The leaders of Serbia and Kosovo inked a historic deal on Friday to normalize ties, a move key to the future of the Western Balkans and destined also to bring both closer to the EU.
Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci signed a 15-point agreement struck after two years of tough talks to reduce mutual tension and immediately won praise from around the world.
“What we are seeing is a step away from the past and, for both of them, a step closer to Europe,” EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton said.
Fourteen years after the end of the war and five after Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia, hopes are that the deal will turn the page on Europe’s last Balkans troublespot.
“The agreement will help us heal the wounds of the past,” Thaci said. “This agreement represents the start of a new era, an era of reconciliation and inter-state cooperation.”
Dacic said: “Serbia’s proposals were accepted. I initialed a proposed text that both sides will decide upon in the following days to say whether they accept it or refuse it.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the deal and called on both sides to “implement expeditiously and fully all dialogue agreements.”
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he wanted to “congratulate and commend” both sides for their “steadfast determination” and hoped the deal would “bring about a brighter future and lasting stability to the region.”
However, in the northern Kosovar city of Kosovska Mitrovica, Kosovo Serbs called for a referendum and dubbed the deal “the worst surrender and betrayal” ever perpetrated by Belgrade.
The deal is expected to ease the path of both sides to the 27-member EU.
Belgrade hopes to be given a date to launch membership talks at a June EU summit and without a deal by tomorrow would have seen its ambitions to join the union delayed indefinitely.
Pristina still needs to win recognition by five of the 27 EU states but hopes meanwhile to be rewarded for mending fences with Belgrade by signing a pre-accession pact with the EU — also set to be announced at the June summit.
While there had been considerable progress in the two years of talks to reduce tensions, a deal got bogged down over the fate of 40,000 ethnic Serbs in north Kosovo who refuse to recognize Pristina’s authority and have set up their own “parallel” structures.
Serbia wanted Kosovo to agree to decentralized Serb “municipalities” in the northern enclave with their own police and courts to guarantee ethnic Serbs fair representation in Kosovo.
However, Pristina was wary of Belgrade meddling in Kosovar affairs through the Serb community and refused to agree to “a state within a state” in its north.
An unofficial version published by local Kosovo daily Express said Kosovar Serbs would be handed some positions of authority.
A Kosovar Serb would be appointed regional police commander but would follow orders from the interior ministry in Pristina, according to the agreement cited by the Express.
Ethnic Serb judges would run courts and have jurisdiction over other legal issues in Serb-majority municipalities while operating within the Kosovar legal framework.
And the deal reportedly stresses that “neither side will block or encourage others to block the other side’s progress in their respective EU paths.”