PARIS -- After months of difficult negotiations, Serbia and Kosovo reached an agreement Friday aimed at overcoming ethnic enmities in Kosovo, a former Serbian province, a milestone that officials hope will enhance stability in the region and clear a path for both countries eventually to join the European Union.
Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, told reporters that the prime ministers of the two countries had initialed an agreement during talks in Brussels. "It is very important that now what we are seeing is a step away from the past and, for both of them, a step closer to Europe," she said.
Serbian officials said the accord was subject to approval by "state bodies" in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, but European officials said it was unlikely that Serbia would backtrack.
The EU is scheduled to meet Monday in Brussels to decide whether to allow Serbia to start negotiations for entry into the group, and analysts said the accord was likely to swing the decision in Serbia's favor.
The agreement hinged on how much autonomy Kosovo was willing to cede to Serb municipalities in the north, in return for Serbia's recognition of Kosovo's authority in the area. Until now, Serbia has had de facto control over the small Serb-majority area in the north, which does not recognize Kosovo's authority.
Tensions have lingered since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, nearly a decade after NATO bombs helped push out the forces of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. For Kosovo's ethnic Albanian Muslim majority, independence was the culmination of a struggle for self-determination after a brutal ethnic civil war with Serbia.
Kosovo is now recognized by more than 90 countries, including the United States and a majority of nations in the EU, but five member countries have refused to recognize Kosovo.
Serbia has also refused to recognize Kosovo, arguing that its independence declaration breached international law. Serbia's staunch ally, Russia, has blocked Kosovo's membership in the United Nations, a hurdle to its economic and political progress.
Under the agreement, municipal bodies in the Serb-majority north will retain autonomy in matters such as health care and education. In return, the police and courts will apply the Kosovo central government's laws. The Serbian municipalities will be able to appoint a regional police chief.
Petrit Selimi, Kosovo's deputy minister of foreign affairs, said Kosovo agreed not to deploy its security forces in the Serbian region for an unspecified number of years, except during emergencies such as earthquakes. Even in that event, a senior NATO official said, the security forces would need authorization from NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo.
Analysts said the deal had been made possible in part because of the nationalist credentials of the respective leaders in the talks, including Prime Minister Hashim Thaci of Kosovo, who told reporters that the agreement would "help heal wounds of the past."
Even so, Mr. Thaci is despised by many Serbs for his role in the war. His Serbian counterpart, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, was the wartime spokesman of Milosevic, who died in jail in 2006.
The accord conspicuously omits any Serbian recognition of Kosovo's independence, but analysts said the agreement was nevertheless a breakthrough.
For the EU, struggling with a string of crises, the accord is also an important victory. "The incentive of joining the EU played a huge role in clinching an agreement," said Mr. Selimi, the Kosovar deputy minister.
Misha Glenny, a leading Balkans expert, said the symbolism of Serbs and ethnic Albanians casting aside their differences could help spur regional reconciliation, in particular in ethnically divided Bosnia.