When Ivica Dačić, the wartime spokesman for Slobodan Milosevic’s party, took office as prime minister of Serbia in July 2012, the international community began to fear that Serbia would abandon its European path and return to the fierce nationalism of the past. Contrary to these concerns, Dačić ended up being responsible – together with his counterpart, Kosovar prime minister Hashim Thaci, and the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs Catherine Ashton – for a historic deal that is meant to normalise the relations between Serbia and Kosovo and to strengthen the ties of both Balkan states with the EU. The deal, signed on April 19, indeed represents a milestone in the relations between Serbia-Kosovo and a great diplomatic achievement for the EU. It comes after six months of Brussels-sponsored talks between the two premiers, which had been interrupted on April 2 among the international community’s fears of that the whole process would fail.
The state of Kosovar-Serbian relations
An entire post would probably not suffice to thoroughly describe the history of Kosovar-Serbian relations. Nevertheless, a statement by Kosovo’s deputy foreign minister Petrit Selimi summarises them quite well: “We haven’t been talking to each other since the fall of the Ottoman empire”, said the politician in his comments on the agreement.
Kosovo has not been under Serbian control since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999. The small country has a population overwhelmingly composed of Kosovar Albanians, about 2 million, accounting for approximately 90% of the population. The Serbian minority (some 100,000 people) live in separate areas watched over by NATO peacekeepers. Despite declaring independence from Serbia in 2008, Kosovo is actually only recognised by just under than 100 countries (Serbia, Russia, China and five out of 27 EU countries are not among them).
In a 2012 referendum held in northern Kosovo (criticised by the EU and Serbia itself), 99.7% of ethnic Serbs rejected the authority of the government in Priština, Kosovo’s capital. However, refusal to recognise the independent Kosovar institutions is widespread in Serbia as well. The issue carries extreme political sensitivities: in medieval times, Kosovo was the centre of the Serbian Empire. Many Serbs regard it as both the birthplace of their nation and the emblem of the unfair treatment that they perceive their country was put through after the Balkan wars. Anyone travelling to Serbia nowadays would probably be surprised to see that Serbian maps still include Kosovar territory, and very few people, even youngsters, seem to question that Kosovo is a part of Serbia.
Although violence has decreased significantly over the last decade, several clashes between the two ethnic groups have been keeping international attention focussed on the region. One of the most prominent flare-ups occurred on March 2004, when inter-ethnic violence exploded after two Albanian children drowned in Mitrovica’s river in an incident wrongly blamed on Serbs. The unrests left 19 people dead and nearly a thousand injured on both sides.
A closer look at the deal
What do the 15 points of the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo establish in practice? As The Economist explains, “the essence of the deal is that while Serbia does not recognise Kosovo as a state, it concedes its legal authority over the whole territory. In exchange the Kosovo authorities concede a level of autonomy to four Serb-controlled areas of northern Kosovo.”
Under the new deal, an Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities, mainly concentrated in the north, is created. It will have control over education, economic development, health and planning, but without tax-raising powers. Serbs in northern Kosovo will have their own judges (administering Kosovar law) and a Serb police commander based in Mitrovica, the biggest northern town. Today, Mitrovica is ethnically divided, with a Serb majority residing in the northern part of the city and ethnic Albanians in the south, and it is where most ethnic confrontations take place.
What does the deal really mean for both countries – and for the EU?
The agreement was hailed by many as the long-awaited path to overcome the violence and misunderstandings that have persisted in the area for centuries. It is also seen as a symbol of the enduring appeal that the EU has over its neighbours: without the perspective of future membership, it was unlikely that Serbia would engage in the talks. In particular, the deal represents the first tangible accomplishment of Lady Ashton, who was much criticised for her lack of diplomatic experience and for her poor management of the European External Action Service (EEAS) during her first term of office. Incidentally, Lady Ashton recently announced she will not be running for a second term.
However, there is also a great deal of criticism. True popular support for the deal is a much debated issue. Both Kosovar and Serbian nationalists depict the deal as an act of “treason” on the part of their respective governments. Many Albanians fear that Belgrade aims to create in northern Kosovo something like Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and then use it to destabilise Kosovo. According to Ilir Deda of the Kosovar think-tank KIPRED, the deal only aggravates the existing separatism and it could end the prospects for a multi-ethnic Kosovo. The risk is that the autonomy given to Serb areas will in fact be concentrated in the northern enclave, leaving the Serbian communities elsewhere marginalised. Besides, it does not address the question of the return of thousands of Albanians who fled or were expelled from the north by Serbs during the 1999 conflict.
Even considering these shortcomings, one must not forget the enormous difficulties that could have compromised the negotiations irremediably. And yet, the deal finally became reality.
It is the starting point for ending once and for all the era of violence that characterised the region while clearing the way for Kosovo’s and especially Serbia’s future membership to the EU (and its enticing structural funds).
It is true that as the EU struggles to recover from prolonged crisis while bearing record levels of scepticism among its citizens, Serbian accession may not seem a priority. Nevertheless, the European Commission recently recommended opening EU membership talks with the country that many expect to become the 29th EU member in a decade.
The deal thus has finally unblocked EU accession negotiations with Serbia, given Kosovo an important recognition of its sovereignty and demonstrated that the EU’s soft power is alive and well. It is hard to think of a better example of win-win situation.
This is a nonprofit explanation.