Last week, a Kosovo-based newspaper published a bombshell report claiming that the U.S. and Russia agreed at the Helsinki summit to a possible partition of Kosovo to solve the ongoing dispute over Kosovo’s independence – an option the U.S. opposed in the past. According to the Gazeta Express, the deal would involve Kosovo giving Serbia territory in return for recognition of its independence – essentially exchanging land for peace. The report also suggested that this would pave the way for Kosovo, which is almost entirely ethnically Albanian, to become a de facto Albanian province. Russia’s Foreign Ministry ridiculed the report last Friday, describing it as “highly dangerous” and “absolute misinformation.” Yet, Serbia’s foreign minister told reporters in Washington after wrapping up two days of meetings with U.S. officials that he found the U.S. amenable to compromise on the Kosovo issue for the first time in 30 years – and that this might form the basis for a reset of U.S.-Serbian relations. All sides seem to be distancing themselves from the story, yet the story isn’t going away.
A Tricky Issue
Partition has been discussed as a possible route to separation since Kosovo’s first attempt at declaring independence in 1991. But the idea never went anywhere; changing borders is a tricky issue in Europe, especially in the Balkans. So tricky in fact that when Yugoslavia collapsed, international institutions choose to stick to Yugoslavia’s existing borders rather than drawing new ones for the newly independent states. Before its collapse, Yugoslavia was made up of six socialist republics: Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Kosovo was an autonomous province within Serbia. (So too was Vojvodina – one of the reasons Serbia is so opposed to Kosovo’s independence is the precedence it might set for Vojvodina, even if it is majority Serb.) As an autonomous province, Kosovo could theoretically declare independence without changing its borders. That is one of the reasons that Kosovo has sought independence instead of annexation by Albania – the latter would engender too much opposition throughout Europe.
The problem with this approach is that it does not account for the fact that there are pockets of ethnic minorities spread across state lines throughout the region. Partition is an attractive option, therefore, because it would allow both sides to maintain control over areas dominated by their ethnic groups. Around 120,000 ethnic Serbs still live in Kosovo, concentrated just across the Serbian border in the north, while a significant ethnic-Albanian population lives in Serbia. It would make sense, therefore, for Serbia to take over ethnic Serb-majority areas in Kosovo and for Kosovo to take over ethnic Albanian-majority areas in Serbia. The problem is that doing so would open Pandora’s box. If Kosovo and Serbia start redrawing borders, there is nothing to stop Albania from wanting to redraw its borders with Macedonia, which has a large ethnic-Albanian minority, or Croatia from wanting to redraw its borders with Bosnia, which has a substantial ethnic-Croat population.
For this reason, partition has been a non-starter until now, not just for Balkan countries but also for the United Nations, the European Union and the United States, which together have overseen the development of the region into what it is today. If they agree to change one border, then others might have to be changed as well. The European Union, in particular, is wary of partition because of the dangerous precedent it might set in other parts of the bloc (Catalonia being the most prominent but far from the only example). Instead, these institutions have pushed for a settlement that leaves the current borders as they are – dangling accession to the EU and potentially NATO as an incentive. In fact, Serbia started negotiations for EU membership in 2014 – but the bloc won’t let it join while the Kosovo issue remains unresolved.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
While there has been some progress in Serbia-Kosovo negotiations in recent years, it has generally come slowly. At a meeting just last month, the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo seemed further apart than ever. Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, said last week that talks were reaching their toughest stage and that the chances of coming to an agreement were “minimal.” The whispers about partition have grown louder just as negotiations seemed to have come to a dead end, which suggests that not only is partition on the table, but at least some parties involved see it as a way to get past the current impasse.
For now, however, only Serbia has publicly expressed a favorable stance toward the option. Its president suggested just last week that partition along ethnic lines might be a solution. Kosovo’s president, meanwhile, has been the most publicly unambiguous about his objection to the idea, stating that “there will be no division,” though local media continue to report that Kosovo will push for redrawing borders. As for the U.S. and Russia, they haven’t taken firm positions. Kosovo media outlets have repeatedly claimed that, in a July 21 interview with Kosovo’s KTV, the U.S. ambassador to Kosovo supported the idea of partition. He has rejected that interpretation of his comments, but he hasn’t ruled out partition as an option if Kosovo wanted to take that route. Russia likewise hasn’t eliminated the possibility completely – though it has denied agreeing to such a deal at Helsinki. The Russian Foreign Ministry simply said that a settlement would have to be decided between Belgrade and Pristina and that both sides must fulfill whatever agreements they reach within the EU-mediated negotiation process.
Lurking behind all of this is U.S. and EU relations with Russia. Regardless of whether U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Kosovo in Helsinki, the Balkans is one of the areas where Russia and the West don’t see eye to eye. Russia’s main interest here, however, isn’t to maintain the territorial inviolability of Serbia but rather to maintain its close relationship with Serbia. If Serbia determines that recognizing Kosovo’s independence, with or without partition, is in its interest, Russia will likely go along with that decision. It does not want to risk losing its relationship with Serbia the way the Soviet Union lost Yugoslavia by being too heavy-handed. The problem for Russia is that a Serbia-Kosovo deal could bring Serbia closer to the West, but that may be unavoidable now. For Serbia, being courted by both sides is an ideal situation and may be worth compromising on the Kosovo issue.
There is, of course, a long way to go in this process, and in the words of the Russian Foreign Ministry, much can change “in such a complicated region as the Balkans.” Even so, the interests of the parties involved seem to be converging. Serbia sees an opportunity to play the U.S. and Russia off of each other. Kosovo sees a chance for recognition at long last. The U.S. and EU think they may be able to bring more Balkan countries into the fold. And Russia has little interest in obstructing if Belgrade wants to move forward. Russia still holds significant power over Serbia and may try to use that influence to extract concessions from the West on issues related to Ukraine or sanctions, but it is unlikely that it will torpedo a deal if it emerges.
Changing borders in this part of the world is playing with fire, but putting out one of the biggest border disputes on the European continent might be worth the risk. If it goes wrong, though, everyone involved might wish they had left the fire alone. In the meantime, Kosovo’s president appears to have been correct: The next phase of dialogue will be extremely difficult.