Can Vučić and Thaçi Pull Off a Kosovo-Serbia Deal?

Can Vučić and Thaçi Pull Off a Kosovo-Serbia Deal?

by Mehdi Sejdiu

At the end of July 2018, the presidents of both Kosovo and Serbia gave signs that a compromise involving border changes could be reached between the two countries, ending the conflict. Serbia has lost effective control over Kosovo after the NATO intervention in 1999. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence and is now recognized by more than a hundred states including the US, UK, France and Germany. However the country remains unrecognized by Serbia and the rest of the world, including the UNSC members Russia and China who can veto its accession in the UN. The limited recognition of Kosovo makes it contested, and the country finds itself in a frozen conflict with Serbia who strongly opposes Kosovo’s independence.

Eleven years after Kosovo became independent, partitioning the country seems to be the compromise that Thaçi and Vučić are willing to make in order to end the dispute. It is not clear exactly what territorial exchange the agreement entails, but according to the presidents of both countries, it is likely that it will involve three or four municipalities of Serb-populated northern Kosovo and parts of the Presevo Valley, an Albanian-populated region in South Serbia.

Figure 1 Source:  The Economist

Figure 1 Source: The Economist

The wording of the final agreement is also a framing competition in and of itself. President Thaçi calls the agreement a “border correction” while President Vučić calls it “a delimitation with Albanians,” and the opposition in both countries refer to it as a partition or exchange of territories. One article in the New York Times even referred to it as peaceful “ethnic cleansing,” calling it an effective tool to solve a conflict, ironically in a place where brutal ethnic cleansing happened 20 years ago in the Kosovo war. 

So far there is no document presented to the public on the agreement. We still do not know which parts of North Kosovo or the Presevo Valley the land swap will include. What will happen with the natural resources of the Gazivoda Lake and the Trepca mine situated in North Kosovo? Will the Ahtisaari package and the multiethnic character of the Kosovo state be made redundant since Kosovo would become more ethnically homogenous after the border changes? Does this mean Kosovo has the right to join Albania in the future?

All these questions still loom over this obscure final agreement. What is clear, however, is that there is momentum and the Presidents of Kosovo and Serbia are willing to sign a deal. At the Alpbach Forum in September 2018, both presidents indicated that an agreement is in sight. Due to the historical significance of Kosovo for Serbs, it remains a contentious issue in Serbia. Its previous governments have long advocated the partition of Kosovo and a land swap as the final resolution of the Albanian-Serb conflict. They have done so while Kosovo was an international protectorate and before Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008. However, partition options have not only been opposed by Kosovo Albanians, but also by its more vocal international allies: the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. Leaving partition completely off of the negotiation table and the public debate, only to come back as a final solution a decade after Kosovo’s independence was unexpected. Why would the international community suddenly see partition as a viable option for ending the conflict?

President Trump’s election opened up an opportunity for the Serbian government to lobby again for the idea of border change as a resolution to the conflict. It was first John Bolton, the U.S. National Security Advisor, who declared that the US will not oppose Serbia-Kosovo border changes in late August 2018. For Serbia, the Trump administration opened up the possibility to get North Kosovo back. For Kosovo’s president Thaçi, this opened a possibility for recognition from Serbia, or at least a de facto recognition which provides Kosovo a UN seat and a clear perspective to join NATO and the EU in the future. This  perspective is now practically nonexistent because of several non-recognizing countries such as Russia, China, Spain, Greece etc.

On the other hand, an exchange of territories would cause large-scale migration of Serbs from south Kosovo and Albanians from North Kosovo and the parts of the Presevo Valley left in Serbia. Given the huge opposition to the agreement in both countries, it could have the potential to destabilize governments and ignite ethnic conflict. Furthermore, it will have regional implications for separatist movements in Bosnia and possibly Macedonia.

Such a difficult agreement between Kosovo and Serbia would have to be in accordance with the sponsors of Kosovo’s independence and the UN Security Council members, two of which--Russia and China-- are currently against Kosovo’s independence. These two countries would need to support any agreement reached by Kosovo and Serbia.

The Trump administration is interested in a foreign policy win before the 2020 elections. Especially after losing the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, President Trump will have to be more active in foreign policy and to the U.S. administration before lasting peace between Serbia and Kosovo through a legally binding agreement seems doable. President Trump sent letters to both the Presidents of Serbia and Kosovo calling for a compromise and inviting both presidents to the White House to sign the historic accords. Among the EU members, many would endorse such a deal. However, the UK and Germany vehemently oppose it. Just last month in Davos, Chancellor Merkel reiterated her stance against partition to Vučić.

Domestically, polls in both countries indicate that only one-third of the population would support such a deal. In terms of passing the deal in the parliament, Vučić--having won the majority in the last elections and being one of the most popular presidents in post-war Serbia-- might be the only person in Serbia who can sign such a deal, despite opposition from other parties, civil society and the Orthodox church. In contrast, President Thaçi of Kosovo is much weaker. The two biggest opposition parties in Kosovo, LDK and VV, even question his legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of Kosovo, so it is unthinkable that they would support any agreement he reaches with Serbia. Furthermore, Thaçi’s own coalition partner, Prime Minister Haradinaj, has strongly opposed any deal that changes Kosovo’s borders. He insists that any border change will cause a war. So, in the current political landscape in Kosovo, it will be a mammoth task for Thaçi to get two-thirds of parliament to ratify the agreement.

When the idea of border corrections surfaced again in July 2018, some saw a window of opportunity for a compromise that would resolve the Kosovo conflict. However, since then, Serbia has continued with an aggressive campaign for derecognition of Kosovo and has blocked Kosovo’s membership to INTERPOL. Kosovo, on the other hand, initiated the formation of an Army and imposed a 100 percent tax on Serbian goods coming to Kosovo.

These kind of political maneuvers, coupled with the strong opposition within Kosovo and the opposition from Germany, will make signing this deal an arduous undertaking. Implementing it may be even more insurmountable. Reaching a long-lasting peace agreement between the two countries requires broader coalitions at home but also abroad, and not just two presidents providing their signatures in the oval office.

Image: Kosovo Is/Isn’t Serbia

Courtesy of Franco Pecchio / Flickr


Mehdi Sejdiu is a researcher based in Kosovo and Germany. He studies political science at the University of Heidelberg.

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