The hottest summer topic in the Balkans has been the potential division of Kosovo between Belgrade and Pristina, or an exchange of territories, as a possible solution to establish lasting peace between the two sides.
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but it has never been recognised as an independent state by Belgrade. However, the two sides have engaged in a normalisation process brokered by the EU, resulting in the landmark Brussels agreement of 2014. The leaders of the two countries are now looking at options for a political settlement that would allow both sides to move forward towards EU integration.
Under a potential exchange of territories along the border between Serbia and Kosovo, Serbia would give Kosovo mostly Albanian populated villages along the administrative line, and Kosovo would give Serbia four northern municipalities where Serbs mostly live — or, as some diplomats named it, “a little cosmetic correction of borders” would take place. The other option put forward would be a partition of northern Kosovo.
Belgrade is hopeful that the new administration in the White House will support a solution to the Kosovo issue that involves changes to borders — a step that other international political leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, oppose.
On July 27, speaking in Washington after meetings with senior US officials, Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic announced that the US administration "openly supports a compromise solution to the Kosovo problem," adding that Serbia should "seize the moment,” B92 reported.
“[The] new US administration is more attuned to our positions, demonstrates better understanding of our views as well as an interest in resetting our relations and helping stabilise the situation in the region … The current US administration is ready to at least take into account on an equal footing our proposals for the resolution of major problems in the region - a lasting solution to the Kosovo and Metohija problem certainly being one of those,” Dacic said according to a foreign ministry statement on July 26.
“Today, a compromise solution is openly supported. At the moment, this is particularly positive and encouraging for Serbia, as a possibility to reach a solution in the interest of all parties involved through dialogue,” he added.
Like his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic, Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci has voiced the idea of a border correction between Belgrade and Pristina to include the secession of the Presevo Valley from southern Serbia. “To be clear, I have rejected the option of sharing and exchanging of territories. I'm just talking about correction of borders peacefully in favor of Kosovo,” Thaci said in a Facebook post on August 7.
“I’m against the partition of Kosovo, territories’ swap, status quo, the formation of [something like] Republika Srpska [the Serb-dominated entity in Bosnia], but I’m for a peaceful demarcation and the establishment of the 400-kilometre long border between Kosovo and Serbia. A balanced agreement is in everybody’s interest,” Thaci went on to say the following week.
Merkel, however, told a news conference on August 13 in Berlin that there will be no change of borders in the Balkans, something that needs to be repeated every now and then, according to B92.
Merkel has been a supporter of EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, initiating the Berlin Process that revived efforts to integrate the region with the EU. She has also been Vucic’s main supporter within the bloc for his political goal of taking Serbia into the EU.
Her comment didn’t go down well in Belgrade, where Vucic responded: ”The whole western world, with exceptions, they all consider Kosovo to be an indivisible territory that belongs to the Albanians in Pristina," B92 reported.
As for Merkel's position, Vucic said it has been the same "for ten years now”, ever since Germany recognised Kosovo as independent.
The Serbian president now seems to be looking for a partner in his quest to find a lasting solution to the Kosovo issue from the state that until recently was his main opponent in this regard — the US.
Washington has unconditionally backed Kosovo’s independence and financially supported its development as an independent state, pushing Serbia to accept the loss of part of its territory. But this has changed a bit since Donald Trump moved into the White House — not because the US changed its stance, but because it has been focused on other issues. Serbian officials also say the new administration has been more willing to hear what the Serbian side has to say.
Taking this into account, Vucic announced that he will be "brave enough" to ask for something more for the Serbs and Serbia from Merkel, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin, US Vice President Mike Pence, and French President Emmanuel Macron, B92 reported on August 14.
Even leaving aside the question of the international community’s stance, it’s by no means clear that a deal will be reached. Both sides are eager to secure the benefits — for Serbs that would mean “sharing” Kosovo and for Albanians annexing the Presevo valley — but neither wants to concede territory.
In addition, any agreement that involves redrawing borders would also be a tough sell at home for the two sides’ political leaders.
Some Serbian officials present the idea of a territory swap or redrawing of borders as beneficial for Belgrade as it would mean getting at least something in exchange for losing Kosovo. The most palatable way of thinking about a possible deal has been in terms of sharing Kosovo rather than giving up parts of south Serbia. For some Serbs this idea is acceptable, but for many any idea of giving up on Kosovo as an integral part of Serbian territory is unacceptable. They cite the UN 1244 Resolution according to which “territorial integrity and sovereignty” were guaranteed to Serbia for the withdrawal of its security forces from Kosovo after the Nato bombing in 1999.
When it comes to the other side, there is most likely no single Albanian living in Kosovo who would agree with idea of giving up the north, even in exchange for ethnic Albanian municipalities in Serbia.
Serbs living in Kosovo south of the river Ibar, where they are a minority, also don’t seem happy with the idea of any territorial changes. They fear for their own futures, even though KFOR is still there as a guarantor.
Indeed, the only ones who might take to the idea of a territorial exchange are Serbs in northern Kosovo or Albanians in south Serbia, who would like to be more closely integrated with their ethnic groups.
Even among the Kosovan government there are those that are not in line with the president’s ideas. Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj recently said that “Kosovo's borders are drawn in war and that they can only change by war. Whoever believes that the borders change in some other way, is wrong,” according to N1.
He is not the only one in Kosovo who seems not to be in line with President's ideas.
Meanwhile, the opposition have reacted fiercely to the idea of exchanging territory.
“Thaci’s call to the Albanian politicians to unite in supporting the idea about the unification as “hypocrisy, a part of the manipulation and deception, violation of the sovereignty and the constitutional order of our state… Thaci used the feelings of the ethnic Albanians from the Valley by speaking about the border’s correction with Serbia,” Ismet Beqiri, a member of the Parliament and the secretary of the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), N1 reported. Albin Kurti, the leader of another Kosovan opposition party Vetevendosje, accused the government of “selling national interests” by offering concessions to Serbia and called for early elections.