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A Final Deal On Kosovo: Compromise Or Confrontation? – Analysis

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As debate about the potential partition of Kosovo heats up and Belgrade-Pristina negotiations seem to be entering their final stage, BIRN asked seven experts to suggest solutions to the dispute and assess the possible consequences of territorial exchange.

Since June, both sides in the EU-mediated talks on the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo have stated that the negotiations are entering their final stage.

At the same time, there has been increasingly heated talk of an exchange of territories – swapping Albanian-majority areas in southern Serbia for Serb-majority ones in northern Kosovo – although this has never been an official topic of discussion during the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue in Brussels.

BIRN asked seven experts to give their opinions about what kind of final deal could be achieved between Belgrade and Pristina, and what the partition of Kosovo and an exchange of territories could lead to in practice.

‘Both sides are interested in a cold peace’

Florian Bieber, professor for Southeast European History and Politics at the University of Graz and Coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group:

  • Potential solution to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute

“While the partition idea keeps resurfacing, the EU and key members have stated their red lines against partition.

“There are numerous reasons why such a solution would lead nowhere or rather risk further tensions and conflict. The realistic solution would have to ensure that Kosovo’s independence becomes accepted, especially in the UN and by the five EU non-recognisers.

“Whether Serbia formally recognises Kosovo or finds another way is flexible, but it has to be clear that Serbia de facto recognises Kosovo.

  • Kosovo’s partition and an exchange of territories

“I seriously doubt that an agreement would end the tensions and the dispute. Both sides are interested in a cold peace, not a new page in their relationship.

“Both keep presenting the dispute as a zero-sum game and unlike the Macedonian and Greek governments, don’t seem ready to form a partnership to transform the conflict. They are both seeking to benefit from tensions in the future. After all, the conflict is a useful distraction both for the domestic audience and towards the EU.

“Once the Kosovo-Serbia dispute is settled, Serbian President Vucic would be confronted with more critical voices from the EU about the state of democracy and rule of law, thus he has a strong incentive not to find a settlement soon, and in Kosovo, the government suffers from a fragile coalition with a weak legitimacy, also making it unlikely to make any compromises.

“Considering the scepticism of EU members also raises the question what the EU can offer for a settlement. France and the Netherlands will remain deeply skeptical about enlargement, even if both settle.

“Thus, the decision on Macedonia and Albania acted as a disincentive for a compromise, as both governments ask, what can we get from the EU if we compromise?, and the answer from the EU is not clear.”

‘Some form of compromise’

Bojan Elek, researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy:

  • Potential solution to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute

“The ultimate solution will probably have to be some form of compromise that will leave both sides equally displeased.

“With a legally binding agreement, Kosovo would have to gain de facto characteristics of statehood, including a seat in the UN and a perspective for EU membership, while Serbia could avoid an explicit de jure recognition of independence, making the agreement more acceptable for the citizens.

“No matter what the final agreement looked like, the most important thing for Serbia would have to be the protection of the rights of its citizens living in Kosovo territory.”

  • Kosovo’s partition and an exchange of territories

“A territory swap would be a bad solution, and not just because it would pave the way for other territorial demarcations in the region.

“An exchange or partition would reinforce the nationalist approach to organising territories on the principle of ‘my people, my land’, which has proven impossible to implement and spelled disaster for the whole region, considering the history of the Balkans in the past 30 years.

“If a partition meant that northern Kosovo would belong to Serbia, this would further weaken the Serb community south of the Ibar river, because northern Mitrovica is the administrative, educational and healthcare centre that all other municipalities gravitate towards.”

‘Partition has been taboo in Kosovo’

Agon Maliqi, editor of S-Bunker, a political analysis and opinion website

  • Potential solution to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute

“I find it hard to see how Vucic will agree to something that he can’t sell back home as a win. He wants a deal and is in a position to sell one but wants to be seen as having got something in return for explicitly or implicitly accepting Kosovo’s independence.

“That is clear from the way in which he is building up the rhetoric in domestic opinion. The problem is that Kosovo has already given as much as it realistically can in terms of minority safeguards to remain internally functional.

“So Kosovo is stuck between a rock and a hard place. It risks turning its weak external position (contested statehood) into a weak domestic one by becoming a dysfunctional state (without the slightest guarantee that Russia won’t block the UN seat) or getting partitioned (which will deeply polarise Kosovo internally and disrupt the region).

“Getting any of these options to pass in Kosovo, especially when there is no strong consensus or political control like Vucic has in Serbia, will be very difficult.

“So if there is a deal – and that still remains a big if – there are three main types of outcomes imaginable, and I think that the international consensus and the ease of selling the deal domestically will determine which one prevails.

“The first option is a repackaging or rebranding of existing rights for Serbs (which are as extensive as they can get) that will allow Vucic to spin it as a win, but would not guarantee a UN seat for Kosovo because of Russia, only unlock a vague path to the EU.

“The second option would be something substantial such as a form of territorial autonomy for Serbs (which risks making Kosovo dysfunctional and increases Belgrade’s control) while again not guaranteeing a UN seat.

“The third option is partition or territorial exchange (which changes the game regionally).”

  • Kosovo’s partition and an exchange of territories

“Partition has for long been a preferred option among both certain nationalist circles ([influential Serbian writer] Dobrica Cosic) and liberal ones in Serbia (even [late Serbian Prime Minister Zoran] Djindjic thought it was the best solution).

“So in a way it represents the closest thing to a consensus in Serbian public opinion (except the Serbian Orthodox Church, which just came out publicly against because most of its heritage is south of the Ibar river).

“The problem is that partition has been taboo in Kosovo and public opinion is absolutely not prepared to deal with the consequences and the many questions it raises about the nature and future of the state.

“We have spent ten difficult years building trust in the current model of the state. Only now has the flag started to get embraced more widely among people (although almost always in conjunction with the Albanian flag). Besides, the north of Kosovo is far from what it used to be in 2008 and so many efforts have been made to integrate the Serbs within Kosovo’s system (including most recently the judiciary).

“There will be a deep polarisation because partition would automatically move the debate into when and how to unite with Albania and what would that mean for our ability to self-govern. Kosovo’s society is not homogenous about this but holds various positions within a spectrum, so I feel this will paralyse us severely and for a long time.

“I can’t see how partition will happen without at least some tension or violence either in Kosovo or in the region, either as a response to this solution by those that are dissatisfied, or as a means by its promoters to speed things up and create new realities on the ground that would then make it inevitable.”

‘Territorial division is the bane of the Balkans’

Edward Joseph, Adjunct Professor and Senior Fellow, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies:

  • Potential solution to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute

“Resolution of the nearly intractable Balkan disputes rests on one factor above all: Western political will. So, ‘the solution’ for Kosovo doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it reflects the continuum of political will not just in Europe but in Washington as well.

“As for what [Serbian President Aleksandar] Vucic can accept on Kosovo, as long as ‘the solution’ concretely and directly advances Belgrade’s EU accession, he can – and will – accept almost anything that protects the position of Serbs in Kosovo.

“The whole notion that Vucic faces some ‘choice’ between the EU or Russia is a distortion promoted by Vucic himself to dampen Western pressure.

“It is entirely possible that ‘the solution’ on Kosovo would entail quasi-recognition by Belgrade in exchange for asymmetrical protections for Serbs in the north and south of Kosovo — provided the EU demands it and is prepared to move forward on enlargement.”

  • Kosovo’s partition and an exchange of territories

“Territorial division is the bane of the Balkans. The notion that borders are malleable – that RS[Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska] could secede from Bosnia, for example, or that Croats could get their own entity [in Bosnia and Herzegovina], itself a precursor to eventual secession – is what helps entrench Bosnia’s political polarisation.

“The same mentality is what promotes Serb intransigence in the north of Kosovo; why compromise and cooperate with Pristina as Serbs in the south do, when – if you only hold out – you might be able to secede from Kosovo altogether?

“Fortunately, the breakthrough agreement between Greece and Macedonia on the latter’s name will – if the agreement survives – put a damper on division. If the name agreement enters into force, division of Macedonia is taken off the table and the country heads to NATO membership, virtually guaranteeing that the country will not be divided, no matter how restive Albanians become.

“And that automatically complicates division of Kosovo, because it makes it harder to ‘compensate’ Albanians there for the loss of the north. Of course, the converse is true; if there is no agreement on the name, and a movement for division of Kosovo gains momentum, then you can count on calls to hive off Albanian majority areas of Macedonia, a messy and dangerous step that only invites and incites more claims on the country.

“Those who think that Presevo Valley/South Serbia represents the ‘swap’ solution for the north have not spoken to the Albanians who live there. Many Albanians who live in Presevo do not relish the idea of becoming an eastern province of Pristina, cut off from the vital north-south highway that Serbia will not relinquish.

“The idea that Kosovo should be divided rests on illusions — that it would be ‘just’, that it would be feasible and containable rather than messy, impractical and dangerous. The more it’s talked about, the more it will appear as a practical solution – which it isn’t. The fact that the EU has extraordinary leverage is what makes the whole subject of territorial division of Kosovo not just impractical and dangerous, but unnecessary.”

‘Explicit or implicit recognition of Kosovo’

Lulzim Peci, the director of the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development, KIPRED:

  • Potential solution to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute

“In my opinion, a probable potential solution for the Kosovo-Serbia dispute would be a package which would include autonomy for the Kosovo Serb community, either in a form of the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities, or of territorial autonomy without legislative competencies for the Serb majority municipalities in the north of Kosovo, explicit or implicit recognition of Kosovo by Serbia with UN membership for Kosovo, which would be accompanied by respective changes to Serbia’s and Kosovo’s constitutions according to the agreement achieved.”

  • Kosovo’s partition and an exchange of territories

“The idea of the division of Kosovo has a long history, and the Serbian political establishment has never given up on it.

“This option is against the values and goals of EU and NATO enlargement, which are based on the model of multi-ethnic states and inclusive societies, not on the changes of borders of federal units of the former Yugoslavia on ethnic lines.

“The option of divising Kosovo is in concordance with the policy that Russia is pursuing in its near neighborhood, by struggling to change borders with neighbouring states along ethnic lines where Russians are the minority, at the same time as it maintains many ethnicities and peoples within its borders.

“This policy is not limited to the Moscow’s near neighborhood only, given that Russia is also pursuing a policy of destabilisation of the Balkans, with its efforts to transform it into an area of perpetual geopolitical contest among big powers and the nationalistic elites of the region. Here, Serbia is playing the role of a mini-Russia in the Balkans.

“In addition, the option dividing Kosovo seriously endangers its potential for economic development, by endangering the sustainability of the water supply from the lake of Gazivode for one-third of Kosovo, as well as for cooling energy plants in Obiliq.

“Furthermore, in a nutshell, this option is against the essential interests of the Serb community in Kosovo as well, given that majority of its members (more than 60 per cent) live south of the Ibar River, and that the majority of the Serbian Orthodox Churches are located in the central and western parts of Kosovo.

“This option is about hegemonic territorial gains, rather than in the interest of all the communities of Kosovo, including the Serb community itself.

“Instead of solving anything, it can rather open up a road to hell for all the communities in Kosovo and the wider region. The memories of this kind of hell in the region are still fresh, and we shall not forget them.”

‘A frozen conflict could defrost’

Gordana Susa, Serbian journalist and commentator:

  • Potential solution to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute

“The closer we approach the ‘final stage’ projected for the end of the year, the more pronounced are the delays, the futility of negotiations and tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.

“The signing of a mutually binding agreement on normalisation of relations provides the compromise for people in both societies to have more normal and safer lives, to travel, trade and deal with everyday issues.

“The agreement doesn’t oblige Serbia to recognise Kosovo officially but will have to respect Kosovo institutions and laws… And according to those laws the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities will function as well.

“If we consider the [public opinion] polls showing that two-thirds of Serbian citizens believe that Kosovo is lost, but also that it should not be recognized de jure, the mutually binding agreement is the framework for both.

“If Belgrade and Pristina fail to reach a deal and sign the agreement, a frozen conflict could defrost… with very uncertain outcomes, primarily for Serbia.”

  • Kosovo’s partition and an exchange of territories

“I don’t know if partition of Kosovo is on the table, although I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that it was discussed, but I’m afraid that talk of partition and exchange of territories neglects the people and opens Pandora’s box again.

“If the two sides fail to reach a settlement after multiple attempts, experience has taught us that a third party will decide our fate under much worse terms.

“I absolutely support the negotiations and the mutually binding agreement, but also the obligation of the authorities, first and foremost of Vucic, to come clean and tell the public in detail and without embellishment what is going on, and how much it will cost us if we don’t accept… the mutually binding agreement, and what is his ‘plan B’ in that case.”

‘Territorial integrity and sovereignty of Kosovo’

Bodo Weber, Senior Associate of the Democratization Policy Council:

  • Potential solution to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute

“Negotiations are indeed entering into the final stage, that is over a final, comprehensive and legally binding agreement on full normalisation – as both parties, particularly Belgrade, did not make use of the gradual, less painful approach the original political dialogue initiated in 2012-13 offered.

“The final solution, at least of the status issue, is clear by ‘the original dialogue deal’, its framework and ultimate aims as more or less explicitly defined in 2011-13, and accepted by both parties, including Belgrade.

“That is a solution based on the reality that Serbia lost Kosovo, primarily due to its own policy of the last three decades. It means territorial integrity and sovereignty of Kosovo, full exercise of international subjectivity, including an EU membership perspective and Serbian support for a UN seat.

“Recognition of Kosovo as an independent state by Serbia, whereby if Serbia insists this to happen in a reduced and not full formal legal form, it has to explain and guarantee how all the aims of the final agreement can be secured this way, too.

“Finally, forms of ethnic representation and positive discrimination as embodied in the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities need to guarantee the institutional functionality of the state of Kosovo and have safeguards against any future secession of Kosovo north.

“Within such a clear framework for a final solution there is then hard work to do in negotiations over open, genuinely bilateral issues like missing persons, property issues, etc, where the Kosovan side will have to be ready to give something to Serbia, while Belgrade will have to restrain from misusing bilateral issues for reopening the status question.”

  • Kosovo’s partition and an exchange of territories

“Any lobbying for partition, land swap etc is neither about Serbia’s interests, let alone Kosovo Serb interests, but rather about traditionally conformist Balkan policy and the testing of a weakened West’s resolve and red lines.

“Even in the case Vucic and [Kosovo President Hashim] Thaci agreed on such a dirty deal, no Kosovo Assembly would approve it with the necessary two-thirds majority. Not to speak about that any Western sanctioning of an ethno-territorial ‘solution’ would reopen Pandora’s box in the region and beyond, and further destabilise Ukraine for example.

“It would even destabilise Serbia and Vucic, though he currently seems to be surprisingly unconscious about the potential consequences of his own policy.

“Finally, it perfectly demonstrates that Belgrade doesn’t care about Kosovo Serbs as it has never done – the majority of Serbs live South of the Ibar – it just cares about continuing to pursue a conformist virtual, heavenly Kosovo policy as long as possible, instead of caring about the problems of the real Kosovo and the real Kosovo Serbs.”

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.


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Balkan Insight

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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