Kosovo and Serbia ended a marathon round of dialogue on Saturday night without signing a potentially historic agreement, despite the fact that the European Union (EU) praised the progress made towards an understanding between the two archrivals.
The latest round of negotiations followed months of EU-brokered diplomacy, nearly 25 years after the war between ethnic Albanian insurgents and Serb forces. A NATO bombing campaign ended the conflict and prompted Serbia to withdraw its personnel and security forces from separatist territory.
Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic met for almost 12 hours in Ocrida, North Macedonia, to discuss an 11-point plan presented by the EU in Brussels in February.
But in the end they failed to reach an agreement acceptable to both parties.
After the meeting, the head of EU diplomacy, Josep Borrell, sent mixed signals about the negotiations, indicating that a framework was reached to execute the plan, but not the path towards normalization of relations.
"The parties were unable to find a mutually acceptable solution despite how ambitious we were in contributing or proposing," Borrell stated.
Serbia has refused to recognize Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence, with instability continuing between Belgrade and its former breakaway province.
After the dialogue on Saturday, the two leaders admitted that there had been progress but quickly exchanged attacks for not reaching an agreement.
Kosovar Kurti said he was ready to sign the document, but blamed the Serb leader for refusing to accept the plan a second time.
"The other party, as it did in the previous meeting on February 27 in Brussels, refuses to sign the agreement," Kurti told reporters.
"It is now up to the European Union to find a mechanism to make this agreement legally and internationally binding."
The Serbian Vucic maintained that "we have taken an important step with a constructive climate and we will start working on something. Of course, it was not a D-day, but it was a good day."
The EU-backed 11-point document states that neither side may resort to violence to resolve the dispute or prevent the other from joining the EU or another international body, a key demand of Kosovo.
It would also result in de facto recognition between the two parties, who would accept each other's travel documents, diplomas, license plates and customs stamps.
Kurti's government hopes a deal will allow Kosovo access to international institutions, especially the UN, a long-standing aspiration of Pristina.
The issue of Kosovo is an obsession for a large part of the Serbian population, which sees that territory as part of their country.
A demonstration took place in Belgrade on Friday with thousands of people rejecting an agreement.
"This ultimatum (...) is not an agreement, it is a betrayal," the leader of the ultranationalist group Oath Keepers, Milica Djurdjevic Stamenkovski, declared at the march.
Some 120,000 Serbs live in Kosovo, many of whom remain loyal to Belgrade.
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