Kosovo, Serbia agree on steps to implement EU normalisation plan

Kosovo and Serbia have tentatively agreed on how to implement a European Union-sponsored plan to normalize their ties, according to the bloc’s top diplomat, though the leaders of the two nations said disagreements remained.

The deal came about on Saturday after 12 hours of talks between Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and EU officials over the implementation of the normalization plan, which both sides agreed to in Brussels last month.

The two leaders met separately with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell ahead of a three-person session in the North Macedonian city of Ohrid.

“We have a deal,” Borrell tweeted after the meeting.

“Kosovo and Serbia have agreed on the implementation annex to the agreement on the path towards normalization of relations,” he said.

This means “practical steps about what needs to be done, when, by whom and how,” he added at a press conference.

Kosovo and Serbia have been in EU-backed talks for almost a decade since Kosovo gained independence in 2008, almost a decade after war ended Serbian rule. But Serbia still views Kosovo as a breakaway province and flare-ups between its Balkan neighbors have fueled fears of a return to conflict.

Both countries hope to join the EU one day and have been told they must first repair their relations. Resolving the Serbia-Kosovo dispute has become more important as the war in Ukraine rages and fears grow in the West that Russia could try to cause instability in the volatile Balkans, where it has historical influence.

The EU plan calls on the two countries to maintain good neighborly relations and to recognize each other’s official documents and national symbols. But the plan, drawn up by France and Germany and backed by the United States, does not explicitly call for mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia.

If implemented, it would prevent Belgrade from blocking Kosovo’s attempts to join the United Nations and other international organizations.

Although Serbian populist President Vucic tentatively agreed to the EU plan reached last month, he appeared to backtrack on some points following pressure from far-right groups, who view Kosovo as the cradle of the Serbian state and Orthodox religion.

Vucic said on Thursday he “will not sign anything” at the Ohrid meeting and previously vowed never to recognize Kosovo or allow its UN membership. He reiterated on Saturday that he has not signed the executive document, although Kurti insisted.

He said the parties do not agree on all points, but “despite the differences, we had a good conversation”.

He added: “In the coming months we face serious and difficult tasks.”

On the other hand, Kurti complained that Vucic failed to sign the implementation deal on Saturday.

“This is a de facto recognition between Kosovo and Serbia,” as Serbia has not yet signed the agreement, he said, adding: “Now it’s up to the EU to make it internationally binding.”

Borrell said the EU will now forcefully demand from both parties that they fulfill their commitments if they want to join the bloc, and warned there would be consequences otherwise.

He also spoke of a proposed union of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo, which would give greater autonomy to majority Serb municipalities, a long-disputed topic.

“Kosovo has agreed to start immediately – and when I say immediately, I mean immediately – negotiations with the European Union that have facilitated dialogue on establishing specific arrangements and guarantees to ensure an appropriate level of self-management for the Serbian communities in Kosovo.” said the top EU diplomat.

Kosovo is a predominantly ethnic Albanian former province of Serbia. The 1998-1999 war broke out when separatist ethnic Albanians revolted against Serbian rule and Belgrade responded with brutal action.

About 13,000 people died, mostly ethnic Albanians.

In 1999, NATO military intervention forced Serbia to withdraw from the area. Kosovo declared independence in 2008.

Since then, tensions have simmered. Kosovo’s independence is recognized by many Western countries, but opposed by Belgrade with the support of Russia and China. EU-brokered talks have made little progress in recent years.

Serbia has maintained close ties with its traditional Slavic ally Russia despite the war in Ukraine, in part because of Moscow’s opposition to Kosovo’s independence and possible veto power over its UN membership in the Security Council.