After 12 hours of marathon negotiations in North Macedonia's Ohrid, leaders of Serbia and Kosovo have made significant progress. "We have a deal," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told journalists.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti had previously negotiated a new agreement that would fundamentally regulate relations between the two hostile Balkan states. Borrell and the EU's Balkans special envoy, Miroslav Lajcak, played the role of mediator.
Kosovo, which is now almost exclusively inhabited by Albanians, split from Serbia in 1999 with the help of NATO and declared its independence in 2008. To this day, Serbia has not recognized this.
According to the planned agreement, Belgrade will not recognize Kosovo under international law, but will acknowledge the statehood of its former province. In particular, it should recognize Kosovo's passports, license plates and customs documents. Kosovo should institutionally secure the rights of the Serbian ethnic group in the country.
Vucic: "I didn't sign anything today"
At a first meeting on February 27 in Brussels, both sides verbally approved a draft agreement in principle that the EU had presented on the basis of a Franco-German proposal and which enjoys US support. On Saturday, the focus was on specific deadlines in the annex to the agreement in order to implement its points.
As in Brussels, Vucic did not want to sign the agreement reached this time either. "The agreement and its appendix are considered accepted," said Borrell after the conclusion of the talks. At the same time, he admitted that the two sides had not followed the "more ambitious ideas" of the EU mediators. He did not go into the differences in content. Work will continue "until a comprehensive agreement is reached," he added.
"I didn't sign anything today," Vucic told reporters in Ohrid. "We each showed in different ways where the respective red lines are for us." He described the atmosphere of the talks as "constructive". For the Serbian nationalist, any softening of the tough stance against Pristina represents a political risk. Right-wing extremists in Serbia have threatened "hot" protests should Vucic "capitulate" in Ohrid.
Kurti, in turn, faces pressure from the Kosovar Albanian population and electorate, who refuse to make concessions to the Serb community. However, Article 7 of the agreement stipulates that the Serbs in Kosovo are entitled to "an appropriate degree of independent regulation of their affairs". Borrell said that Pristina has now committed itself to implementing this point immediately.
Moscow uses conflict for influence
In Kosovo, there are fears that excessive veto rights for a future Serbian association of municipalities could block the state. In addition, one remembers the oppression by the Serbian security forces when the area was still part of Serbia. An armed uprising by Kosovar Albanians in 1998/99 resulted in even more massive human rights violations by Serbia. In the spring of 1999, NATO responded by bombing what was then the rest of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro).
Serbia then had to withdraw completely from its then province. From 1999 to 2008, the UN administration Unmik managed the area. In 2008 the country declared itself independent. More than 100 countries, including Germany, have recognized independent Kosovo - five EU member countries, including Spain and Greece, have not.
The relationship between the youngest European state and Serbia remained unresolved. Diplomatic efforts by the West in recent years have not led to any significant normalization of the situation. Tensions had escalated again in the previous year, with road blockades and incidents of shooting.
Against the background of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, the settlement of the Kosovo conflict regained importance for the West. Moscow exploits weaknesses in the political order of various Balkan states to gain influence. Belgrade is dependent on Russia because the eastern superpower is using its veto in the UN Security Council to prevent Kosovo from being included in the world organization. Serbia is the only country in the region not to support the EU sanctions against Russia.