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An End to a Cold War?

BELGRADE, Apr 21 2013 (IPS) - On Apr. 19, Serbia and Kosovo put years of animosity aside when their prime ministers Ivica Dacic and Hashim Thaci initialled the first ever agreement between Belgrade and Pristina that should lead to normalisation of relations between the two former enemies.

The 15-point agreement, signed in Brussels, gives a certain degree of autonomy to some 100,000 Serbs who still live in Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. Created under the auspices of the European Union, the accord is the culmination of 10 rounds of delicate negotiations that have lasted for six months.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele called the move “historic”, while Jelko Kacin, former Information Secretary of Slovenia and current EU official in charge of Serbia’s entry into the EU compared the event to the “end of the Cold War”.

On Friday, EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton told reporters in Brussels, “What we are seeing is a step away from the past and, for both of them, a step closer to Europe”, referring to the fact that the document effectively opens the door for Serbia to begin negotiations for EU membership, the political ambition of all its governments since the downfall of former dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

For Kosovo Prime Minister Thaci, the signing of the accord means, among other things, “the healing of wounds”, since it hinged upon the degree of autonomy Pristina was willing to grant to predominantly Serb regions in the north.

Until Yugoslavia fell apart in a series of bloody separatist conflicts in 1991, Kosovo – currently populated by 1.7 million ethnic Albanians and 100,000 Serbs – was a part of Serbia and under direct rule of the Serb minority in Belgrade.

An armed rebellion of ethnic Albanians aimed at obtaining independence from Belgrade in the 1990s led to brutal repression by Milosevic’s security forces, leaving 13,000 people dead.

In 1999, over a period of 11 weeks, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) dropped 50,000 bombs on 116 locations in southern Serbia and the Kosovo region in an effort to push out Milosevic’s forces. The bombing campaign was followed by the arrival of U.N. peacekeeping forces to oversee the province.

Fearing reprisals, almost half of Kosovo’s 200,000 resident Serbs fled to Serbia proper. Kosovo, meanwhile, went about building its first democratic institutions and unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. It has so far been recognised by 96 nations, including the United States and many European countries with the notable exceptions of Spain and Cyprus.

Serbia vowed never to recognise the independent Kosovo, claiming the region represents the historic “origin” of the medieval Serbian state, though only 100,000 Serbs currently live there.

Serbia, together with its staunch ally Russia, has rejected Pristina’s authority and blocked the possibility of U.N. membership.

After years of failed attempts to impose central rule over several Serb-populated regions, Pristina finally agreed to the document initialled Friday.

The agreement allows for partial autonomy through the creation of Serb municipalities, which will have Serb-led police forces and a Serb-language judiciary and education system.

The accord also provides for the protection of medieval Serb Orthodox churches and monasteries, and effectively bans the entry of Kosovo armed forces into Serb populated areas, except during instances of natural disasters — and even then under the supervision of NATO peacekeeping forces, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Brussels.

Still, “It’s hard to say whether this is a historic agreement”, Dusan Janjic, head of the Forum for Inter-Ethnic Relations, told IPS, adding the agreement represents only the beginning of a normalisation process “that will take many years”.

“But this is…a very positive and important event for Serbia, Kosovo, Europe and the region,” Janjic added.

For Ognjen Pribicevic , a researcher with the Institute for Social Sciences and Serbia’s former ambassador to Berlin, the success of this initiative depends on how Serbs in Kosovo respond to this newfound “autonomy”.

“The association of Serb municipalities is responsible for security and that is very important for local people,” he told IPS.

However, not all parts of Serbian society were happy with the Brussels agreement.

Nationalist parties are fiercely opposed to the move, with the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) saying the agreement represented “treason of national and state interests”.

“Serbs in Kosovo are left (at the mercy) of separatists and Kosovo was sold for the mere price of…beginning talks with the EU,” according to a DSS statement.

Social networks have been buzzing with reactions to the agreement, reflecting the deep division within Serbian society, with pro-European commentators expressing the belief that Kosovo was lost back in 1999, after the NATO bombing of Serbia, while nationalists and ultra-nationalists are calling for a “new war” that would bring Kosovo back into “the mother state”.

Prime Minister Dacic said that it is now up to the Serbian Parliament to approve the agreement, but did not specify when that might happen.


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