The deal between Serbia and Kosovo that changed history... or did it?

When Serbia agreed to recognise the Kosovan government last month, the EU hailed it as a landmark moment for two nations. But on the ground, the old enmities remain

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The Independent Online

In a grim suburb outside Pristina, two schools exist in the same building. They are only one floor apart, yet the pupils speak different languages, learn different histories and their break times are staggered so that they never interact. If there is any hope of rebuilding the traumatised relationship between the majority Albanians and Serb minority in this war-torn country, it is unlikely to come from the classrooms at Daut Bogujevci.

The Albanian principal, Sabri Xhiqoli, who runs the first and second floor, said he has often tried to reach out to the Serbian children downstairs but has been blocked every time. “Last year, we won a grant to plant some trees in the playground,” he said. “We asked the Serb principal if she would let her children join in. She checked with her superiors and they said no.”

The divide takes on a particularly sinister edge in the pages of their history books. On the ground floor, the children learn all about the “Albanian terror against Serbs” throughout the past century. Upstairs, the textbooks talk only of Kosovo’s “liberation” from “the national terror and genocide” of their Serb overlords and “the horrible scenes of barbarism of the bloody [Serb] squadrons”.

“Neither side admits that crimes were committed by both sides,” Shkelzen Gaski, a researcher who has studied the textbooks, said. “How can we have hope for the future if our children are raised to hate each other?”

These questions remain as acute as ever. Fourteen years on, memories of wartime atrocities are still fresh and while a massive international presence has mostly kept the peace since then, all are aware that it cannot stay forever. So it was a major relief late last month when Serbia finally agreed to recognise the authority of the Kosovo government – though still not the full independence it declared in 2008. If nothing else, the EU-brokered deal was astonishing for who signed it: Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci is a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), while his Serbian counterpart, Ivica Dacic, was spokesman to the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic during the war.

“I want to congratulate them for their determination over these months and for the courage that they have,” the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said at the time. “It’s very important that now what we are seeing is a step away from the past and for both of them a step closer to Europe.” But as the initial elation faded, doubts about the deal have started to emerge. A key clause involves the creation of a new Association of Serb Municipalities, giving Serbs in Kosovo – who make up only around 5 per cent of the population – even more control over their own affairs. They already run their own schools, newspapers and health clinics. Now they will have their own budgets, court of appeal and police commanders, too.

And while Serbia will almost certainly be rewarded for its co-operation with the opening of EU accession talks next month, it is less clear what Kosovo has gained. “We gave them all this, and for what?” Veton Kasapolli, a public relations consultant in Pristina, said. “Serbia is far from recognising us as an independent country. We are still blocked from taking part in any international organisations – the UN, sports, culture, everything.”

He gives the example of Majlinda Kelmendi, a local judo star who almost became Kosovo’s first Olympian last summer, until the International Olympic Committee ruled that her country is not formally recognised. She had to compete for Albania instead.

Taking their lead from Serbia, half the world has yet to recognise Kosovo, with particularly strong opposition from countries like China, Russia and Spain, which face their own separatist movements. “Yes, we wanted more from these negotiations,” Kosovo’s Foreign Minister Envers Hoxhaj said. “But it was never the goal to establish full diplomatic relations. For the past five years, Serbia has pretended we don’t exist. Now they have accepted our territorial integrity and our laws, and are treating us as a partner. That is a paradigm shift.”

But it is not just the majority Albanians that have doubts about the deal. The real testing ground lies an hour’s drive north of Pristina on the border with Serbia, in the enclave of North Kosovo. The overwhelmingly Serb population here has never accepted Kosovan authority. In the centre of its largest town, Mitrovica, a large pile of rubble and abandoned cars blocks the main bridge to the south. Serbian flags fly defiantly overhead. For the past decade, the region’s government and police have been paid by Belgrade. But now Serbia has promised to cut that funding and let Kosovo take over.

The locals are furious at a deal that was done without their consent. On Friday, they travelled to Belgrade to protest, vowing to boycott any attempt to implement the plan.

“The fact is our two communities can’t live together. We have only survived here through Serbian protection – now they have abandoned us to please the international community,” said Nevenka Medic, the Serb director of the Centre for Community Development in Mitrovica. “This deal will turn North Kosovo into a new Palestine – it will be a time bomb for Kosovo.”

Serbia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic, travelled to North Kosovo at the weekend, trying to win over the Serb community. “I’m not saying that the agreement is good, but at this stage we could not get anything better,” he said, adding it was “the only way for Serbia to exist and remain united”.

But recent reports suggest Serbia is already trying to backslide on the essence of the agreement, demanding that it maintain control of judicial appointments in the northern enclave and refusing to allow background checks on its policemen when they are brought under Kosovan command.

As so often in the past, Kosovo is a pawn in a much bigger geopolitical game. The West is desperate to lure Serbia into the fold and out of Russia’s orbit. They needed an agreement that could show Serbia moving in the right direction, regardless of whether it solves any of Kosovo’s problems.

“I agree it is good if Serbia reorients towards Europe rather than Russia, but I don’t agree that Kosovo should pay the price,” said Albin Kurti, leader of Kosovo’s Self-Determination party, the only party that opposed last month’s agreement.

“Everything has been done to please Serbia. There is no legal recognition of Kosovo, no promise to deliver war criminals or pay war damages. And now they are getting this new Association of Serb Municipalities, which will render Kosovo dysfunctional. “Mr Kurti’s party is a rare voice of dissent against the power of the international community in Kosovo. The West remains hugely popular here thanks to Nato’s decisive role in the war in 1999. When Tony Blair visited more than a decade later, local officials had him greeted by a group of young boys, all named Tony Blair.

“When the Iraq War broke out in 2003, I phoned my bosses in London to report demonstrations in the street,” Arjeta Emra, manager of the British Council office in Pristina, said. “They told me this was nothing special. But I said, ‘no, you don’t understand, these are protests in support of the US invasion. And this is a Muslim country’.”

But the growing popularity of the Self-Determination party – polls show it taking 20 per cent of the vote in next year’s election – shows that attitudes are changing. The party accuses the international community of using the threat of corruption charges to ensure Mr Thaci’s co-operation in their regional plans. A university director shares this widely held view: “He’s willing to strike deals. He is favoured by the internationals because his dirty background makes him someone they can blackmail.” Mr Thaci has denied allegations in the local press that he has used his position to amass wealth.

The fixation on Kosovo’s international status and ethnic issues has directed attention away from the deep economic problems that plague the country, which faces the unenviable combination of Europe’s youngest population and highest unemployment rate (over 45 per cent). Instability has prevented investment in its potentially lucrative mining and agricultural sectors.

“We import onions from Egypt and garlic from China while half our land goes unused,” said Shpend Ahmeti, a Harvard-educated economist who is the deputy chair of Self Determination. “Perhaps it is time the international community stopped sending us rule-of-law prosecutors and started sending professors of agriculture and economic advisers. We’ve had enough charity. We want to get to the EU and Nato through development, not through some back-door agreement.”

A waning population

1971 Census finds that the number of Serbs in Kosovo is 228,264 – most of them live in North Kosovo.

July 1990 Ethnic Albanian legislators declare Kosovo independent. Belgrade dissolves Kosovo’s autonomous assembly.

1998 A guerrilla insurgency by  the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army gathers pace and Serbian forces are accused of brutal reprisals.

March 1999 Nato begins bombing Yugoslavia.

June 1999 Milosevic agrees to withdraw troops from Kosovo and Nato ends bombing. Thousands of Serb civilians flee Kosovo amid a wave of revenge attacks.

2006 Population of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo stands at 111,300, according to the Statistical Office of Kosovo.

February 2008  Kosovo declares independence.