Serbia and Kosovo agree on how to implement EU plan to normalise ties

The move will end decades of tension between the former enemies

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell met with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti in Ohrid, North Macedonia. Reuters
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The leaders of Serbia and Kosovo have tentatively agreed on how to implement an EU-backed plan to normalise ties, the bloc's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has said.

The move, which came after 12 hours of talks in North Macedonia, will end decades of tensions between the Balkan foes following their 1998-1999 war and Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.

The countries agreed to the wording of the 11-point EU plan last month.

But Serbia's populist President Aleksandar Vucic seemed to backtrack on some of its points after pressure from far-right groups, which consider Kosovo the cradle of the Serbian state and Orthodox religion.

Mr Vucic said on Thursday that he “won't sign anything” at the Ohrid meeting and earlier pledged never to recognise Kosovo or allow its UN membership.

He repeated on Saturday that he has not signed the implementation document, although Prime Minister Albin Kurti insisted on it.

Speaking after the conclusion of talks, Mr Borrell said Mr Vucic and Mr Kurti“have reached an agreement on how to do it”.

“The objective today was to agree on how to implement the agreement accepted in the last high-level meeting,” Mr Borrell said. “This means practical steps on what has to be done, when, by who and how.”

Mr Vucic said it was not “any kind of a D-Day, but it was a good day”.

“In the months ahead, we are facing serious and difficult tasks,” he added.

Tension between Kosovo and Serbia - in pictures

On the other hand, Mr Kurti complained that Mr Vucic did not sign the implementation deal on Saturday.

“Now it is up to the EU to make it internationally binding,” Mr Kurti said.

Both countries hope to join the EU and they have been told they must first mend their relations.

Solving the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo has become more important as war rages in Ukraine and fears mount that Russia could try to stir instability in the volatile Balkans, where it holds historic influence.

Mr Borrell said that despite the fact that “a more ambitious text” was proposed at the beginning of Saturday's negotiations than the one the parties have accepted, “it will become an integral part of their respective EU paths”.

“Parties could not reach an agreement on this more detailed proposal,” Mr Borrell said. “Kosovo lacked flexibility on the substance (of the agreement), while Serbia previously stated the principle not to sign although they are ready to implement.”

“It is clear that both parties will gain a significant benefit from this agreement, because the dialogue is not only because Kosovo and Serbia … It is about the stability, the security and the prosperity of the whole region.”

The EU plan calls for the two countries to maintain good neighbourly relations and recognise each other’s official documents and national symbols.

If implemented, it would prevent Belgrade from blocking Kosovo’s attempts to seek membership of the UN and other international organisations.

The agreement, drafted by France and Germany and supported by the US, does not explicitly call for mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia.

Kosovo is a majority ethnic Albanian former Serbian province. The 1998-1999 war erupted when separatist ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbia’s rule, and Belgrade responded with a brutal crackdown. About 13,000 people died, mostly ethnic Albanians.

In 1999 a Nato military intervention forced Serbia to pull out of the territory. Kosovo declared independence in 2008.

Tensions have simmered ever since. Kosovo's independence is recognised by many western countries. But it is opposed by Belgrade with the backing of Russia and China. EU-brokered talks have made little headway in recent years.

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

Updated: March 19, 2023, 10:08 AM