By Barbara Surk, April 29, 2019

PRISTINA, Kosovo — Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Emmanuel Macron of France met the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia in Berlin on Monday, reaching toward a large prize: a path to a peace settlement between the two Balkan nations, almost 20 years after a war between them came to an end.

But if they are to have any hope of easing tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, and breaking a deadlock in talks on the normalization of relations, then analysts say they may first have to broker another peace, between Kosovo’s two leaders.

President Hashim Thaci of Kosovo and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, suggested at a meeting in Austria in August that a final settlement could include an exchange of territory and border changes.

Mr. Thaci believes that “such an agreement would result in Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo.” That would unlock a lot of potential gains: Though Kosovo formally declared independence in 2008, after NATO wrested it from Serbia’s control in a 1999 air campaign, Serbia has so far blocked it from joining the United Nations and other international bodies, and scores of other countries still decline to recognize it. A settlement might also remove a barrier to Serbia one day becoming a member of the European Union.

But Kosovo’s prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, is adamantly opposed to any territorial concessions. He has described the idea as “a shortcut to tragedy.” And his stand has proved a potent weapon in his long rivalry with Mr. Thaci.

The proposals are profoundly unpopular both with Serbs — most of whom continue to consider Kosovo a part of Serbia, one that holds a foundational place in its national story — and with Kosovars, who regard what is under discussion as a partition of their young country along ethnic lines.

In Kosovo, Mr. Thaci’s popularity has plummeted. He is denounced in graffiti across the capital, Pristina, as linked to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

“Kosovo is not Crimea,” read one phrase in English.

Mr. Haradinaj has capitalized on resentment of what is sometimes seen as the president’s warm relationship with Serbia by moving in a direction that many say strengthens Kosovo’s statehood. In December, the Parliament overwhelmingly approved legislation to form an army, prompting criticism from NATO, which has been keeping a tense peace in the area.

A few days later, Mr. Haradinaj’s government imposed 100 percent tariffs on Serbian exports to Kosovo in retaliation for Belgrade’s sabotage of the accession of Kosovo to international institutions such as Interpol and Unesco. Both decisions were among the most popular by any government in Pristina in a decade of independence.

In an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Thaci dismissed a suggestion of a power struggle with Mr. Haradinaj, the prime minister. He said the two men had been “comrades” in the independence struggle, and “now we are friends.”

But they do have differences, he acknowledged.

“I am an optimist. I believe that we can achieve an agreement that will bring recognition of Kosovo by Serbia, while the prime minister is more of a skeptic on this matter,” Mr. Thaci said.

Mr. Haradinaj was blunt.

“Experimenting with borders is unconstitutional,” he said in a separate interview with The Times. “It has nothing to do with personality or power. It has everything to do with the fate of our nation.”

He added, “Whoever is advocating it on behalf of Kosovo, is wrong. It’s not on behalf of Kosovo, but on behalf of one man only — the president.”

“If any piece of paper says that he had agreed to change the borders he will leave his job,” Mr. Haradinaj said.

Lulzim Peci, formerly Kosovo’s ambassador to Sweden and now a director of the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development in Pristina, said people had had enough of bickering.

“These two leaders are leaders of the past,” Mr. Peci said. “Their animosities are toxic for the future of Kosovo that should be a multiethnic and a civic state with human rights for all.”

Their meeting in Berlin was a “burial ground for ethnic partitions and land swap ideas that are not part of the future in this region,” Mr. Peci added.

A land swap deal would involve a significant shift in position for Ms. Merkel, who has previously declared that borders in the western Balkans are not up for negotiation. German diplomats warn that redrawing boundaries in a region still reeling from war would court disaster.

But there are other believers in the border-change idea, according to Western diplomats. Austria and Hungary appear to be on board.