Serbia and its former Kosovo province began the joint control of two border crossings on Monday for the first time since a 1998-'99 war, prodded by the European Union as a condition of opening membership talks with Serbia.
The implementation of the integrated border management agreement began at the Jarinje and Merdare crossings without any problems or hiccups, BETA, the EurActiv partner agency in Serbia reported.
EU officials hope the new mechanism will encourage greater freedom of movement and ease tensions.
Six containers, three on the side of Kosovo and three on the Serbian side, spaced at a distance of about 10 metres from one another, were visible at the Merdare crossing. Journalists were not allowed to approach the containers but they saw that representatives of the EU law enforcement mission in Kosovo, EULEX, were present at the crossing.
No marks of statehood
At the crossing itself there are no state markings and vehicles halt next to a stop sign. A sign reading "Welcome to the Republic of Kosovo", placed by Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, has been moved inside the Kosovar side and is not on the crossing itself.
According to the guarantees that the Serbian government gave to Serbs in northern Kosovo, custom duties will not be paid on goods intended for Northern Kosovo, which is Serb-populated and which Pristina is unable to control. On this territory citizens will be able to use their personal documents and vehicle registration plates issued by the Serbian Interior Ministry.
Dejan Pavićević, the head of Belgrade's negotiating team, said at the Jarinje crossing that "nothing will change in terms of how the administrative line between Kosovo and central Serbia has been crossed to date". He said the payment of insurance will begin at the Merdare crossing, and not at the Jarinje crossing.
Joint border control
Serbia does not recognise Kosovo's Western-backed declaration of independence in 2008 but is under pressure to cooperate with the new country in order to make progress in its bid to join the European Union (see background).
The region is on the agenda of a meeting of EU foreign ministers that is scheduled to continue on Tuesday. A statement issued yesterday evening only says that the Council had taken stock of recent developments in the region and discussed foreign policy aspects of the Commission's 2012 enlargement package regarding the Western Balkans.
Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, has briefed ministers on the latest developments in the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue. She said she was very happy with the opening of the two crossings and the announcement that two more would be open before the end of the year.
Nationalists blast the agreement
But in Belgrade the news sparked protests, with around 800 people waiving banners reading: “No borders – Kosovo is Serbia”.
The opposition Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) of Vojislav Koštunica, the last president of Yugoslavia, blasted the border agreement. A DSS spokesperson said that the EU was "never really interested in Serbia's EU path but used its wish for EU integration to create an independent Kosovo".
What appears to be at stake in the gamble between the authorities in Belgrade is whether EU ministers would specify June 2013 as the date for launching EU accession talks with Serbia or not. Serbia received EU candidate status last March, the next step being the launch of accession negotiations.
In Brussels, the deputy Serbian prime minister in charge of EU integration, Suzana Grubješić, said there were two versions of the draft conclusion of the EU Council of Ministers regarding the date - "one in which a date is mentioned, and the other in which it is not".
Germany, the Netherlands and, to some extent, the United Kingdom all want to see more progress in the relations between Belgrade and Pristina before deciding to start accession talks with Belgrade.
Without naming any of them, Grubješić said there were “a few countries” opposed to the idea, which believe that Serbia should get a date "only once everything relating to the normalisation of relations with Priština is done".
“It is crucial whether the date will be mentioned or not, that is whether Serbia would get a date in June or not. I sincerely hope that the efforts of this government will be recognised, and that we will get open doors for getting a date for the beginning of the talks,” Grubješić said.
The Serbian representative insisted her country had done everything it had promised.
“We have to present ourselves in a better way, we have to give more explanations so that they could see that they are dealing with serious politicians in Serbia, who keep their word,” she said.