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February 19, 2013, Tuesday

What next for Kosovo?

Last weekend, Kosovo marked the fifth anniversary of its declaration of independence. I vividly remember Feb. 17, 2008 -- the day the Kosovars officially declared their secession from Serbia -- almost nine years after the first and only NATO air war that tried to protect the Kosovars from the ethnic cleansing operations of Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic.

From 1999 until 2008, the former Serb province had been ruled by the international community, a temporary and transitional arrangement that everybody knew would have to come to an end one day. That day came in February 2008, and together with two colleagues from the European Parliament (EP), I had managed to get into the hall of the Kosovar parliament in Pristina, where the official declaration would be made. It was an emotional moment for all those present. As the EP rapporteur for Kosovo, I had spent a lot of my time in the previous years monitoring the situation on the ground all over Kosovo and creating a majority in the EP for EU-supervised independence. All these efforts had created a strong personal sympathy and involvement with the fate of the Kosovars, who were struggling to prove that they could run their own country despite a considerable lack of experience.

I guess everybody present that day knew how big the challenges were for the newborn Balkan country. The economy was in shatters, there was a Serb minority inside Kosovo that refused to accept the new reality, corruption was rampant and Russia, China and five EU member states had already announced they would not recognize Kosovo's independence.

After five years, the country has come a long way. Almost 100 UN member states do support an independent Kosovo, EU supervision ended last year and the economy has slowly started growing again. The problems with Serbia still exist, but, since 2011, Cathy Ashton, the often-criticized EU high representative for foreign policy, has managed to normalize relations between Belgrade and Pristina. In the last two years, several practical but often highly symbolic issues have been agreed upon between the two sides, such as joint border management and the recognition by Serbia of Kosovar vehicle license plates and identification papers.

It shows that in a situation where both countries aspire to become EU members in the future, the EU still has quite some transformative power. Serbia wants to start accession negotiations as soon as possible, while Kosovo is waiting for the EU to give it the green light to go to the next stage in talks on eventual membership. That is why every week dozens of Serbian and Kosovar government officials meet in Brussels to sort out the details of what their leaders need to settle on. This week, Hashim Thaci, Kosovo's prime minister, and his Serbian counterpart, Ivica Dacic, will again be in Brussels to discuss some of the remaining stumbling blocs.

The biggest bilateral problem the two leaders have to solve is, without doubt, the future of the Serbian minority in Kosovo, especially those approximately 60,000 Serbs living in the north, largely beyond the control of the Pristina government. Most of them oppose the rapprochement between the two governments, but there is a reasonable chance that in the next couple of months a compromise will be found that is acceptable to both Belgrade and Pristina.

The general outlines of such a deal are sketched in the latest report on the Serbian-Kosovar normalization process by the International Crisis Group (ICG), the leading NGO on this topic for many years now. This week's report makes the case for “a self-governing Kosovo Serb community with a regional authority” in Northern Kosovo as part of the overall Kosovar governing system. There is an interesting reference to another example of regional autonomy, Bosnia's Republika Srpska. According to the report, for all its faults, the Bosnian experience should be taken into account because it is a fairly successful example of integrating a region and population that fiercely oppose the central government.

The report is realistic in stating that an all-embracing settlement that includes Kosovo's international position is still far off. But things are moving. In the words of the ICG, “success [in] the North -- meaning an agreement that wins local acceptance and works in practice -- would make a comprehensive accord easier. So would Serbia relaxing Kosovo's international isolation, starting with allowing it to take part in international sporting and culture events and enter regional organizations such as the Council of Europe.”

Years of skepticism about an insolvable clash of nationalism seem to have given way to cautious optimism that by June of this year, both countries could make real progress on their way to the EU. Who would have thought that five years ago?

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