Land-swap fears unite many of Kosovo’s Serbs and Albanians

Broad multi-ethnic opposition in Kosovo to talk of border changes with Serbia

From the little balcony of her flat in Gracanica, Rada Trajkovic can look out over Kosovan fields where Serbs have lived for more than 700 years.

The Serbian Orthodox monastery in the town was built in 1321, and at least 7,000 Serbs still live in Gracanica today, having chosen to stay in Kosovo a decade after its 90 per cent ethnic Albanian majority declared independence from Belgrade.

Now Trajkovic, a doctor, former deputy and strident political voice in Kosovo since its 1998-1999 war, fears that her people’s days here may be numbered.

The presidents of Kosovo and Serbia have suggested changing their countries' borders to help them finally establish normal relations, which they must do to have any hope of joining the European Union.

Such a deal could return mostly Serb inhabited northern Kosovo to Belgrade’s rule, but it would leave their ethnic kin in Gracanica and other “enclaves” – where the majority of Kosovo’s 100,000 Serbs live – left feeling isolated deep inside a country where many would see no prospect for the future.

“Serbs would definitely go from here,” says Trajkovic, who starts to cry as she recounts a recent conversation with an elderly Serb neighbour.

"He was watching [Serbian foreign minister] Ivica Dacic talking on television about Kosovo, and he told his three grandchildren: 'Look, you see what he's saying. We will have to leave.'

“There’s a terrible panic among Serbs here now. They don’t understand what’s happening.”

Land swaps

Many people in Kosovo and abroad are astonished to see that the possibility of Balkan border changes and land swaps – which the West has categorically ruled out since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s – is now back on the negotiating table.

Last week, US national security adviser John Bolton and EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said Washington and Brussels would not object to such a pact between Serbia and Kosovo if it did not destabilise the region.

Advocates of the idea, led by President Hashim Thaci of Kosovo and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic, say a bold and brave new approach is needed to clinch a historic deal and secure Belgrade's acceptance of a sovereign Kosovo.

Opponents – who appear to form a strong majority in Kosovo – warn that altering borders in the Balkans could ignite a host of territorial and ethnic disputes, and swiftly shred the best-laid geopolitical strategies drawn up by western capitals.

They think uncontrolled population movements would be inevitable – with Serbs in places such as Gracanica setting out for Serbia – and nationalists across the region would see a green light to pursue their irredentist claims, putting Bosnia in particular danger from secessionist Serb leader Milorad Dodik.

"It would mean war," Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj told The Irish Times this week, putting himself in direct opposition to Mr Thaci.

“If we reopen what has already been agreed, it means reopening the past, and in our region reopening the past means reopening wars. All these borders are the result of tragic wars.”

Mr Thaci wants a “border correction” to bring Serbia’s largely Albanian populated Presevo valley into Kosovo, while top Belgrade officials have long called for areas of northern Kosovo adjoining Serbia to come back under their control.

The result, supporters argue, would allow each side to declare at least partial victory on a hugely sensitive issue, and to start building normal relations built on compromise, mutual recognition and agreed frontiers.

"Friends call me a traitor for supporting this deal," says Marko Jaksic, a Serb councillor and prominent political blogger in Mitrovica, an ethnically divided city in northern Kosovo.

"There are lots of opponents of this idea, but none of them have an alternative solution," he adds over coffee on the Serb side of the Ibar river, where Russian flags and posters of Vladimir Putin are a common sight.

“What we have now is the worst possible solution – it can’t be worse than this,” he says, playing down fears of an exodus from the southern enclaves.

“Serbs are dying in silence here now . . . In this Kosovo, all the Serbs will be gone in 20 years.”

Jaksic (34) is a vehement critic of Vucic, but he sees this potential deal as the only way for Serbia and Kosovo Serbs to gain something from tortuous EU-brokered talks with Pristina and unblock both countries' path to eventual EU membership.

After the 1998-1999 war, Belgrade retained influence in Kosovo by forming “parallel structures” in the north and funding public services and welfare in mostly Serb areas.

Under a Brussels-backed integration process for Kosovo, however, Serbia has gradually scaled back involvement in its former province, leaving many Serbs feeling abandoned despite the “no surrender” rhetoric of Vucic and his allies.

If Serbia were finally to recognise Kosovo’s independence and reclaim the north, then Serbs in scattered enclaves further south may quit the country rather than accept a future shaped solely by an ethnic Albanian government in Pristina, which many already accuse of discrimination and neglecting their interests.

Thaci insists his still-vague proposal would not cause chaos or create a mono-ethnic Kosovo, but it is rejected by a remarkably wide range of critics, from ex-rebel commander Haradinaj to Kosovar liberals to Serbian Orthodox priests.

Church critic

The most prominent church critic is Sava Janjic, the abbot of Decani, another 700-year-old monastery which, like Gracanica, is a Unesco world heritage site and a testament to Serbs' deep historical and spiritual connection to Kosovo.

He has been attacked and insulted, like Trajkovic and other opponents of partition, by Belgrade media that are loyal to Vucic, who 20 years ago served as a minister of information for warmongering Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

“Everything keeps repeating in the Balkans,” Janjic tweeted recently.

“Perhaps because we are being led by those who share the same destructive ideas and urges to build happiness [for] some on the misfortune of others. We must say NO, no to partitions, no to ‘ethnic-clean entities’.”

On this, Janjic is in agreement with Kosovars such as Ilir Deda, the deputy leader of the liberal Alternativa party.

“We have a wide multi-ethnic front against the redrawing of borders, and we have two presidents who want to find a solution based on what Milosevic was trying to do,” Deda said in Pristina.

“If we reopen borders here it is not going to stop between Kosovo and Serbia and it is not going to stop in the western Balkans.”

Deda predicts that a large majority of deputies will back a parliamentary resolution next week rejecting any change to Kosovo’s borders, before Thaci meets Vucic in Brussels next Friday and the Serbian leader visits Kosovo two days later.

In what could be an important month for Kosovo and the region, Vucic will then meet Putin in Russia on September 15th, Moscow's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov will visit Bosnia the following day, and on September 18th world leaders will start gathering in New York for the UN General Assembly.

On both sides of Kosovo’s ethnic divide, people again have the uncomfortable feeling that their future will be decided behind closed doors in foreign capitals.

In Gracanica, Trajkovic is ready to rally opposition to partition of Kosovo.

“I can’t believe they’re even talking about it . . . It’s as if they don’t realise there are real people here who want to stay,” she says.

“But we will win,” she declares, suddenly brightening up.

“I don’t think this project will happen. I believe in God. And I also hope some responsible people in the EU will put an end to this madness.”

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