BRUSSELS — Serbia and Kosovo reached a potentially historic agreement Friday to normalize relations between the Balkan neighbors, end years of acrimony and put them both on a solid path to European Union membership.
The tentative deal culminated months of tense negotiations and showed determination of both Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, said EU negotiator Catherine Ashton.
“What we are seeing is a step away from the past and for both of them a step closer to Europe,” Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said.
In what would be an extraordinary change, the deal appeared to recognize the authority of the Kosovo government over the north of the country, which is inhabited predominantly by ethnic Serbs.
But Dacic appeared to indicate there was a chance the deal could still come unstuck, saying Serbia’s top leadership would decide whether to accept or reject the tentative agreement “in the next few days.”
Details of the agreement were scant, but Dacic said it was “better than any other we were offered in the past.”
Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, declared independence in 2008. Over the years, Belgrade has said it would never recognize the sovereignty of Kosovo, which is considered by Serbia’s nationalists to be the cradle of the country’s medieval statehood and religion.
Kosovo has been recognized by more than 90 countries including the U.S. and 22 of the EU’s 27 members. But because of a blockade by Serbian allies Russia and China in the Security Council, Kosovo is not a U.N. member.
Serbia relinquished the control of most of Kosovo in 1999 when NATO chased its troops out of the region after a three-month bombing campaign. Ending the partition of Kosovo between the Albanian majority and the Serb-controlled north — about a fifth of the country — is a key condition of Serbia’s further progress toward EU membership.
The status of northern Kosovo, which is inhabited primarily by ethnic Serbs who do not recognize Kosovo’s predominantly ethnic Albanian government, has been among the thorniest issues of the talks.
Thaci said reaching an agreement had been difficult, and there were people in both countries who wouldn’t be happy with it. But he said it represented a new era.
“This agreement will help us heal the wounds of the past if we have the wisdom and the knowledge to implement it in practice,” he said.
He also said it would pave the way for both Kosovo and Serbia to ultimately joint the European Union, and for Kosovo to pursuit its aspiration to join NATO. A precondition for joining the EU is that countries “normalize” relations with their neighbors.
It appeared that the deal meant that the Kosovo Serbs were being told by the Serbian government in Belgrade to live in Kosovo, under the authority of the ethnic Albanian government in Pristina — and not in Serbia, of which they claim to be a part.
Dacic said Serbia would not block Kosovo’s accession to the European Union, but had reserved the right to block its membership in other international organizations.
Having Serbia give up parallel institutions in northern Kosovo — including in policing and the judiciary — was the key condition for Serbia to get a date for the start of its EU accession negotiations.
Still, Dacic said the association of Serb municipalities in Kosovo would retain “a high level of authority” in choosing a regional police commander.
In addition, it appeared possible that NATO would play a role as part of the settlement. The alliance’s secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, issued a statement late Friday congratulating the parties for their constructive approach.
“I am very happy for NATO to contribute to the conclusion of an historic agreement,” Fogh Rasmussen said.
Associated Press writers Jovana Gec and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, and Raf Casert in Brussels, contributed to this report.
Don Melvin can be reached at https://twitter.com/Don—MelvinMORE IN Wire News
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