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Serbia-Kosovo deal presents a historic opportunity

Stephanie Liechtenstein
Analysis 26 April 2013

After the collapse of EU-brokered negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina at the beginning of April, there were little hopes that the two sides would be able to find a compromise solution any time soon. Hence, the announcement some two weeks later on 19 April of a breakthrough in the negotiations came as a big surprise. The intransigence of the Kosovo issue has caused frustration among politicians and has led analysts to paint mainly negative scenarios of the negotiation process. The landmark deal between Belgrade and Pristina is therefore a historic event and should serve as a positive example to other protracted, international conflicts. The deal shows that EU membership is still a major incentive for states in the Balkans and confirms the old saying: “Where there is a will, there is a way.” Indeed, Serbia has an ailing economy and urgently needs political stabilization in order to attract foreign investment. Its neighbor Croatia, due to join the EU on 1 July, serves as an example to Serbia as it has made progress in stabilizing its economy.

The OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara called the agreement “an important step in normalization of relations and stability in the region.” He commended the leadership in Belgrade and Pristina “for their courage and vision in reaching this agreement.” The OSCE Secretary General added: “In welcoming this historic agreement I also call for its effective implementation. Where possible, the OSCE will provide concrete support in line with our mandate.” (To read the full text of the OSCE press release, please click here.)

The agreement is a milestone in achieving lasting peace in the Balkans, a region that has been continuously struck by war and instability throughout the centuries mainly due to inter-ethnic tensions. After the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the subsequent series of wars, peace talks were held in Rambouillet near Paris in order to find a solution to the status of Kosovo, formerly a province of Serbia and considered by Serbia as the cradle of its culture and Orthodox faith. After the dramatic failure of these peace talks, NATO initiated 11 weeks of air strikes in March 1999 that eventually helped to drive out late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and also led to the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo. At the time, the OSCE was present on the ground with its Kosovo Verification Mission and had to initiate emergency evacuation in March 1999 when it became clear that no solution would be found at the Rambouillet peace talks and the security situation began to deteriorate.

Subsequent attempts by the UN to negotiate an agreement between Belgrade and Pristina ended in failure and frustration. Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 led to further tensions in the region and made a solution ever more urgent. The renewed effort by the EU in March 2011 first focused on a dialogue at the technical level; only as of October 2012 did the talks turn into a high level dialogue involving the Prime Ministers. The negotiators reached agreement on a range of issues throughout the last two years, including some technical but also political issues, such as freedom of movement across administrative borders, mutual recognition of school and university diplomas, joint management of crossing points, a provisional understanding on the collection of customs duties, representation of Pristina authorities at regional organizations, as well as the appointment of ‘liaison officers’ in Belgrade and Pristina. Hence, the negotiations made progress on many points except on the status of the Serb community living in northern Kosovo.

Under the new EU-brokered landmark deal, both sides made reasonable concessions. Belgrade accorded Pristina authority over all of Kosovo, including the north, in return for limited autonomy for the 50,000 Serbs living in northern Kosovo in the areas of policing, justice, education, healthcare and culture. It is important to understand that Belgrade does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state; however both sides agreed not to block each other’s aspirations towards EU integration. In fact, the agreement has led to a suggestion by the European Commission on 22 April to start membership talks with Serbia.

The crucial issue now is implementing the deal. The recent demonstration by Serbs in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo on 22 April confirms that there is still the potential for tension. In addition, some hardliners on both sides might be willing to boycott the deal. The role of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo is crucial in this regard as it can help to support the process of normalization and implementation of the deal. The OSCE Mission is the largest international civilian presence in Kosovo with a network of five regional centers and over 30 field teams that cover municipalities throughout Kosovo. It has – in accordance with its mandate – established a ‘human rights and communities programme’ through which it implements projects in the areas of protection of community rights. In addition, under the new EU-brokered Serbia-Kosovo deal, the OSCE was given the task of facilitating municipal elections in northern Kosovo, planned for late October/early November this year. Of course there is potential for more support by the OSCE, such as in the areas of capacity building for the police and judiciary in northern Kosovo. The OSCE has broad experience in these areas and could be of valuable assistance, in line with its mandate.

For the OSCE Mission in Kosovo to do its work properly, continuous support by the OSCE participating States is crucial, especially in light of the fact that the mandate of the Mission has to be renewed on a monthly basis. The new Serbia-Kosovo deal is a historic opportunity for lasting peace in the Balkans and the OSCE should do its utmost to contribute to it and to help implement it on the ground.

To read the text of the mandate of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, please click here.

To read the text of the Permanent Council Decision (PC.DEC/835 of 2007) on the extension of the mandate of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, please click here.