For once, Kosovo’s Serbian and Albanian communities – historically on different sides of every political issue – seem to agree on something.

The atmosphere in their respective countries after Monday’s meeting in Brussels between the Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic and Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti was remarkably sour.

“There were protests both in Pristina and Mitrovica before the agreement. Everyone seems to be confused and let down by the process,” explains Donika Eminia political analyst who has followed developments between the two countries for several years.

“The actual impact this document but also the negotiation process will have, how it could improve their lives, is unclear to the wider population so people are not sure how to react to it at the moment,” Emini told Euronews.

Why is the relationship so fraught?

Kosovo and Serbia were belligerents at the end of the bloody conflicts that marked the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and have been locked in an often contentious EU-mandated dialogue to resolve their differences.

Chief among the disputes is Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence, which was declared in 2008. Serbia’s official line is that Kosovo is part of its territory – as it was for most of the 20th century – even though it has its own separate government and institutions for more than two decades.

“There was no scenario where Kosovo and Serbia would sit down and resolve these otherwise fundamental issues. Even the most basic exchanges could not have taken place without international mediation,” says Vjosa Musliuassistant professor of political science at Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Yugoslavia breaks up

The countries that gained independence after the fall of Yugoslavia, such as EU members Croatia and Slovenia, and candidate countries such as North Macedonia, were also republics within the socialist federation. It wasn’t Kosovo.

“The war and the decade before it cannot be detached from the anti-Albanian bigotry that has existed in Serbia for a long time,” Musliu explains.

Ethnic Albanians were stripped of political and civil rights beginning in 1989, when former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević came to power, lasting a decade until the conflict erupted.

Then, in an unprecedented move that continues to stir debate to this day, NATO decided to launch an aerial bombing campaign on what was left of Yugoslavia at the time – Serbia and Montenegro – and Kosovo as a province of Serbia as well.

“The NATO bombing in 1999 removed Serbia’s control from Kosovo and installed an overarching international presence. It became clear that Kosovo would become an ethnically Albanian-ruled state, and this created further hostilities and a sense of mistrust in Serbia,” Musliu continues.

“Second-class citizens would be allowed to rule over what Serbia considered the cradle of its nation,” she stressed.

The deal brokered by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate

Kosovo officially became a UN protectorate, and while it was allowed to have its own government and hold elections, the UN had the final say. They also tried to facilitate a precursor to the ongoing dialogue and come up with some kind of framework for Kosovo to become fully independent, which was eventually brokered by the former president of Finland and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari.

The UN then passed the baton to the European Union, which took over the dialogue and facilitation of the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence – and the Ahtisaari Agreement was embedded in its constitution.

“When Kosovo declared independence, Serbia saw it as government policy to prevent Kosovo’s existence as a state because they claimed it violated its constitution. This is how the frozen conflict we have today arose,” says Vrije Universiteit’s Vjosa Musliu.

Bulldozer diplomacy returns to the Balkans

Monday’s meeting in Brussels was the culmination of months of negotiations, paired with not-so-subtle arm-twisting by the US and NATO, meant to produce a deal that would bring the two closer to establishing diplomatic and formal bilateral ties than ever before.

“The ongoing war in Ukraine has made the unresolved issues in the Balkans a security priority for the United States, and the United States always reacts quickly and strongly when it senses a major security issue,” Musliu explains.

Senior US diplomats focused on Balkan issues made several visits to the region. EU Special Envoy Miroslav Lajčák has made at least 10 trips to Kosovo since September.

The European External Action Service, the Union’s foreign policy body, published the official agreement at the end of the day, although they were reserved about its impact in a statement immediately after the meetings.

“I hope that the agreement can also be the basis for building much-needed trust and overcoming the legacy of the past. Much-needed trust,” EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell – also the official chair of the dialogue – told journalists.

“Further negotiations are needed to determine specific ways of applying the provisions,” he continued.

The reason for the muted response was the fact that while both parties accepted the final form of the agreement, they did not go ahead to formally sign it, which was expected by many ahead of the meeting. Now they will move on to establishing what is called an annex to the agreement, or a roadmap that will outline how its articles will be implemented.

Long awaited reality check

The agreement contains important precedents, such as that Serbia will not block Kosovo from applying for membership in international organizations such as the EU and the UN.

While Serbia has traditionally used its close ties to Moscow – it continues not to participate in sanctions against Russia for its ongoing invasion of Ukraine – to seize power in the UN Security Council, Serbian President Vučić confirmed in a televised interview on Tuesday night that the agreement paves the way for Kosovo’s entry into the global intergovernmental organization.

“Yes, that includes it (UN membership). That’s why I didn’t sign it,” Vučić said during an interview for national public service RTS, widely seen as strongly pro-government.

“I don’t know why everyone is so naive. Did you wake up yesterday and realize that the French and the Germans and the Americans are advocating an independent Kosovo?” he asked.

Nevertheless, in the Serbian parts of Kosovo, Belgrade has maintained a strong influence on the local population, including funding and maintaining its education and health care systems.

Many in the north of the country, where most of the ethnic Serbs live, have called out Vučić for betraying them, including during protests held several times in recent months.

But for people like Nenad Rašić, a Kosovo Serb who is currently a minister in the Kosovo government and was personally attacked by Vučić for seemingly engaging his opponent’s institutions in the dialogue, this was a long-needed reality check.

“On the one hand, we are really happy that it has come to this agreement, as long as it means that there will be no more tensions,” Rašić told Euronews.

Last summer, tensions peaked along the Kosovo-Serbia border and roadblocks were set up preventing people from getting to the two countries by land. There were several incidents of shooting at police and NATO peacekeepers, who have been stationed there since 1999.

“People who live in places that are more multi-ethnic in Kosovo or have the opportunity to regularly meet Albanians have not bought into the tensions,” explains Rašić.

While Rašić is careful to highlight that not everyone in Kosovo agrees with him, he says it is time for the delusion that both communities have been living in to end.

“The problem is that for over 20 years, because so many Serb-majority areas in Kosovo were isolated and functioned as enclaves or even ghettos, local Serbs have been cut off from the rest of Kosovo,” he said.

Because some form of Serbian government control and presence existed in these communities, an illusion was created that Serbia had a much larger role in Kosovo in recent decades than it did, and that it might one day return.

“Yet the reality is different. Those are the people who will be disappointed by the agreement. Others will breathe a sigh of relief,” he concludes.

For Kosovo’s Albanian majority, the idea that the deal could lead to the formation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities – or a body specifically catering to the needs of the ethnic Serb population – has caused concern.

Some – including Prime Minister Albin Kurti when he was in opposition and presented the dialogue with Serbia as an attempt for Belgrade to continue to maintain influence over its former province – believe that would be a compromise too far.

“There is a delusion that the association will not be formed. So the EU and the US made sure that the association was explicitly mentioned in the agreement to make sure that Kosovo cannot wriggle out of it,” said Emini, the political analyst.

“The lack of readiness by the government of Kosovo to have the necessary, sobering discussions with the public about it, to try to deconstruct it for people, is worrying,” she stresses.

Besides the fear of a possible spillover of tensions from the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the EU and the US are also aware of the enormous popularity of the two leaders in their respective countries.

Both countries have also received development funding from the West, and now it seems the West wants to cash in on its investment.

“No other leader is better suited to sign this agreement,” says Enmi.

“They have a huge electoral mandate and political legitimacy. They have popular support. So they have to be the ones to deliver.”