In a region where memories of war are fresh and grievances long-held, last week’s historic agreement between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo offered rare cause for celebration.
Those with reason to cheer might include the 31 nations contributing to NATO’s lengthy peacekeeping operation in Kosovo, now completing its 14th year. Instead of pointing to an exit, however, the accord creates a new role for the alliance, experts say. And it gives peacekeepers support from a surprising corner — Serbia — the very country NATO bombed in 1999 to prevent a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
Because the agreement brokered by the European Union requires Serbia to end its support of the ethnic Serb minority in Kosovo, NATO’s Kosovo Force, or KFOR, remains the only buffer separating tense ethnic lines in the tiny Balkan nation.
Evidence of the difficulties that may lie ahead is visible in Kosovo’s north, where ethnic Serbs have protested the agreement and vowed not to recognize the authority of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian-dominated government.
“NATO wants to get out as soon as possible, as soon as the circumstances allowed,” said Naim Rashiti, a field researcher in Kosovo with International Crisis Group. “But having this agreement now, they will participate in monitoring implementation.”
The agreement seeks an end to a festering dispute over the rule of Kosovo’s north, where 50,000 ethnic Serbs reject Kosovo’s government while receiving support from nearby Serbia, which has funded parallel government and security agencies in the region and permitted cross-border smuggling.
The accord requires Serbia to abandon such support in recognition of Kosovo’s authority over the north. Kosovo’s government in turn, will have to accept that the region will remain largely self-governed under the deal in a number of areas including the local police and judicial system.
Both countries stand to advance their efforts to join the European Union following the deal, a major incentive behind the negotiations.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed the accord and vowed alliance support, details of which will be worked out in the weeks ahead, according to a NATO official speaking on customary background. “KFOR will stand ready to support the implementation of this latest agreement to the best of our ability,” Rasmussen said.
The alliance’s 5,500-strong Kosovo Force — nearly 800 of them American soldiers — already monitors security and freedom of movement in the landlocked country.
Tensions between the two communities have occasionally boiled over in recent years. Serbs in the north rioted in 2011 after Kosovo attempted to man customs offices at border crossings with Serbia. They built barricades across roads in the north, which KFOR later removed under threat of violence and occasional gunfire.
While last week’s political agreement solves a question of boundaries and authority, it fails to bridge the greater rift between ethnic Serbs and Albanians in the country, said Daniel Serwer, a senior fellow with the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University.
That divide dates back decades and rests most recently on the 1999 conflict, when Serbia responded to attacks by Kosovo separatists with a sweeping campaign across the territory, spurring NATO to intervene with a bombing campaign. This was followed by a truce and the deployment of tens of thousands of NATO troops.
The vast majority of peacekeepers have since departed, leaving a small force that has been reinforced in the north in the past 18 months.
Serbia refused to recognize Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008. It also condemned the government’s plans to create a military from a small security force, saying it represent a threat to northern Serbs. NATO is requiring Kosovo to keep its security force out of the north unless it receives consent from Serbs.
Serbia has sought further assurances for northern Serbs. In December, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksander Vucic asked then U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to ensure that KFOR remains in the country.
Following the successful conclusion of the EU-facilitated talks last week, the prime ministers of both Serbia and Kosovo, Ivica Dacic and Hashim Thaci, visited NATO headquarters in Brussels.
The actions of ethnic Serbs in the north and response of the Kosovo government, will be closely watched by KFOR and international observers, analysts said.
“I would say the hardest days are ahead,” Serwer said. “Implementations are never automatic.”