OHRID, North Macedonia -- The leaders of Serbia and Kosovo have tentatively agreed on how to implement a European Union-sponsored plan to normalize their relations after decades of tensions between the two Balkan wartime foes, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Saturday after chairing talks between them.
Speaking at a news conference after nearly 12 hours of talks in the North Macedonian lakeside resort of Ohrid, Borrell told reporters that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti " have reached an agreement on how to do it.”
They agreed last month to the wording of an 11-point EU plan to normalize relations following the neighbors’ 1998-1999 war and Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.
“Objective today was to agree on how to implement the agreement accepted in the last high-level meeting,” Borrell said. "This means practical steps on what has to be done, when, by who and how.”
Both countries hope to join the European Union one day, and they have been told they must first mend their relations. Solving the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo has become more important as war rages in Ukraine and fears mount that Russia could try to stir instability in the volatile Balkans, where it holds historic influence.
Borrell said that despite the fact that “a more ambitious text” was proposed at the beginning of Saturday's negotiations than the one the parties have accepted, “it will become an integral part of their respective European Union path.”
“Parties could not reach an agreement on this more detailed proposal,” Borrell said. “Kosovo lacked flexibility on the substance (of the agreement), while Serbia previously stated principle not to sign although they are ready to implement.”
“It is clear that both parties will gain a significant benefit from this agreement, because the dialogue is not only because Kosovo and Serbia … It is about the stability, the security and the prosperity of the whole region,” Borrell said.
The EU plan calls for the two countries to maintain good neighborly relations and recognize each other’s official documents and national symbols. If implemented, it would prevent Belgrade from blocking Kosovo’s attempts to seek membership in the United Nations and other international organizations.
The agreement, drafted by France and Germany and supported by the U.S., doesn’t explicitly call for mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia.
Although tentatively agreeing on the EU plan reached last month, Serbia's populist President Vucic seemed to backtrack on some of its points after pressure from far-right groups, which consider Kosovo the cradle of the Serbian state and Orthodox religion.
Vucic said Thursday that he “won't sign anything” at the Ohrid meeting and earlier pledged never to recognize Kosovo or allow its U.N. membership. He repeated Saturday that he has not signed the implementation document although Kurti insisted on it.
“Today wasn't any kind of a D day, but it was a good day,” Vucic said. “In the months ahead, we are facing serious and difficult tasks.”
On the other hand, Kurti complained that Vucic did not sign the implementation deal on Saturday.
“Now it is up to the EU to make it internationally binding,” Kurti said.
Kosovo is a majority ethnic Albanian former Serbian province. The 1998-1999 war erupted when separatist ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbia’s rule, and Belgrade responded with a brutal crackdown. About 13,000 people died, mostly ethnic Albanians. In 1999 a NATO military intervention forced Serbia to pull out of the territory. Kosovo declared independence in 2008.
Tensions have simmered ever since. Kosovo's independence is recognized by many Western countries. But it is opposed by Belgrade with the backing of Russia and China. EU-brokered talks have made little headway in recent years.
Serbia has maintained close ties to its traditional Slavic ally Russia despite the war in Ukraine, partly because of Moscow’s opposition to Kosovo’s independence and possible veto on its U.N. membership at the Security Council.
Associated Press writers Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia, Llazar Semini from Tirana, Albania, and Konstantin Testorides from Skopje, North Macedonia.