only to be told by the country’s somewhat bewildered president that nothing had changed.
  • Pacolli went on to say that Russia, which backs Serbia on the Kosovo issue, is "of course" involved in the derecognition campaign. He said it's unclear whether that includes facilitating payments, but noted that Russia has dealings on arms sales and other business with many of the countries targeted in the Serbian campaign.

Zoom out: The U.S. and EU are attempting to reduce the simmering tensions between the Balkan neighbors. Ryan Scherba of Balkan Insider emails that dialogue is frozen for 2 primary reasons: Serbia's derecognition campaign and the 100% tariffs Kosovo slapped on Serbian goods last year.

Pacolli told Axios that Kosovo could suspend the tariffs "if Serbia is ready to sit and to work with us on the basis of some reciprocity."

  • He said that means respecting previous agreements between the countries and "taking into consideration" that Kosovo exists as a state with its own borders and constitution.

Between the lines: Scherba says it’s "a breath of fresh air to hear Pacolli hint that the tariffs could be revoked."

  • "Kosovo wants to be treated as an equal at the negotiating table and not as an unrecognized state. On the other hand, Kosovo must realize that Serbia won't just outright recognize it without anything in return."
  • "The best strategy to get the two back down to the table is for Kosovo to suspend the tariffs for a period of 6 months while having intense dialogue, and reinstate them if there aren't concrete results."
  • "Meanwhile, Serbia must halt its derecognition campaign, which is against the spirit of the dialogue and the 2013 Brussels Agreement."

What to watch: Little progress appears possible before Kosovo's elections in October. The snap vote was called after Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj resigned upon being summoned as a suspect before a special court in the Hague that's investigating war crimes in the 1998–99 Kosovo War.

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