Analysis - In backing EU path, Serbia faces tough Kosovo talks

BELGRADE Thu Sep 9, 2010 1:18pm BST

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia's dramatic gesture of flexibility towards Kosovo will enable it to advance towards joining the European Union, but many tangled issues will complicate that goal and may take years to resolve.

Belgrade agreed on Wednesday to amend a United Nations draft resolution that had sought to reopen discussion of the status of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, and pursue dialogue with the breakaway country on future solutions instead.

The U.N. General Assembly was expected to embrace the new approach on Thursday by endorsing the altered resolution, jointly sponsored by the EU and Serbia. The text acknowledges an International Court of Justice ruling that Kosovo did not violate international law when it declared statehood.

Serbia applied to join the EU last year, but Brussels has not yet acted on the application, saying good regional relations are essential before moving forward.

Kosovo may resist new talks. "We still have to convince the Kosovo leaders," Pieter Feith, the EU's special representative to Kosovo, told Reuters. "As always in the Balkans, when you have one, the other could fall out of the boat."

The EU wants Belgrade and Pristina to resolve practical everyday issues such as how Kosovo trucks can enter Serbia, what curriculum is taught in Kosovo Serb schools, and whether Kosovo can have its own telephone area code.

"The EU needs to lay out a clear path for both Kosovo and Serbia, to say what it wants and how it will accelerate the accession process," said Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative think-tank.

Progress may prove elusive, he said. "Dialogue between the two parties will not change much, because neither Serbia nor Kosovo has incentives to make concessions."

OUT OF CONTROL

The Serb-dominated north of Kosovo, including northern Mitrovica, provides a good example of the complicated everyday issues in smoothing ties between Belgrade and Pristina.

Kosovo officials run the south of the city of Mitrovica, but the northern part across a river is out of Pristina's control. Residents such as taxi driver Luka Popovic, 29, drive without licence plates, avoid traffic rules, and pay no income tax.

"I don't pay anything to anyone. I decide when I work and not. I can park where I wish, and drive as fast as I want," he said. "Who is going to stop me? Who is going to ask me anything?"

Many Serbs see Kosovo, where more than 90 percent of the 2 million population are ethnic Albanians, as the cradle of their Orthodox Christian religion. Serbian politicians have long rejected any compromise with a country they do not recognise.

Belgrade timed its Wednesday announcement on dropping its earlier U.N. draft ahead of a basketball match in which Serbia advanced to the world championship semifinals. The upset victory rather than the policy reversal led the main evening news.

The EU stepped up pressure for Belgrade to ease its stance after the International Court of Justice, acting at Serbia's request, said in July that Kosovo did not violate international law in declaring independence.

"The alternative would have been to go head-to-head with 22 member states of the EU, and that would pretty much have terminated Serbia's chances of moving forward on the EU integration process," said one European ambassador.

All but five of the EU's 27 members recognise Kosovo.

EU officials say they did not make an explicit promise to Serbia for its more moderate stance, although Belgrade may advance to the next stage of the accession process in December.

Montenegro, which declared independence from Serbia in 2006, is already ahead of Belgrade in the long process, as is Albania, which was Europe's most isolated state under Communism.

Serbia's bid is further complicated by its failure to capture Bosnian Serb wartime commander General Ratko Mladic, who is charged with genocide by the U.N. war crimes tribunal over the 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims.

In northern Mitrovica, many Serbs who receive subsidies from Belgrade also oppose accommodation with Pristina.

"If Serbia decided to stop financing its institutions in Kosovo -- courts, health, schools, local administration -- that would mean the end of Serbs in Kosovo and a column of refugees to Belgrade," said Momcilo Trajkovic, a local Serb activist.

(Additional reporting by Branislav Krstic in Mitrovica, and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; editing by Paul Taylor)