Sasa Dragojlo and Xhorxhina Bami, Belgrade, Pristina, BIRN, June 16, 2020

Years of futile EU-led negotiations have brought the idea of territorial exchanges back to the table as a way of resolving Kosovo’s final status – with an impatient US seemingly pushing the EU on the issue.

Ever since the so-called “Brussels Agreement” – the first document on the principles of normalization of relations between Serbia and its former province – was signed in 2013, the two sides have continued to looked over each other’s shoulders with distrust and unease.

Incidents and provocations over those seven years have shown that both sides are far from ready to compromise on Kosovo’s final status. Meanwhile, out of a combination of desperation and political ambition, the old idea of a territorial exchange has been reborn.

It clearly challenges the principles of multiculturalism determined in the 2007 plan for Kosovo, drawn up by the UN Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari, and also goes against the international community’s opposition to ethnic-based partitions, especially in the still flammable Balkans.

Despite that, in last three years, the idea of a land swap has been shyly pushed both by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his Kosovo counterpart, Hashim Thaci.

They have even come up with a more palatable-sounding euphemism, namely “border correction”, designed to present it as a purely technical question. Both governments have discretely lobbied for a redrawing of borders, as BIRN recently revealed.

Although the idea of land swap was initially dismissed by experts and the international community as an opening of the proverbial Pandora’s Box of unsolved Balkan ethnic and territorial disputes, views have shifted in the past few years.

This has happened in diplomatic circles both in the EU and still more in the US, mainly because of the lack of practical progress in the current EU-led negotiations.

In recent months, disputes between the US and EU on Kosovo have sharpened, inflamed by claims that US President Donald Trump’s special envoy on the Serbia-Kosovo dispute, Richard Grenell, helped topple the last Kosovo government, led by Albin Kurti, mainly because it vociferously opposed a land swap.

The EU, on the other hand, has maintained a more unwavering stance against ethnic border changes. A joint letter from both the French and German ambassadors recently appealed for a renewed dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.

Neither Grenell nor the EU special representative to the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, Slovak Miroslav Lajcak, were willing to comment to BIRN on their stances toward land swaps, or on the cooperation of the EU and US on this matter.

But other experts told BIRN they still believed that redrawing maps on ethnic lines in the Balkans would not solve any of the real problems – and risked re-opening other ethnic and territorial conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere.