Nicholas Watson in Prague -
Confusing noises coming out of Belgrade as Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic is reported as saying that Serbia and Kosovo reached a deal Monday, March 11 in EU-brokered talks over the Serb-dominated north of Kosovo and the two sides will sign an agreement to that effect later this month. However, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton reported no such agreement after Monday's talks, which she described only as an "open and substantial discussion."
After meeting in Brussels with Ashton, joined by Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Deputy PM Aleksandar Vucic, Nikolic was reported as saying by dpa newswire that: "Pristina, which until now always insisted that any solution must fit into its legal framework, has yielded." Serbian state television RTS reported that Nikolic said an agreement was to be signed on March 20 or 28.
Ashton, who was due to meet March 14 in Pristina with Kosovo leaders, said only that she had "reviewed progress in the dialogue so far" during Monday's meeting with the Serbian leaders. "We spoke in particular about the implementation of the agreements already reached and about the need to finalize discussions on the open issues, notably on northern Kosovo, in view of the next meeting of the dialogue for normalization of relations on March 20 in Brussels," she said. "In the meeting today I stressed the importance of reaching agreements on the open issues between the two sides as soon as possible."
A deal over the fate of Serbs in the northern part of Kosovo, Serbia's erstwhile Albanian-dominated province but now independent state, has held up a deal to improve relations that will enable Belgrade to start EU accession talks. But since a new government dominated by nationalists came to power in Serbia last year there has been growing signs that a deal is in the offing.
On March 7, Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic admitted that Serbs had been lied to that "Kosovo is ours" in the decade since the predominantly ethnic Albanian province was freed from Belgrade's rule with Nato's help. Dacic's strongly worded remarks followed a poll published on March 6 that found 63% of Serbian citizens accept that Kosovo is in practice an independent state and that the only thing Serbia can now do is to fight to secure the best position for the Serbs still left in Kosovo.
Dacic's government - which is led by Nikolic and Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party, a group of former hardline nationalists - has been able because of its past to offer a deal that the previous government of Boris Tadic couldn't, namely to recognize the authority of Hashim Thaci's government in Pristina over the north of Kosovo in return for far-reaching autonomy for the Serbs living there.
How much autonomy has been the stumbling block. Belgrade has demanded autonomy with legislative and executive authority for the mostly Serb municipalities, particularly those in the north, which border Serbia proper. Pristina had offered a lower degree of autonomy, as it fears too much could lead to de facto independence of the northern part of the country. Thaci talks, without a hint of irony given he was a secessionist guerrilla fighter, about the "territorial integrity" of Kosovo.
Serbia and Kosovo are scheduled to hold more talks, which were elevated to the top political level in October, on March 20 and April 6. After that, on April 16, Ashton is due to advise the EU Council of Ministers whether to open membership talks with Serbia.
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