JARINJE, Serbia (Reuters) - Serbia and its former Kosovo province began the joint control of two border crossings on Monday for the first time since a 1998-99 war, prodded by the European Union as a condition of opening membership talks with Serbia.
Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s Western-backed declaration of independence in 2008 but is under pressure to cooperate with the new country in order to make progress in its bid to join the European Union.
The region is on the agenda of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday.
For the first time since NATO bombs drove Serb security forces from majority-Albanian Kosovo in 1999, police and customs officers from Serbia, Kosovo and the EU began working together at two newly-built joint border posts at Jarinje and Merdare.
Two more from a total of six are due to open by December 31.
Jarinje in particular has been the focus of repeated bouts of violence, located in a border region populated by minority Kosovo Serbs who refuse to accept Kosovo as a sovereign state.
Poorly policed for years, smuggling flourished through Jarinje and another border crossing in the north, an area still largely beyond the control of the Kosovo government.
A spokeswoman for the EU’s police and justice mission, EULEX, said the mission was “more than happy” with the deal.
Officers from all sides lined up at the opening. But there was little fanfare or formality, reflecting enduring differences between Serbia and majority Albanian Kosovo over whether or not the frontier represents an international border.
EU officials hope the new mechanism will encourage greater freedom of movement and ease tensions. Local Serb leaders in the north have branded it a betrayal, but called off protests after negotiations with Belgrade.
“We have shown in difficult circumstances that we are capable and bold enough to protect peace and our own national interests,” Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic told reporters.
The deal is one of a number of measures the EU wants Serbia to undertake as the bloc mulls whether to open accession talks. Fellow ex-Yugoslav republic Croatia joins the EU next year, and talks are underway with Montenegro.
Serbia’s government, an alliance of socialists and nationalists last in power together when the Kosovo war was raging under late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, says it expects to start accession talks next year.
But backed by U.N. Security Council veto holder Russia, it insists it will never formally recognize Kosovo as independent.
Serbia lost control over its southern province in 1999, when NATO bombed for 11 weeks to drive out Serb forces and halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians during a two-year counter-insurgency war.
More than 90 countries now recognize Kosovo as independent, including the United States and 22 of the EU’s 27 members. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is leading a new push for the two to mend ties in talks.
They have reached agreement on the recognition of car license plates, education diplomas and cadastral records, on Kosovo’s representation in regional forums and the exchange of liaison officers. But implementation has been patchy.
Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Merdare and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Matt Robinson and Angus MacSwan