EU defuses Balkan time bomb
06.01.14 @ 09:33
BRUSSELS - Local elections in Balkan towns rarely make international headlines.
But when masked men used baseball bats to smash ballot boxes in Kosovo's north Mitrovica one Sunday in November, the world took note.
It was, perhaps, the last gasp of die-hard ethnic Serbs who reject Pristina's rule after a monumental deal between Kosovo and Serbia, brokered in the salons of the EU foreign service in Brussels.
Behind one woman who chaired the meetings, EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton, stood another woman, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who told Belgrade it can forget EU accession if it keeps funding the paramilitaries who threaten to tear Kosovo in two.
The deal claimed one life: on 19 September, gunmen opened fire on an EU vehicle in north Kosovo, killing Audrius Senavicius, a Lithuanian policeman and father of two.
It could have been much worse.
Croatia this year followed Slovenia in joining the EU.
But 14 years after the Balkan wars, the region is still a Pandora's Box of ethnic grudges.
Before the 2013 deal, the EU and the US considered semi-autonomy for north Kosovo on the model of Catalonia, a Spanish region.
But the idea risked igniting calls for secession by ethnic Serbs in Bosnia and by ethnic Albanians in Macedonia and Serbia. "In the Balkans, everybody still has guns buried in the woods," one Albanian politician from Macedonia said.
Instead, Serbian PM Ivica Dacic vowed to bring Senavicius' killers to justice. He also went to Mitrovica to stop baseball bats at a re-vote.
Five EU countries do not recognise Kosovo and Spain, for one, is unlikely to do so in the run-up to Catalonia's independence referendum next year.
But full normality for Kosovo is beginning to look realistic.
The EU deal has also seen Serbia accept Kosovo ID cards, let Kosovo control customs points and host a Kosovo "envoy" in Belgrade. Kosovo's foreign minister Enver Hoxhaj said it is "de facto recognition." His deputy, Petrit Selimi, says EU non-recognisers are coming round: "They did not want to be more Catholic than the Pope."
Kosovo-Serbia aside, the region has a long way to go before it becomes "European."
Joining the EU did not stop Croatia from sheltering alleged war criminals or trampling on liberal values by making gay marriage illegal.
EU aspirations did not stop political deadlock in Albania and Bosnia.
They did not stop Macedonia's PM from erecting statues of Alexander the Great in a nationalist pantomime which antagonises both ethnic Albanians and neighbouring Greece.
Some problems - organised crime, 45 percent unemployment - will take many years to overcome. Other problems will take generations.
But the EU-brokered deal defused the biggest threat to stability: Serbia is no longer a pariah, Kosovo no longer risks partition.
"Our people became big losers in the dissolution of former Yugoslavia … Serbia did not deserve such treatment by the international community," Dacic said on the eve of the EU accord.
"We will continue the dialogue. We will continue it all of our lives. We haven't been talking to each other since the fall of the Ottoman empire, so we have some catching up to do," Selimi said.
This article was printed in EUobserver's yearly magazine 'Europe in review 2013'. The print edition looks back at the most important stories of the year. To obtain a copy of the magazine, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Price per copy €4.75 + postage, excl. vat. Discounts on larger purchases