Kosovo and Serbia have reached a deal to end a long-running dispute over vehicle licence plates that the European Union had warned could trigger ethnic violence.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, announced the agreement on Twitter on Wednesday.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
“We have a deal,” Borrell said.
“Very pleased to announce that chief negotiators of Kosovo and Serbia under EU-facilitation have agreed on measures to avoid further escalation,” he said.
Serbia and Kosovo, which declared itself independent from Belgrade in 2008, will now focus on an EU proposal on how to normalise their relations, Borrell said.
Kosovo’s declaration of independence is recognised by about 110 countries but not by Serbia, Russia, China and five EU member states.
The latest dispute between the Western Balkan neighbours erupted after the government in Pristina attempted to require its Serb minority to change car plates dating from before 1999 when Kosovo was still part of Serbia.
But Serbs in the northern part of Kosovo – who refuse to recognise Pristina’s authority and still consider themselves a part of Serbia – have resisted the ban, sometimes violently.
As a sign of disobedience, close to 600 police officers from Kosovo’s Serb minority, followed by judges, prosecutors and other state workers quit their jobs earlier this month.
Despite the fierce protests, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti insisted the plan would go ahead, before announcing on Tuesday he would delay it for two days, after he came under pressure from the United States.
The dispute also sounded alarm bells in the EU, which has been mediating talks to try to normalise ties and wants both sides to hold off on provocative gestures.
Borrell on Monday, after hosting Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Brussels for negotiations on the issue, had said Vucic had been ready to accept a compromise but Kurti had not.
Kurti blamed Borrell for focusing solely on the licence plates instead of the full normalisation of ties between the neighbours.
Vucic said Kurti was responsible for the failure of the meeting.
On Twitter on Wednesday, Borrell said the deal reached by both sides entailed Serbia ceasing to issue licence plates with markings indicating Kosovo cities, and Kosovo “will cease further actions related to re-registration of vehicles”.
Borrell added that he will invite both parties in the coming days to discuss an EU proposal, supported also by France and Germany, which will allow the foes to normalise relations.
Washington said it welcomed Wednesday’s deal.
“The two parties took a giant step forward today, with EU facilitation, towards assuring peace and stability throughout the region,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for the US Department of State.
“We further commend the two countries’ agreement to concentrate fully and urgently on normalizing relations under the auspices of the EU-facilitated dialogue,” he added.
The issue of Kosovo’s independence sparked a war between 1998 and 1999 in which about 13,000 people died. Serbia launched a brutal crackdown to curb a separatist rebellion by the territory’s ethnic Albanians.
NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 to end the war.
The security alliance still has some 3,700 peacekeepers on the ground to maintain the fragile peace.