Critics claim potential border settlement on ethnic lines sets dangerous Balkan precedent

It could be a deal to bring lasting settlement, prosperity and European integration to the Balkans – or it could plunge the region into renewed conflict.

The Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, is preparing to visit Kosovo next month, amid mounting evidence that Belgrade and Pristina are floating the idea of reaching a deal to divide the disputed territory and institute a land swap along ethnic lines.

Vučić and his Kosovan counterpart, Hashim Thaçi, are also set to resume EU-mediated talks in Brussels that are intended to bring a lasting settlement between Belgrade and Pristina, and open up EU membership for both in the longer term.

But there are growing concerns over a pact to partition Kosovo. Critics say it would open a “Pandora’s box” in the Balkans, with ethnically divided Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia potential flash points. Even in Albania, which borders Kosovo, a division is viewed by many with trepidation, and the prime minister, Edi Rama, has been accused of uncharacteristic silence.

Vučić will use his 9 September visit to Kosovo to lay out “guidelines and directions of state policy towards Kosovo”. Earlier this month, he said he favoured partitioning Kosovo along ethnic lines, which is expected to mean the Serb-dominated north being integrated into Serbia. Thaçi has been accused of hedging his bets by using ambiguous language.

“[An agreement] has to be a final and historic one in order to end the disputes between Kosovo and Serbia once and for all,” said Bekim Çollaku, the Kosovo president’s chief of staff. “Both sides, including the international community, are thinking hard, even outside the box, carefully in a creative manner, trying to find a solution acceptable for both sides. Kosovo’s objectives are clear: no partition along ethnic lines, but yes to peaceful border adjustment and mutual recognition.”

Reports suggest Serbia’s strategically important Preševo Valley, which was the scene of an ethnic-Albanian insurgency in 1999-2001, could be handed to Kosovo in exchange. The vast majority of Kosovans are ethnic Albanian.

Kosovo fought a bloody war of independence from Serbia in 1998-99, and declared independence in 2008, but Belgrade continues to regard it as a renegade province. Russia has blocked Kosovo’s UN membership and five EU member states do not recognise the country.

A Serbian government source said the international mood towards potential partition of Kosovo was shifting, despite the opposition of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Ivica Dačić, the Serbian foreign minister, met Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner in July and discussed partition.

“They are talking; different options are on the table,” said a Serbian government source. “The American position is changing from totally against partition to willingness to discuss this option. France is also quite positive about it. Germany is not.”

A Kosovo government source confirmed that “some in the international community have grown more and more open to the idea [of partition]”.

Both sides acknowledge that reaching a final deal remains a serious challenge. But neither will be drawn on concrete proposals. Belgrade is not revealing negotiation tactics.

“We will have lot of problems domestically,” said the Serbian source. “No one is ready to think about a solution, from the [Serbian Orthodox] church to the opposition.”

Critics argue that a redrawing of borders along ethnic lines would set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the Balkans, after the bloody ethnic wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.

“The sinister plan of the ethnic-territorial partition in Kosovo will bring us back to the horror of the 1990s,” said Father Sava Janjić, an abbot at the Serbian Orthodox monastery of Visoki Dečani in Kosovo. “The idea of ethnically clean territories will become a model which will create ripple effects throughout Europe and strengthen radical ideologies. The international community must make a strong stand.”

Çollaku insists that a mutually acceptable solution “will not destabilise the region and cannot have any domino effect”. But any territorial settlement will be watched closely in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the autonomous Serb-dominated Republika Srpska regularly threatens to secede, and in Macedonia, where about a quarter of the population is ethnic Albanian, concentrated in the west and north of the country.

“Partition of Kosovo could open a Balkan Pandora’s box of seeking solutions based on the ethnic principle,” said a long-serving Bosnian foreign ministry official. “It’s the perfect formula for a new disaster in the western Balkans. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s fragile statehood could evaporate before our eyes, spreading a new spiral of nationalism. It could encourage Albanian extremists to seek the same solution in Macedonia.”

Despite the distant prospect of EU membership for most of the region’s countries, Nikola Dimitrov, the Macedonian foreign minister, said “the only sustainable vision for a stable Balkans is one where borders don’t matter – a region of friendly countries which are members of the EU”.

Any partition would also be unpopular in Kosovo, where Thaçi’s power is waning. The president was political leader of the wartime Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), but is increasingly unpopular and faces a potential threat from a newly established court set up to try alleged crimes committed by KLA members, including leaders of the current political elite.

“The driving force for the new dialogue seems to be Vučić’s intention to get closer to the EU and deeper within Kosovo, and Thaçi’s desire to keep himself away from the specialist court and prolong his power,” said Albin Kurti, the leader of the Kosovo opposition Vetëvendosje party.