Kosovo and Serbia Make a Deal

Debalkanizing the Balkans

A couple walks past a traffic sign in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, March 2013. Hazir Reka / Courtesy Reuters

This week, after months of negotiations, Kosovo and Serbia finally reached an agreement to normalize relations, clearing the way for both parties to move ahead with their applications to join the European Union. For years, progress had been held up by Serbia’s refusal to accept Kosovo’s February 2008 declaration of independence. The accord marks the end of the West’s two-pronged strategy in the region: on the one hand, persuading Belgrade to recognize Kosovo's independence formally; and on the other convincing Pristina to grant the Serbian community in Kosovo’s northern reaches a separate status. Drawing on the time-honored principle of "don't ask, don't tell," these crucial status issues were left aside.

Under the terms of the agreement, Belgrade acknowledged that the government in Pristina exercises administrative authority over the territory of Kosovo -- and that it is prepared to deal with Pristina as a legitimate governing authority. It did not, however, formally recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state, even as it promised to drop its objections to giving Kosovo a seat in international organizations (if other states were prepared to accept Kosovo as a member). For its part, Pristina accepted that the Serbs living in northern Kosovo can, in large measure, run their own affairs, so long as they acknowledge that they are nominally part of Kosovo. The Serbs of northern Kosovo will also get their own regional police chief, and Pristina has pledged not to deploy Kosovar Albanian forces in the area.

When the European Union, which brokered the recent deal, first concluded a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Serbia in April 2008, it had far higher hopes. At the time, the union was dealing with Mirko Cvetkovića, the moderate and relatively pro-Western prime minister of Serbia, and was pressing for full independence for Kosovo as a precondition for Serbian integration in the Euro-Atlantic community. The process stalled, and when the EU finally confirmed Serbia as an official candidate for EU membership in March 2012, it did so on

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