Why The Balkans Are The Most Important Story You Missed This Week

Almost two decades of war in Europe came closer than ever to ending in the last week, as two enemies sat across a table from each other and agreed to what many thought was impossible: peace in the Balkans.

In particular, peace between the region’s final holdouts: Serbia, the successor state of Yugoslavia, and Kosovo, a province of Serbia that declared its independence in 2008. Kosovo’s proclamation marked the climax of a struggle that included Serbian forces conducting ethnic cleansing of the region. NATO intervened on the side of the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo, launching a bombing campaign in 1999 that ultimately led to then-President Slobadan Milosevic’s ouster.

Despite the complex history at play, the stakes for the two nations were high enough to engender giving peace a chance. The ultimate goal for both: Membership in the European Union. It’s with that in mind that Lady Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, drew the two into talks and managed to keep them there over ten rounds of negotiations.

Under the terms of the deal, Serbia will not recognize Kosovo’s independence just yet, but will yield to the Kosovo government’s control over the entirety of the Kosovo region. In exchange, ethnic Serbs remaining in Kosovo’s northern region, long a source of tension, will have some degree of autonomy. That will include having their own police force, while recognizing the central authority of Pristina, Kosovo’s capital.

However, the outcome was never a complete certainty. Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic served as spokesperson to Milosevic during the height of the Balkan’s wars, promoting his party’s ultra-nationalistic propaganda. Across from him, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hacim Thaci, a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Nicknamed “The Snake” during his warfighting days, Thaci has been accused of committing multiple crimes throughout the struggle, including acts of terrorism and smuggling of human organs.

Dacic, still known as a Serbian nationalist, defended the agreement to the Serbian Parliament on Friday as a break from Serbia’s past history:

“Today our country is devastated. And only if we have courage, if we do not lie to ourselves and others, and only if we have a clear vision, then we, our generation, will be able to build a country so that our children don’t have to clean up the ruins,” he said. “This is why we negotiated: to put a stop to the past, to the poverty, and to never-ending defeats. Someone had to do this so that out of nothing, we could make something.”

All parts of Serbia’s ruling coalition agreed to the terms of the deal before today’s debate began, making the agreement likely to be approved shortly. The signs of Serbia wanting to put its past behind it don’t end there. In addition to the deal with Kosovo, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, also a nationalist, apologized to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the first time he had done so. However, there are still doubts that Prime Minister Dacic won’t change his tune when speaking before a more nationalistic Serbian audience. Hundreds protested the deal in Belgrade on Friday, highlighting the difficulty Serbian society has had in confronting its role in starting multiple wars within the span of a decade.

So why is all of this important? Because in coming to an accord, Kosovo and Serbia are closing the door on one of the most destructive periods of the late 20th century and showcasing the continuing ability of diplomacy to end long-standing conflicts. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the agreement “important not just for their ability to move into the EU, which is technically critical, but very important in terms of ending a conflict, in terms of moving people to the future.” Kerry went on to hold up the Serbia-Kosovo agreement as an example that many of the last century’s conflicts — including Cyprus, the Mideast peace process, and North Korea — still have a chance of being solved today.

(Photo: Prime Minister Dacic, Lady Ashton, and Prime Minister Thaci in Brussels on April 19. Credit: Reuters)