Serbia and Kosovo strike deal on judiciary

By bne IntelliNews February 11, 2015

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Serbia and Kosovo reached agreement on February 10 to set up ethnically-mixed courts in Kosovo’s northern Mitrovica region, which has a mainly ethnic Serb population. The EU-brokered deal resolves one of the most contentious issues between the two countries, and is seen as a significant step in attempts to normalise relations.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić and his Kosovan counterpart Isa Mustafa initialled the deal on creating an ethnically-mixed court after a day of often tense negotiations.

According to a statement from the Serbian government, the court will have nine Serb and nine Albanian prosecutors, 14 Albanian and 11 Serb judges, and a Serb president. On Belgrade’s insistence, branches of the court will be set up in the towns of Zubin Potok and Leposavic.

EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Frederica Mogherini announced the agreement on February 10. “Just signed agreement on justice: great result of resumption of dialogue Belgrade/Pristina! Thanks to both sides,” Mogherini tweeted.

Working groups will resume to take forward the work on implementation of the agreement, according to a statement from the EU External Action Service.

Talks between Serbia and Kosovo have been on hold since March, as 2014 was an election year in both countries. The six-month delay in forming a new government in Kosovo after the June 2014 election further postponed discussions.

Speaking after the discussions with Mogherini and Mustafa, Vucic said the talks had been “difficult” but that the “maximum has been obtained under the circumstances”.

The meeting came at a time of increased tensions between Belgrade and Pristina as well as within Kosovo.

In January, the Kosovan parliament was poised to vote on a new law on public enterprises, which would have paved the way for Pristina to take over the giant Trepca Mining, Metallurgical and Chemical Combine. This angered Belgrade, since Trepca is also claimed by Serbia. Mustafa backed down at the last minute, informing the parliament on the day of the vote that the draft law had been removed from the agenda.

Another dispute erupted over comments made by Aleksandar Jablanovic, one of three ethnic Serb ministers in the Kosovan government. Jablanovic called a group of Albanians who tried to stop Serb pilgrims visiting a monastery during Orthodox Christmas “savages”. On February 3 Mustafa dismissed Jablanovic from his post as communities minister, causing a backlash among Serb List MPs.

The combination of the Trepca dispute and the anger over Jablanovic’s comment sparked the worst outbreak of unrest Kosovo has seen since independence eight years ago. Mass protests took place in Pristina on January 24 and 27, with fighting breaking out between protesters and police. There were also fears of unrest within Mitrovica where Trepca is located.

The two countries signed the Brussels Agreement, an EU brokered deal aimed at normalising their relations, in April 2013. However, progress since then has been relatively slow, despite a strong incentive in the form of progress towards EU accession.

Vucic said on February 10 that he hoped the result of the latest round of talks “will contribute to have the first chapter in the accession negotiations with the EU open soon, to give Serbia a new impetus to European integration.”

“Serbia’s behaviour will be welcomed and assessed as serious,” Vucic added.

The normalisation of relations with Kosovo is one of the key sticking points to Serbia’s entry to the EU. Aside from this, Serbia has made strong progress towards EU integration under Vucic, and is expected to open its first accession chapters in the near future.

Meanwhile, Mustafa also indicated he was also hopeful that a breakthrough in the talks would support his country’s progress toward EU entry.

"We have set priorities that are in line with what the European Union expects from us in the field of economic development, in the field of rule of law and public reforms. We consider it essential that we make significant strides in economic development,”Mustafa said on February 9 after talks with EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn.

In 2014, Kosovo moved closer to its the goal of EU accession, when it signed its Stabilisation and Association Agreement. However, entry to the EU remains a far off ambition with numerous obstacles including high corruption levels and recent revelations of mass illegal migration into the EU blocking Pristina’s path.

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