Tue, Sep 04, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Kosovo land-swap proposal under fire from all sides

The Guardian, SARAJEVO

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

Kosovar President Hashim Thaci and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vui have suggested that 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 recognized.

Vui and Thaci have met regularly under the auspices of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini to hammer out a deal that could put Kosovo on the path to a seat in the UN and improve EU accession prospects for both countries.

While neither Vui nor Thaci has made the detail of their plans public, 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 White House National Security Adviser John Bolton said that 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 the thinking of the administration of US President Donald Trump, the new policy is “no red lines, but no blank checks,” meaning that 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 that the union might also be willing to back a deal that involves border changes.

Vui 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 Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, who on Friday said the discussions was a “disastrous ideas.”

“The public discussion on the redesign of borders & exchange of territories is an invitation for new tragedies in the Balkans,” Haradinaj tweeted.

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.

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,” Carl Bildt, Paddy Ashdown and Christian Schwarz-Schilling wrote in the letter.

Milorad Dodik, president of the Serb-dominated autonomous Republika Srpska (RS) 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 Rami-Mesihovi, executive director of Foreign Policy Initiative BH, a Sarajevo-based think tank 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 multiethnic states in Europe?”

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