The leaders of Kosovo and Serbia will resume EU-brokered talks on how to establish normal relations on Friday, amid conflicting hopes and fears that some sort of land swap could be the key element in a historic deal.
President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia and Kosovar counterpart Hashim Thaci have both suggested that border changes are now on the table in negotiations between Belgrade and the former province that broke from its rule in a 1998-99 war.
Advocates say an agreement will only be reached through bold steps and willingness to give and take, and argue that Serbia needs something – possibly land – in return for recognition of Kosovo’s 2008 independence declaration.
Critics think such ideas could spark the kind of ethnic wars that engulfed Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and are stunned that senior EU and US officials say they would not oppose any land swap that was agreed by Belgrade and Pristina.
While searching for a deal to normalise relations, which would open up the path to eventual EU accession for both states, sceptics fear that meddling with frontiers could ignite nationalist, irredentist ambitions that still smoulder in the Balkans.
These will be the first official talks between the leaders since border changes burst back onto the Balkan agenda, and they precede Mr Vucic’s visit this weekend to northern Kosovo, a Serb-majority area that a land swap could return to Belgrade, with Serbia’s largely Albanian Presevo Valley going to Pristina.
Mr Vucic's grip on politics and media in Serbia has made for relatively subdued debate on the issue there, but it is causing political ferment in Kosovo, with a public dispute between Thaci and prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, rival resolutions on the matter colliding in parliament and street protests planned.
Mr Haradinaj has warned that reopening border questions in the Balkans “would mean war”, and urged world leaders to quash talk of any exchange of territory.
“I’m scared of the consequences of just hearing this rhetoric to the stability and security in our region,” Mr Haradinaj told The Irish Times last week.
“I have expressed my position to the president . . . he is aware of my very clear lines on the subject,” he added.
“I have reached everybody [internationally] at different levels to express my concern . . . I am sure we have no time to lose in stopping this rhetoric and wrong direction.”
Like many observers in Kosovo and internationally, Mr Haradinaj sees EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini as playing a key role in the Kosovo-Serbia talks as host and mediator for the two presidents in Brussels.
“I think for Ms Mogherini it is very wrong that under her patronage this rhetoric and debate is happening,” he said.
“She is not contributing to peace in the region or to any solution, only to a step back, so it makes sense that she asks the leaders of both countries to stop this rhetoric and engage seriously on [finding] a solution,” he added.
Critics say Mr Haradinaj appears to be playing politics, however, after his allies in parliament effectively blocked voting on an opposition resolution to forbid Mr Thaci from discussing border changes with Mr Vucic.
"Constitutionally, Mr Thaci doesn't have the prerogative to lead this process," said Ilir Deda, deputy leader of the opposition Alternativa party.
“We are a parliamentary democracy in which the government has executive power . . . Mr Thaci has hijacked this process with the help of Ms Mogherini. For some reason they think they should be in charge of this process but we have constitutional constraints which prevent them doing that.”
Politicians and analysts say Ms Mogherini and other senior EU figures appear to be pushing for a quick deal before the end of their mandate and European Parliament elections next spring, and that part of the US administration – including national security adviser John Bolton – is on board.
“You do not build a peace process on electoral cycles or domestic problems, but because you want a longstanding peace,” said Mr Deda.
“We should reject these ethnic notions for borders and solutions. They produce more problems in the long-term even if they may look attractive in the short-term.”
Mr Thaci and Mr Vucic insist they only want a fair and sustainable agreement for their people and the region, but many Balkan experts warn that an exchange of territories could trigger uncontrolled population movements and a spiral of unintended – and potentially violent – consequences.
"What surprises me about the West is – do they have any idea how they are going to manage the situation after a possible agreement has been achieved?" said Lulzim Peci, executive director of the Kosovo Institute for Policy Research and Development.
“All this hysteria for changing borders is creating a very insecure situation for both [Kosovar and Serb] communities,” he added.
“I cannot accept that people in Kosovo deserve another tragedy.”