August 24, 2018 12:56 GMT

KYIV — White House national-security adviser John Bolton has said that the United States would not oppose a territorial exchange between Kosovo and Serbia to resolve their long-running dispute – provided Pristina and Belgrade work out a „mutually satisfactory settlement“ between themselves.

Bolton made the remarks on August 24 at a press conference in Kyiv where he was asked by RFE/RL what he thought about the idea exchanging territories between Kosovo and Serbia.

„I think there are new signs that both governments very quietly may be willing to negotiate on this,“ Bolton said about a Kosovo-Serbia territorial exchange. „Our policy, the U.S. policy, is that if the two parties can work it out between themselves and reach agreement, we don’t exclude territorial adjustments. It’s really not for us to say.“

„We would not stand in the way, and I don’t think anybody in Europe would stand in the way if the two parties to the dispute reached a mutually satisfactory settlement,“ Bolton said.

“We’re ready from a distance or up close to help out,” Bolton added. “We don’t think we’re going to solve it for them. We think they’ve got to solve it for themselves.”

Earlier in August, senior government officials in Kosovo and Serbia indicated a willingness to consider border changes as part of a peace process aimed at ending a dispute over Kosovo’s independence that has hampered both country’s accession to the European Union.

‘Correction Of Borders’

That willingness became apparent after Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic met with Bolton in Washington in late July and said the United States was, for the first time, „prepared to hear creative solutions to possible problems, including Kosovo.“

Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008 has been recognized by more than 100 UN member countries. But Belgrade, backed by Russia, refuses to recognize Kosovo as a state.

Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci has suggested that the idea of unifying Serbia’s southernmost Presevo Valley region with Kosovo should be raised during the next round of EU-mediated talks between Pristina and Belgrade, which are expected to take place in Brussels in September.

Ethnic Albanians form an overwhelming majority of the residents in the Presevo Valley, as well as in southern Serbia’s nearby regions of Bujanovac and Medvedja.

On August 6, Thaci defended his proposal – saying he was open to discussing what he called a „correction of borders“ in order to normalize relations with Serbia.

But Kosovo’s president rejected the idea of dividing Kosovo’s territory along ethnic lines — including the predominantly ethnic-Serb region of northern Kosovo.

Separated from the rest of the country by the Ibar River, northern Kosovo is home to about 50,000 ethnic Serbs who oppose Pristina’s rule and still look to the government in Belgrade as their government.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic has said Thaci’s proposal could be an opportunity to reach a compromise and resolve Belgrade’s long-running differences with Kosovo.

‘Very Dangerous Message’

The U.S. State Department says the full normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo is „essential for regional stability.“

„Now is the time for the parties to be creative and flexible,“ a State Department spokesman told RFE/RL in early August.

But critics warn that the entire Balkan region could be destabilized by a swap of a predominantly ethnic Albanian part of southern Serbia for mostly ethnic Serb populated parts of northern Kosovo.

A joint letter sent to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on August 7 by more than two dozen civil society organizations in Serbia and Kosovo warns that „the division of Kosovo or the exchange of territories between Kosovo and Serbia“ on the basis of ethnicity risks destabilizing the Balkans.

„More frequent mentions of the possibility of redrawing the borders send a very dangerous message to the citizens of Serbia and Kosovo, as well as to the entire region, that there is a real possibility of legitimizing a dangerous propaganda of ethnic ownership over the territory — a principle that has pushed the region on several occasions into bloody conflicts,“ the letter says.