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2nd Jul 2020

US still open to Kosovo-Serbia land swap

  • North Mitrovica in Kosovo remains divided along ethnic lines (Photo: Allan Leonard)

The US has declined to rule out a land swap between Kosovo and Serbia - despite German opposition to the idea.

"It's up to the parties to establish the parameters of the dialogue," the US special envoy for the Western Balkans, Matthew Palmer, told EUobserver in Brussels on Monday (17 February) when asked about the controversial plan.

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"What we support is the parties finding a way to return to the negotiating table, putting the issues of concern on the negotiating table, and finding a path toward the normalisation of their relationship, ideally with mutual recognition as the centrepiece," he added.

"We'd like to see mutual recognition between Serbia and Kosovo as the outcome of the [negotiation] process," he also said.

Palmer declined to answer further questions on whether the US position went against Germany, which has said a land-swap deal could destabilise the region.

The idea that Serbia should take majority-Serbian parts of north Kosovo in return for giving Kosovo a majority-Albanian area called the Presevo Valley first surfaced in mid-2018 in EU-brokered talks between Serb president Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo president Hashim Thaci.

"The US policy is that if the two parties can work it out between themselves and reach agreement, we don't exclude territorial adjustments," the then White House security advisor, John Bolton, said at the time.

EU institutions echoed Bolton, even though Germany, the main EU protagonist in the Western Balkans, said the idea could cause friction in a region where changing borders on ethnic lines led to wars 20 years ago.

"The territorial integrity of the states of the Western Balkans ... is inviolable," German chancellor Angela Merkel said at the time.

Kosovo split from Serbia in 1999 and declared independence in 2008.

It has been recognised by all but five EU countries plus the US, but not by Serbia, Russia, or China.

The EU-brokered talks on normalising relations broke down in late 2018 amid a dispute on punitive trade tariffs.

Meanwhile, the land-swap plan has remained popular in some US circles.

And Palmer's Bolton-type remarks, made at an EU conference for Albania earthquake relief in Brussels on Monday, indicated it will stay on the agenda this year, even as German-US relations continue to hit new lows.

A US special envoy for Kosovo-Serbia talks, Richard Grenell, was also tasked with promoting the idea of a quick deal on recognition last year, according to the Bloomberg news agency.

But Grenell denied this on Wednesday and said it would be "fake news" to imply that he had ever backed a land-swap.

Cold feet

For his part, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell has made Western Balkans integration a top priority and travelled to Pristina in January.

But some EU countries, led by France, have put enlargement on hold on grounds the current method of preparing countries for membership must be reformed.

The EU cold feet come at a time of heightened tension, with Republika Srpska, the ethnic-Serbian entity in Bosnia, threatening, last Saturday, to hold a referendum on independence, and with the Serbian Orthodox church organising street protests against the pro-EU government in Montenegro.

"We are like lovers that wait to get married and then the other side doesn't show up," Albanian prime minister Edi Rama told press in Brussels on Monday, after the EU declined to open Albania accession talks last year.

This article was amended on Wednesday (19 February) to clarify Richard Grenell's position.

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