Serbia-Kosovo ‘land swap’ on the agenda in Brussels

The idea of a “land swap” between Serbia and Kosovo to settle their long-running dispute once and for all has stirred passions ahead of a new round of talks between former war foes.

The notion would likely see a part of southern Serbia centered on the ethnic Albanian-dominated city of Presevo transferred to Kosovo, while the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovo, around Mitrovica, would become part of Serbia.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s Hashim Thaci are expected to meet Friday in Brussels as part of efforts to normalize relations in the region still riven by tensions from the 1998-99 war.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is recognized as a nation by more than 100 countries. But Serbia does not recognize it, and neither do five EU countries — Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain.

Serbia and Kosovo have been told that they must sort out their differences if they want to advance toward EU membership, Officials from both nations have suggested a land swap could be a good idea, but there is opposition both inside the countries and internationally.

There are concerns that changes to the borders could trigger similar demands in Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro, also nations formed from the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Germany and some of its EU partners also have voiced fears this could open up old wounds in the Balkans rather than resolve their longstanding differences.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has signaled it would accept any agreement between the two sides.

Although there are no fixed proposals on the table, the most commonly mentioned ideas always involve the so-called Presevo Valley area of Serbia, to be swapped for Kosovo’s Serb-populated north.

Zoran Ostojic, an analyst from Belgrade, believes that the meeting in Brussels on Friday won’t result in an immediate breakthrough despite heightened expectations.

Serbia’s Vucic and Kosovo’s Thaci are “testing the ground, primarily with the international community” by floating the idea, he said.

“Who knows where that could end?” Ostojic warned, echoing fears of a chain reaction throughout Balkans.

Vucic, a former hardline nationalist who now says he wants to settle the Kosovo problem so Serbia can move forward, has supported an unspecified “demarcation” with Kosovo.

But many Serbs consider Kosovo the cradle of their history and culture, and Vucic could face stern opposition from nationalists to any proposal that includes giving up claim on any part of the territory.

Liberal Serbs have warned that joining Kosovo’s north with Serbia proper would probably prompt an exodus of minority Serbs from the rest of Kosovo.

Kosovo’s Thaci has ruled out a straightforward exchange of territories, but has instead suggested a “border correction.” That idea has met little support in Pristina. He said Thursday that the two sides should not give up looking for a “sustainable peace.”

“We should exploit this momentum to make an end to the war chapter between Kosovo and Serbia,” Thaci said.

Reflecting the tensions, Kosovo’s parliament has been blocked for days in a dispute over who should conduct the talks with Serbia and how it should be done.

The opposition has sought to strip Thaci of any authority to discuss Kosovo’s territory in the talks with Vucic.

The 1998-99 war erupted when Kosovo separatists launched a rebellion to split from Serbia after Belgrade had stripped the region of its self-rule. More than 10,000 people died in the conflict before NATO forced Serbia to pull out of the territory.

EU officials are hoping that the prospects of membership in the bloc will encourage the Balkan nations to leave the past behind, but when it comes to Serbia and Kosovo, there is a long way to go.

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Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia and LLazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report.

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