|"From left: Prime Minister Ivica Dacic of Serbia, Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, and Prime Minister Hashim Thaci of Kosovo." (Pool photo by Yves Logghe)|
By Dan Bilefsky
The New York Times, April 19, 2013
"Serbia and Kosovo reached an agreement on Friday aimed at overcoming ethnic enmities in the former Serbian province, a milestone that could enhance stability in the region and help clear the path for their eventual membership in the European Union. Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, told reporters that the prime ministers of both countries had initialed an agreement during talks in Brussels, marking the end of six months of often heated negotiations. European Union countries meeting Monday in Brussels will decide whether to give Serbia the go-ahead to start negotiations for its entry into the bloc, and analysts said the accord was likely to swing a decision in Serbia's favor. Under the agreement, Serbs in the small majority-Serb area in northern Kosovo will gain more autonomy in return for the Serbian government's recognizing the authority of the Kosovo government. Misha Glenny, a leading Balkan expert, said the potent symbolism of Serbs and ethnic Albanians casting aside their differences could help spur regional reconciliation, in particular in ethnically divided Bosnia, where lingering divisions have impeded progress. 'This remarkable deal demonstrates that the Balkans, once known as the powder keg of Europe, can change and develop in a positive direction,' he said. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Feb. 17, 2008, nearly a decade after NATO bombs helped push out forces under the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
For Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, independence was the culmination of a bloody struggle for self-determination after a brutal ethnic civil war with Serbia. Serbia, whose medieval kingdom was centered on Kosovo, had resolutely refused to recognize Kosovo as independent, arguing that the declaration breached international law and would spur secessionism everywhere. Kosovo, an impoverished majority-Muslim country of two million with endemic corruption, is recognized by more than 90 countries, including the United States and a majority of Europe. But five European Union countries, including Spain and Cyprus, have refused to recognize Kosovo. Serbia's staunch ally Russia, a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council, has blocked Kosovo's membership in that body, a major hurdle to its economic and political progress. The accord conspicuously omits any recognition by Belgrade of Kosovo's independence. But analysts said that the agreement was nevertheless a geopolitical breakthrough after decades of conflict between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. For the beleaguered European Union, struggling with a crisis in the euro zone, the accord is an important diplomatic victory. Ms. Ashton played a critical role, pushing both sides to cast aside envoys in favor of face-to-face talks and cajoling former sworn enemies to compromise. [...] The agreement hinged on how much autonomy Pristina was willing to cede to Kosovo's Serbian minority in return for greater cooperation from Belgrade. Belgrade has retained de facto control over a small Serb-majority area in northern Kosovo, where until now the Serbs have lived in isolated enclaves that do not recognize Pristina's authority. Under the agreement, municipal structures in Serb-majority northern Kosovo will attain greater autonomy -- over everything from health care to education -- in return for Belgrade's greater cooperation with Pristina. Mr. Selimi said that under the deal, police forces and courts in the north of Kosovo would apply the laws of Kosovo. However, he said Serbian municipalities in the north would have the right to appoint a police chief. He said Serbia had committed not to block Kosovo's membership in international organizations, though he emphasized it was not clear whether this included the United Nations, where Belgrade has vehemently opposed Pristina’s membership. He said Kosovo had agreed that its security forces would not be deployed in the Serbian northern part of the country for a number of years, unless there was an emergency or natural disaster, in which case its forces could be stationed, but only in coordination with NATO troops. [...] But critics in both Serbia and Kosovo have expressed deep-seated anger about the agreement, and implementing it could face challenges. Ahead of the deal, the Kosovo opposition movement Vetevendosje -- 'self-determination' in Albanian -- said it planned mass demonstrations. 'This deal does nothing to change the hearts and minds of Serbs who do not recognize Kosovo's right to exist,' said Shpend Ahmeti, Vetevendosj's vice president. Speaking before an agreement was announced, Ljiljana Smajlovic, a leading Serbian commentator who is president of the Journalist's Association in Belgrade, said that Serbian public opinion appeared to be resigned that a deal was inevitable. [...]"