European Western Balkans

Supporters and opponents of Kosovo-Serbia border change: What do we know so far?

Vučić, Mogerini i Tači; Foto: Twitter / Maja Kocijančič

In the wake of this week’s meeting between Presidents Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia and Hashim Thaçi of Kosovo, mediated by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, positions of relevant actors on their proposal for redrawing Kosovo’s borders seem clearer than before. There are still, however, many unknowns.

The proposal itself has not been discussed in detail by the two Presidents. It is nonetheless widely assumed that it entails some sort of a land swap, in which the majority-Serbian northern municipalities of Kosovo would become a part of Serbia, while at least some parts of majority-Albanian Preševo Valley (municipalities of Preševo, Bujanovac and Meveđa) would join Kosovo.

Germany’s opposition

German Minister for European Affairs Michael Roth expressed yesterday his opposition towards redrawing the borders of Kosovo.

According to Gazeta Express, he tweeted: “Dear friends in Kosovo & Serbia, to redraw the borders will not solve any problems. Such a move would open a Pandora’s box of ethnic recriminations. The future of the Western Balkans is just a multi-ethnic, -religious & -cultural one. United in diversity, that’s Europe.”

Roth thus reiterated positions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas, showing that German government is united in its opposition to the proposal.

During her meetings with Prime Minister of Montengro Duško Marković, Chairman of the Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Council of Ministers Denis Zvizdić and Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, Angela Merkel made it clear that territorial integrity as it currently stands is an “important value”.

Even though her stance seemed to be softened a bit during the press conference with PM Plenković, there are no signs that Germany’s decade-old position has changed in any significant way.

United States: Any deal better than no deal?

In contrast to EU’s largest state, position of the United States seems much more flexible. This country, along with its European allies, has up until recently been a strong supporter of the Western Balkan countries’ territorial integrity.

That changed when US National Security Adviser John Bolton, who is thought to be one of the most trusted allies of President Donald Trump, stated that an exchange of territories is not excluded. This somewhat contradicted US Ambassador to Serbia Kyle Scott, who few weeks earlier had said no drastic changes towards Kosovo should be expected.

Ever since Bolton’s statement, no official confirmation has been released by US institutions. In its yesterday’s article, however, The Guardian made the situation a little bit clearer.

“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”, London-based daily wrote.

Willingness of US to reach a deal, even the one including previously unacceptable arrangement, was summarized by Florian Bieber, professor for Southeast European History and Politics at University of Graz.

“It is, to a certain degree, Trump’s logic: the only important thing is reaching a deal, while its content does not matter”, he explained.

Bieber, however, refrained from giving a complete assessment of US’s position until there is an official confirmation from the State Department. To this day, that confirmation has not been given.

EU: Hahn and Mogherini remain ambiguous

The position of the European Union has, thus far, been more difficult to determine. Commenting for Serbia’s portal Istinomer, Adnan Ćerimagić from the European Stability Initiative reflected on European Commissioner Johannes Hahn’s reaction to Vučić’s and Thaçi’s proposal during last week’s Alpbach political forum.

“While the two Presidents kept explaining how the solution for their countries is for them to become less multi-ethnic than they are now, other participants at the panel only said that discussions and negotiations are most important, and that they would support any angreement accepted by the two sides. Granted, Commissioner Hahn added, by the end of the discussion, that potential negative consequences in the region have to be taken into account”, said Ćerimagić, who also participated.

Alpbach 2018 Forum; Photo: Aleksandar Vučić Official Website

High Representative of EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, has also made statements that can be interpreted in multiple ways. During an informal meeting between EU and WB 6 Foreign Ministers in Vienna on the final day of August, she emphasised that EU will support any solution reached by the two sides in accordance with international law and EU law.

Commissioner Johannes Hahn was also present in Austria’s capital, and he used social networks to comment on the most recent developments.

“The leaders of Serbia and Kosovo should outline an agreement between the two countries. Some progress has been made, but it’s too early to speak about the details”, he wrote on Twitter, adding that every solution must contribute to peace and stability in the region.

It was made clear by Mogherini that EU is willing to reach an agreement on comprehensive normalisation by the end of the current institution’s mandate in 2019. Does that imply that it is also ready to step over some of the previously established red lines is still uncertain, although Germany’s opposition is doubtless tilting the scales in opposite direction.

In search of internal consensus

Even though the apparent discord of international actors is complicating the situation, the lack of agreement within Kosovo and Serbia is almost making it unsolvable.

At the moment, President Thaçi seems to be the one struggling more. Not only are opposition parties against his proposal (and some are also questioning his mandate to negotiate on behalf of Kosovo’s people), the support is lacking from government’s side as well.

Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj stated as recent as last week that no discussion about the border change will be held with Serbia during the meeting on 7 September. “Change of border with Serbia would mean war”, he said earlier in an interview for Irish Times.

The resolution will hopefully be reached during the extraordinary session of Kosovo’s Assembly, which is taking place today.

When it comes to Serbia, President Aleksandar Vučić seems to have a much larger maneuvering space. The reason for that is the dominant position his highly disciplined and centralized Serbian Progressive Party holds in Serbian politics. But there is more.

“There are well established, albeit not very democratic mechanisms for implementing what is agreed upon”, emphasises journalist Sanja Sovrlić, referring to the influence Vučić and his party hold over media and state institutions.

Despite that fact, she reminds that various, completely different categories of people on both sides oppose the potential agreement – those who are in favour of an independent Kosovo, those who still regard it as a part of Serbia and those who support north’s autonomy within Kosovo without recognition from Serbia.

In the end, there are analysts who believe that Vučić and Thaçi have no intention of changing borders, but are actually preparing for implementing the 2013 Brussels agreement, The Economist reminds. “Although both sides will hate the deal, at least their leaders will be able to say that they preserved precious territory”, the magazine concludes.

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