US-backed Kosovo land-swap border plan under fire from all sides

Deal on exchange of territory could pave way for settlement between Belgrade and Pristina

A US-backed land-swap plan to redraw the borders of Kosovo is facing a growing chorus of criticism inside the republic, in the wider region and internationally.

The Kosovan president, Hashim Thaçi, and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vučić, have suggested an exchange of territory could be part of a deal that would pave the way for a final settlement between Belgrade and Pristina.

Kosovo broke from Serbia in 1999, and declared its independence in 2008, which Belgrade has never recognised. Vučić and Thaçi have met regularly under the auspices of the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, to hammer out a deal that could put Kosovo on the path to a seat at the UN and improve EU accession prospects for both countries.

While neither Vučić nor Thaçi has made the detail of their plans public yet, both acknowledged at a discussion forum in Austria last weekend that border changes were under consideration. A swap would probably involve exchanging territory in southern Serbia, predominantly populated by ethnic Albanians, for part of northern Kosovo with a largely ethnic Serbian population.

The US administration recently gave a boost to the plans when the national security adviser, John Bolton, said Washington would not stand in the way if Belgrade and Pristina reached a deal, reversing a long-held US policy that further border changes in the Balkans are undesirable.

According to two sources familiar with Trump administration’s thinking, the new policy is “no red lines but no blank cheques”, meaning the US is willing to look at any solution, including border changes, but will not necessarily endorse it in the end. Some EU officials have hinted they may also be willing to back a deal that involves border changes.

Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić
The Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, is due to meet Vladimir Putin twice in the coming months. Photograph: Ronald Zak/AP

Vučić will face opposition from many at home who would see a deal as admission that Kosovo is lost forever. There is also strong criticism inside Kosovo, notably from the prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, who on Friday referred to the discussions as “disastrous ideas”. He tweeted: “The public discussion on the redesign of borders & exchange of territories is an invitation for new tragedies in the Balkans.”

Many regional and international observers have noted the potential for knock-on effects in the region, where some borders remain fragile and open to nationalist challenges.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has come out strongly against the idea, and three former high representatives to Bosnia have written an open letter to Mogherini, urging her not to back any plans involving land swaps.

“We can in short, think of no policy more likely to lead us back to division and conflict in the Balkans than the one which some are apparently now supporting,” wrote Carl Bildt, Paddy Ashdown and Christian Schwarz-Schilling in the letter.

Milorad Dodik, the president of the Serb-dominated autonomous Republika Srpska (RS) entity and a candidate for the national presidency in October elections, has regularly called for RS independence.

“I think the EU likes this plan because it’s ‘simple’,” said Lejla Ramić-Mesihović, the executive director of Foreign Policy Initiative BH, a Sarajevo-based thinktank that has been working on the issue. “But what logic will the international community have against an RS referendum? Is now really the time to give up on multi-ethnic states in Europe?”

An adviser to Dodik said the concerns were exaggerated. “President Dodik is one of the most experienced politicians in the region and he will do nothing, knowing how important it is for Serbia to close the story with Pristina,” said Ana Trišić-Babić, a former deputy foreign minister of Bosnia.

However, there are fears that simply by putting the issue back on the table, it will give fuel to those who wish to reopen questions that had appeared to be long resolved.

In Macedonia, which has a large ethnic Albanian minority and was the scene of inter-ethnic clashes in 2001, politicians are wary of any deal involving land swaps.

“These ideas have been floating around throughout the Balkan wars, and this country has always been very firm in supporting political solutions to political problems that do not require ethnic borders,” said Radmila Šekerinska, Macedonia’s minister of defence. “We need to remind ourselves that the biggest atrocities were committed with that aim, or with that excuse, in mind.”

Another key question is whether Russia can be brought onside for any deal. Vučić is due to meet the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, twice in the coming months, and so far Moscow has given little indication of whether it is ready to drop its long-held opposition to Kosovan independence.

Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, said it was down to Belgrade and Pristina to agree a deal, but pointedly said “the deal has to reflect the interests of the Serb people” if Russia is to back it. She declined to clarify how Russia would assess these interests.


Shaun Walker in Skopje and Andrew MacDowall in Sarajevo

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Could land swap between Serbia and Kosovo lead to conflict?
Critics claim potential border settlement on ethnic lines sets dangerous Balkan precedent

Andrew MacDowall in Tirana

22, Aug, 2018 @10:31 AM

Article image
Kosovo PM says Russia is inflaming Serbia tensions as Ukraine war falters
Albin Kurti warns rising tensions only benefit Putin as ethnic Serbs set up road blocks in north of country

Daniel Boffey Chief reporter

20, Dec, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Kosovo at 10: challenges overshadow independence celebrations
Migration, youth unemployment and unresolved alleged war crimes are headaches for Kosovo’s international backers

Andrew MacDowall in Pristina, Mitrovica and Decani, Kosovo

16, Feb, 2018 @12:42 PM

Article image
'Still needed': Nato marks 20 years in Kosovo
A few thousand troops keep a low-key presence, but with western attention fitful, how long for?

Dan Sabbagh

12, Jun, 2019 @4:00 AM

Article image
Kosovo accuses Serbia of involvement in paramilitary ambush
Kosovo says group behind deadly clash with local police was armed by Serbia and sought to provoke partition

Julian Borger in Washington and Lisa O'Carroll in Brussels

28, Sep, 2023 @5:00 AM

Article image
Fears Kosovo-Serbia number plate row could spark violence
Tensions rise over plans to fine ethnic Serbs in Kosovo who refuse to surrender Belgrade-issued plates

Jon Henley Europe correspondent

22, Nov, 2022 @12:08 PM

Article image
Kosovo declares Nobel laureate Peter Handke persona non grata
Literature prize winner condemned over support for Milošević regime

Shaun Walker Central and eastern Europe correspondent

12, Dec, 2019 @3:08 PM

Article image
Kosovo: ‘fascist mobs’ guided by Serbia causing violence, says country’s PM
More than 30 Nato peacekeeping soldiers were injured in clashes on Monday after ethnic Albanian mayors took office

Shaun Walker in Bratislava and Lorenzo Tondo

30, May, 2023 @6:20 PM

Article image
Kosovo border secured as Serbs turn up heat

Nato troops and UN police move to secure Kosovo's northern borders as ethnic Serbs demonstrate

Peter Beaumont in Chabra, northern Kosovo

21, Feb, 2008 @4:42 PM

Article image
Arms cache found after ethnic Serb gunmen storm village in Kosovo
Incident that left police officer and four attackers dead marks one of gravest escalations in violence for years

Lisa O'Carroll in Brussels

25, Sep, 2023 @4:25 PM