Balkan breakthrough – The Economis Apr 27th 2013 |From the print edition

Posted on April 29, 2013


THE deal struck between Serbia and Kosovo on April 19th was nothing short of historic. It was a big success for Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, who mediated ten gruelling rounds of talks between the leaders of the two sides. And it demonstrates that the lure of EU enlargement is still sufficiently strong to get people and countries to do things that they would otherwise resist.

The agreement was negotiated by men whose backgrounds hardly suggest they were cut out for compromise. Ivica Dacic, Serbia’s prime minister, was the spokesman for Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader who went to war in Kosovo in 1998 and fought against NATO there in 1999. His partner was Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s deputy prime minister, once an extreme nationalist. On the other side was Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s prime minister and a former guerrilla leader against the Serbs.

Ever since they reached an agreement, all have been accused of treason and even received death threats. But the evidence suggests that most Serbs and Kosovo Albanians trust their leaders to have done the right thing. Kosovo, where the population is overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian, declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Serbia still does not recognise it, but the essence of the latest deal is a grand bargain: Serbia accepts the authority of Kosovo’s government over the whole of Kosovo and Kosovo grants a large measure of autonomy to Serbs living in the north. Kosovo’s nascent armed forces will not be deployed in the north, either.

But the leaders of the 45,000-odd Serbs who live in north Kosovo are not happy. Ever since 1999, when the Kosovo war ended, they have lived largely beyond state authority. Smuggling has flourished. In 2012 they voted in a referendum against having anything at all to do with Kosovo. Many would prefer to have seen formal partition, with the north legally attached to Serbia, than a deal which binds them.

It may be hard to make the deal stick, especially if the northern Serbs mount a determined resistance. But they will be told by the Serbian government to comply; and may even come to see advantages as well. Elections will be held in the four northern municipalities. Once constituted, they will continue to get money from the Serbian authorities for education and health and other public services, but will receive other subsidies from both the Kosovo government and the EU.

In the end Lady Ashton managed to get the deal only because she had something to offer. Three days after the agreement was initialled, the European Commission recommended to EU national governments that Serbia should in June be given a date to open membership talks. This could happen on the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Implementation will be critical, however: the German Bundestag has to agree to the opening of negotiations. The commission also recommended formal talks on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement for Kosovo, a preliminary stage in the accession process.

The deal comes as a feeling of stagnation has set in across much of the Balkans. In terms of EU accession, a good measure of the state of reforms inside each country, Bosnia and Albania seem to be stuck. Burdened by the continuing dispute over its name with Greece, Macedonia has got only a little further. Yet Croatia will join the EU on July 1st and Montenegro is at least still making some progress. Lady Ashton’s success should now help to lift the gloomy Balkan atmosphere.

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