Serbia and Kosovo sign historic agreement

Pact signed in Brussels is first step toward normalising relations between bitter foes

Good news is sufficiently scarce in Europe, particularly in the western Balkans, for us to allow ourselves a little celebration. The agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, signed in Brussels on 19 April, is indeed historic.

Fourteen years after the end of the war, it provides the first formal basis for normalised relations between the two neighbours, defining the conditions for large-scale devolution of northern Kosovo and its Serb population.

The agreement also opens the way to membership of the EU, raising hopes of a virtuous circle for the whole region. Lastly, it is a very welcome success for European diplomacy, embodied by Catherine Ashton, high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy.

Of course, there is still some uncertainty regarding implementation of the agreement, yet to be ratified in the two capitals. Kosovo Serb representatives immediately called for a demonstration in North Mitrovica on 22 April to oppose the deal. But its political and symbolic import cannot be reversed, even if Belgrade still formally refuses to recognise Kosovo. Since July 2010, when the international court of justice concluded that the unilateral declaration of independence in 2008 was legal, Serbia has had no real means of disputing the status of its former province.

The 15-point agreement provides for the merger of the four Serb municipalities in the north (North Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic) subject to Kosovo law. This urban district would have powers over economic development, education, healthcare and town planning. One of the stumbling blocks concerned security. The agreement stipulates that only the Kosovo police force will be deployed in the north, but the regional commander will be a Serb and the force will reflect the area's ethnic make-up. Regarding justice, a division of the Kosovo court of appeal will hold a permanent session at North Mitrovica, with mainly Serb judges. As for local councillors, elections will be held this year, also under Kosovo law. The Nato Kosovo Force currently deployed there will play a key role in maintaining law and order during the poll.

The last crucial point is that both parties have agreed not to hinder the other's efforts to gain EU membership. The Kosovo prime minister, Hashim Thaçi, had hoped that Belgrade would not obstruct recognition of his country by international bodies such as the United Nations. But this is out of the question for the Serb government, which has already gone much further than any of its predecessors.

"It's the best possible offer," the Serbian prime minister, Ivica Dacic, told the press at home. To reach agreement it has taken 10 top-level meetings since last summer. The two men's past history gives some idea of how far they have both travelled. Long ago Dacic was the spokesman for the former Serb president, Slobodan Milosevic. Thaçi was a combatant in the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Dialogue started in March 2011 in an attempt to improve the living conditions of residents in the north. The first advances concerned free circulation of people and goods. But the status of northern Kosovo, home to about 40,000 Serbs opposed to the authority of Pristina, remained a major hurdle.

The deadline for negotiations was postponed several times. Ultimately a nationalist government, which came to power after the 2012 general election in Serbia, has recognised de facto that Kosovo is no longer subject to Serb sovereignty. "There is a sort of historical justice, in the sense that the people who start a problem should also resolve it," said Ivan Vejvoda, a former Serb diplomat and vice-president of the German Marshall Fund, speaking on the sidelines of the GlobSec conference at Bratislava, Slovakia. "Dacic is an heir to Milosevic. He has the benefit of a political consensus which [former president] Boris Tadic did not have, because this time three-quarters of Serb MPs support the process. Time, too, has done its work. Public opinion was ready for a solution."

• This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde


Piotr Smolar

The GuardianTramp

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