For Serbia and Kosovo, Talks Are at Least a Start

PARIS — That representatives of Serbia and Kosovo were sitting at the same table for talks was an achievement in itself. But whether the two sides could reach an agreement to overcome ethnic enmities in the former Serbian province — and clear the way for their eventual membership in the European Union — remained uncertain Tuesday.

The talks were being mediated in Brussels by the European Union, which both Serbia and Kosovo are eager to join. But the Union is extremely wary of importing a frozen conflict into the bloc, and Brussels has made clear that the former enemies must normalize relations.

If the talks are successful, they would mark a seminal moment for Serbia and Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia on Feb. 17, 2008, almost a decade after NATO bombs helped push the Serb former strongman Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo and end a brutal civil war against majority ethnic Albanians.

In mid-April the Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, is scheduled to produce a report that will determine whether to open membership talks with Serbia. Such a step would be a landmark for the country and could help rejuvenate its struggling economy and cement its links to the West.

A central issue in the talks is how much autonomy the Kosovo government is willing to grant to its Serbian minority. Belgrade has retained de facto control over a small Serb-majority area in northern Kosovo, where until now the Serbs have eked out a life in isolated enclaves that do not recognize the Kosovo government.

Under a potential agreement, municipal structures in Serb-majority northern Kosovo would attain greater autonomy in return for Belgrade’s improved cooperation with the Kosovo government.

Both sides have red lines they say they are unwilling to cross. Serbia, which has long considered Kosovo its medieval heartland, has refused to recognize the government, arguing that its declaration of independence breached international law while threatening to spur separatism elsewhere in the world. Even now, recognizing independence for Kosovo remains a step too far, Serb representatives say.

Meanwhile, Petrit Selimi, the deputy minister of foreign affairs for Kosovo, said in an interview that his government was vehemently opposed to any executive body in the north that would constitute a state within a state.

But the talks themselves were an achievement, analysts said. The lead negotiator on the Kosovo side, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, was a former guerrilla commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought the Serbs during the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s. His Serb counterpart, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, was the wartime spokesman for Mr. Milosevic, who was overthrown in a revolution in 2000 and died in jail in 2006 while being tried for crimes against humanity.

Mr. Selimi said the agreement would benefit both Serbia and Kosovo by clearing the way for their eventual E.U. membership, bringing regional stability and encouraging foreign investment. But critics on both sides also warned that an agreement also ran the risk of reinforcing rather than overcome ethnic hostility.



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