Belgrade-Priština dialogue resumes

Tourist advert, Priština. [Tony Bowden/Flickr]

After a ten month pause, Serbia and Kosovo resumed their dialogue on the normalisation of relations, in Brussels on 9 February, yielding the first result: the two sides initialised an agreement on the judiciary. This should solve the issue of the judiciary’s functioning in Serb-populated areas. EURACTIV Serbia reports.

The talks, mediated for the first time by the new EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, were difficult and both sides claimed the agreement advanced their interests. Opposition parties in both Serbia and Kosovo, however, dispute this.

Although the initialing of the document, agreed to in principle in March 2014, is a step forward, everything indicates that the talks will take more time, both because of sides’ different priorities, and because of their respective internal problems and challenges.

Among other things, the resumption of the dialogue was delayed by ten months, because of last year’s parliamentary elections in Serbia and in Kosovo, and because of the long process of forming a new government in Priština.

What also cast a shadow on the resumption of the talks was the recent ousting of the Serb member of the Kosovo government, the Minister for Return and Communities, Aleksandar Jablanovi?. Kosovo Prime Minister Isa Mustafa opted for Jablanovic’s dismissal, because citizens and the opposition demanded it, after the minister referred to the Albanian demonstrators who attacked displaced Serbs trying to enter ?akovica on Christmas Eve as “savages”.

Belgrade has described the ousting of Jablanovi? as “a deeply wrong decision” and announced that further participation of the Serb Ticket in the Kosovo institutions will be discussed after the Serbian delegation returns from Brussels.

Mogherini: Closing of crucial chapter

After overnight talks between 9 and 10 February in Brussels, the Serbian and Kosovar delegations initialed the agreement on the judiciary which, as the Serbian officials said, was arranged in principle at the previous meeting, in March 2014. The agreement envisages an ethnic composition of judges and prosecutors that reflects the ethnic structure of population in certain areas.

Mogherini said that the agreement is closing a crucial chapter in the implementation of the Brussels agreement, whereby the life of the population will be significantly improved. In her statement, she congratulated Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vu?i? and Mustafa for that success.

According to the agreement, the president of the court in the northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica will be a Serb and a significant majority of the judges and prosecutors in northern Kosovo will also be Serbs. In the southern part of Mitrovica, 14 judges will be Albanians and nine Serbs. Serb judges and prosecutors will also work in departments in Zubin Potok and Leposavi?.

Officials in Belgrade pointed out that the arrangement will protect Serb interests, and Priština stated that the document secured a unified judicial system for the whole of Kosovo.

The integration of judicial authorities and their work within the legal framework of Kosovo is envisaged by the agreement on the main principles of normalization of relations, reached in Brussels in April 2013, with EU mediation.

Mogherini also stated that she had “expressed support to the two prime ministers for further progress on the road to the EU”.

Different priorities

At the 9 February meeting, the two sides’ different priorities became obvious. The Kosovo delegation insisted on the topic of civil defense and of the bridge across the Ibar River, while the Serbian delegation wanted to discuss the formation of an association of Serb municipalities, and the issue of Serbian properties in Kosovo.

“One of these issues must be on the agenda of the next round of talks,” Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vu?i? said.

Belgrade raised the issue of Serbian property in Kosovo after the authorities in Priština attempted to nationalize the Trep?a Mining Combine in January, which they subsequently abandoned. Several thousand Kosovars protested in Priština at the end of January, because the Kosovo government had abandoned the plan.

The authorities in Priština did not express any readiness to accept the issue of Serbian property, and Trep?a as a topic. High Representative Mogherini also requested that the issue of Trep?a not be complicated any further.

Kosovo Prime Minister Isa Mustafa said on 10 February that the Kosovar side had requested “the abolishing of parallel structures of civil defense” in Serb municipalities and stated that the Kosovars should not discuss any other topic before that is accomplished.

Mustafa also requested the opening of free passage on the bridge across the Ibar in Kosovska Mitrovica “so that the freedom of movement is secured”. The bridge connects the northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica, populated by a Serb majority, and the southern part, predominantly populated by Albanians.

Barricades were removed from the bridge last year, and the Serbs built a “Peace Park” by putting in place flower bins, which Priština interpreted as barricades on Mitrovica’s main bridge.

Belgrade expects recognition of its efforts from the EU

The dialogue with Priština will be “the key parameter” for Serbia’s progress in European integration. The normalisation of relations with Kosovo will be monitored through Chapter 35 in Serbia’s membership negotiations with the EU, and this chapter will be among the first to be opened and will influence the course of the membership negotiations as a whole.

Belgrade is hoping for the opening of the first chapters in the negotiations, and expects the EU and the international community to recognise the efforts it invests in the process of normalising relations with Priština.

Vu?i? said after the meeting in Brussels that success in the dialogue with Priština will “give new momentum to Serbia’s European path” and that its “approach will be not just welcomed, but characterised as very serious, responsible and, I would say, courageous.” He expressed conviction that the first chapters in the EU membership negotiations will be opened in the coming months.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Da?i? stated on 10 February that the EU institutions’ stand was that Serbia is seriously preparing for and working in the negotiation process and that it has good capacities, but added that “politically optimal conditions” had to be created for the opening of chapters.

Da?i? also said that work on this was under way and that he was optimistic, adding that the EU should show more appreciation for Serbia’s contribution in the dialogue with Priština in the past two years, in the context of the opening of the chapters.

The dialogue about the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Priština was initiated in 2013, with the mediation of the EU. So far, 23 rounds of talks have been held,  with the last one taking place on March 31, 2014, when the then prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo, Ivica Da?i? and Hashim Thaci, met with the mediation of the then-EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton.

The Brussels agreement was reached on 19 April, 2013. The agreement envisaged the forming of the association of Serb municipalities; this issue is yet to see any progress.

The fulfilling of all obligations from the Brussels agreement will be needed to open Chapter 35, pertaining to relations with Kosovo. Chapter 35 is among the first to be opened in the negotiations.

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