by Louis Sell

I arrived in the Kosovo capital of Pristina on the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the 1999 NATO bombing that drove out Milosevic’s genocidal Serbian forces. Fighting through traffic jams of late model vehicles we passed rows of brightly lit shopping emporiums and smart new high-rise apartments where, on my first visit to Kosovo over thirty years ago, the landscape featured sleepy villages and horse-drawn vehicles. In the center of Pristina, we passed the “NEWBORN” sculpture where happy crowds calling themselves “the Young Europeans” celebrated Kosovo’s 2008 independence.

Later, at a film showing to mark the anniversary, when I asked whether viewers were happy with what had been achieved in the past two decades, the replies were almost universally negative. Kosovars of all ages, classes, and political beliefs have lost confidence in their leaders, viewing them as corrupt and failing to advance either the domestic well-being or international standing of the new state. The overwhelming majority of politically active Kosovo Albanians remain committed to a democratic vision of their country’s future, anchored by eventual membership in the EU and NATO. But many are losing faith in the EU’s institutional structure, which they view as having reneged on a promised to provide them visa-free entry and failing to provide a clear path toward membership. Kosovars retain a strong faith in the US, which they correctly see as primarily responsible for their liberation from Serbian oppression and as their only reliable ally in an increasingly dangerous Balkan environment.

A Hard Present and an Uncertain Future

Kosovo remains a poor country. According to some measures, average per capita GDP is only 3,500 Euros. Unemployment hovers around 30% and youth unemployment is near 60% — this in a state where the average age is 26.

Corruption is widespread. A recent UN study found that 11 % of the population reported paying regular bribes to officials in public administration and 28% reported having to pay or give a gift in order to get a job. Government contracts are widely believed to be awarded on the basis of political connections and the building boom that has swept Pristina and some other cities is generally considered to be fueled by money from corrupt leaders or from questionable sources abroad.

Against this backdrop, people are losing faith in Kosovo’s future. Between 2007 and 2018, Kosovo’s population fell by 15.4% — the largest decline in Europe. Last year over 17,000 young people left for Europe legally, including two thousand students who left Prizren, Kosovo’s second city. Even the middle class seems to be losing hope. A friend who has occupied responsible positions since the war told me that if conditions do not improve, he will leave with his family for Canada. “I don’t want my children to grow up here,” is a refrain heard often.

Kosovo’s international future remains uncertain. Serbia’s patron, Russia, has blocked Kosovo’s admission into the UN and five EU member states failed to recognize Kosovo’s independence. Serbia has continued what amounts to an undeclared state of hostilities against the nascent Kosovo state – restricting the free movement of people and trade across its territory, blocking Kosovo’s membership in many international organizations, and using Interpol to detain Kosovars when they travel abroad.

Viewed by Serbs as the cradle of their medieval civilization, Kosovo occupies a mythical status in the Serbian national psyche and a poisonous place in Serbian politics. A few years ago, then Serbian president Nikolic told me privately that all Serbs understood Kosovo was lost and that no one really wanted its two million Albanian inhabitants back to participate in Serbian political life. But if he acknowledged that fact publicly every Serbian politician would immediately label him a traitor – and he would do the same to any other politician who admitted it.

During negotiations toward Kosovo’s independence the international community pushed the Kosovars into concession after concession in the hope of gaining Serbia’s agreement to the loss of its former autonomous province. But when Belgrade refused to go along Kosovo was nevertheless saddled with the deal, including a constitution that allows the Serb minority, now less than 5 % of the population, the effective ability to block changes. Kosovars support the constitution’s democratic institutions and sweeping protections for human and minority rights but many resent the way it was introduced and question provisions which seem to trample on cherished aspects of their Albanian national identity.

In an effort to break the stalemate a new dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina began in 2011, under EU auspices and with US backing. Its objective was to broker agreements between Belgrade and Pristina in a variety of practical areas, in the hope that these would create a favorable environment for a comprehensive agreement to resolve the underlying political problems between the two countries. The dialogue produced 33 agreements. Some have brought practical benefit to the people of the region but most remain unimplemented.

Territorial Swap Proves Controversial

Over the past year or so, with the dialogue stalled, President Hashim Thaci of Kosovo and Alexander Vucic, his Serbian counterpart, reportedly crafted the framework of a comprehensive agreement, intended to bring an end to the long-running confrontation between their countries.   The draft is said to cover all areas of discord but its centerpiece – and its most controversial aspect – is an exchange of territory whereby some areas in Serbia with heavily Albanian population would go to Kosovo and some Serbian-populated parts of northern Kosovo would go to Serbia.

Senior Kosovo officials say there is no agreed map delineating a swap but the two presidents have discussed specific areas that could be exchanged. Thaci presented three “red lines” which could never be part of a swap – the northern part of the divided city of Mitrovica, the Gazivoda reservoir on which much of Kosovo depends for water, and the Trepca mining complex. Remaining parts of northern Kosovo might apparently go to Serbia. In return, Kosovo would get Albanian villages in three “South Serbian” municipalities bordering on Kosovo but not areas where Serbs are a majority.

The notion of a territorial swap provoked strong – although not unanimous — international criticism. The Trump administration, by contrast, leaned strongly into the deal. Administration figures told the parties that the US has no “red lines” and Trump himself has written two letters to Thaci and Vucic promising US support for a deal that they can agree on together.

In Kosovo, opposition political figures sharply condemned a swap and it provoked a split in the governing coalition, with Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj coming out against any deal giving up an inch of Kosovo land. To give teeth to his position Haradinaj imposed a 100 % tariff on all Serbian goods entering Kosovo.

Haradinaj’s move, aimed as much against Thaci’s initiative as against Belgrade, provoked sharply negative reactions in Europe and the US. After two senior NSC officials visited Pristina the US Embassy issued a statement saying that the tariffs “undermine our partnership, and must be suspended.”

The threatening tone of initial US statements and still more the rumors – later debunked — that the US might withdraw its troops, hit the Kosovars hard.   At pains not to be seen breaking with Washington, Haradinaj called himself “a soldier of the US.” But he refused to lift the tariffs and his stance seems to have won broad support among the Kosovo population, even as most continue to profess undying love for America.

Why Not a Swap?

There are many reasons to question a possible territorial swap between Kosovo and Serbia, not the least of which is skepticism whether the two parties could actually agree on what to trade and on whether Serbs in Kosovo would go along. The majority of Kosovo Serbs actually live in the southern part of Kosovo and would not be part of any conceivable territorial swap. The heavily armed NATO detachments which guarded Serbs in these “enclaves” after the 1999 war have long since been withdrawn. Living and economic conditions have improved although the two communities still live largely separate lives. Senior Kosovo figures believe that most Serbs in the enclaves would not flee in reaction to a northern swap. Moreover, should Vucic actually agree to a swap he would have strong incentive to use the levers of control Belgrade possesses among Kosovo Serb communities to discourage flight.

The divided city of Mitrovica would certainly be one of the chief difficulties in any swap. After the 1999 war, Serbs fleeing revenge attacks by returning Albanians in the southern part of the country drove out Albanians who lived in the northern part of then ethnically mixed Mitrovica. NATO forces established an informal boundary along the Ibar River flowing through the city center. Twenty years later, the main bridge across the Ibar remains closed to vehicular traffic and the two communities live almost completely apart. There are, nevertheless, small signs of change. Albanians are moving back into some areas in the north and there are places where the two peoples seem to live peacefully along opposite sides of the same street. Serbs in northern Mitrovica walk across the central bridge to use the Kosovo court system and there is a vibrant mixed shopping center at another spot along the border.

A recent survey of Serbs living in the four Belgrade-controlled northern municipalities of Kosovo concluded that “Serbs in the north now more than earlier compare their status with the status of Serbs south of the Ibar and see the necessity of studying the experience of Serbs who have already completed the process of integration into Kosovo institutions.” Fifty-six per cent of respondents supported the participation of Serbs in Kosovo institutions but 83% thought that agreements reached so far “did not advance the freedom and rights of Serbs in Kosovo.” The survey also found that the institution that Serbs in the north trusted most was the quasi-underground “Civil Defense” force by which Belgrade exercised its control in Serb areas and that 40% of Serbian youth did not see themselves remaining in Kosovo in the future.

A key part of the swap is said to be a provision that would unite the entire city of Mitrovica in some type of joint status with international guarantees. With sufficient encouragement by the two presidents and international financial support this might work but it would be a stretch. I have visited Mitrovica many times and have never found any Serb there willing to admit a readiness to live exclusively under Kosovo jurisdiction as a Kosovo citizen. When I asked a small sample recently about a swap which left them on the “wrong” side of the divide, the reaction was generally disbelief followed by some version of “fight or flight.”

At present it is hard to find Kosovo Albanians, other than die-hard Thaci backers, who openly support the swap. Political opponents are unwilling to see any deal which would strengthen the president and what many regard as his deeply corrupt regime. There is also, of course, patriotic opposition to giving up any Kosovo soil, a sentiment Haradinaj has tapped into. Many Albanians also argue that an ethnically based swap would contradict the principles which have underlain the international approach to Kosovo since 1999 and fear that it could thereby begin to tilt internal political dynamics away from Kosovo’s hitherto firmly democratic and pro-Western orientation. I will always remember watching a young Kosovo political activist practically dissolve into tears a few years ago when it appeared that an earlier version of a territorial swap might gain international support.

Doing Nothing is not an Option

Kosovo does not seem to be on the verge of violence, as it has been on other occasions in its recent history, but impatience is growing.   It is possible to hear people mutter that what is needed is a Middle Eastern style “Kosovo Spring” of popular protests to replace the existing regime. Albin Kurti, the leader of Kosovo’s most prominent alternative party, with a proven ability to bring supporters into the streets, recently told me that is not what he advocates but he has also said publicly that “In Kosovo, as well as in neighboring countries, a spring of political change can be expected.” Kurti’s party has also sought to register a center in Albania to promote his left-wing national-populist campaign to unify Albanians in one country as an element, he says, of integration into Euro-Atlantic structures.

Darker alternatives exist beneath the surface. In the heyday of the “Caliphate” Kosovo sent more fighters to ISIS on a per capita basis than other, larger states. With the defeat of ISIS, fears of Islamic radicalism have subsided but the underlying push-pull of poverty and well-funded efforts to spread a radical version of Islam remain worrisome. Turkey under Erdogan also continues to exert influence. In 2018 Kosovars were shocked when Turkish intelligence operatives, with the apparent knowledge of Kosovo counterparts, covertly allowed a number of Turkish citizens in Kosovo to be secretly spirited out of the country to stand trial in Turkey.

The notion of a territorial swap as a supposed way to cut the Kosovo Gordian knot has appeared on previous occasions in the two decades since the end of the war but it has always been stopped by a combination of international pressure and suspicion between Belgrade and Pristina. Whether that will happen again remains to be seen but those who oppose a deal acceptable to the two countries have an obligation come up with an alternative.

One obvious solution would be arrangements to allow Serbs broad autonomy to live and govern themselves within Kosovo. In 2013 the EU brokered the outline of a so-called “Association” granting broad rights to Serbs in Kosovo but key elements of it were later declared unconstitutional by Kosovo courts. The Association remains problematic among Kosovo Albanians, who see it as a veiled effort to create a separate Serb entity as a way station to unilateral separation – one reason why Thaci reportedly rejected the Association in his talks with Vucic.

Not a direct participant in the dialogue, Russia will be a factor in any final settlement by virtue of the veto it can exercise over Kosovo joining the UN through its position as one of the UNSC Perm Five. On the margins of a recent multilateral meeting in Paris, Thaci asked Putin if he would support a Kosovo deal that was acceptable to Serbia and if, in that case, he would drop his opposition to Kosovo joining the UN, reportedly receiving positive answers to both. Nevertheless, speculation is rife that Moscow might seek compensation for allowing Kosovo to join the UN, possibly in Ukraine or another of the “frozen conflicts” in the former USSR. Senior Kosovo figures say that the US has undertaken to deal with Russia on this aspect of the puzzle.

What Comes Next?

Haradinaj’s tariff gambit has stopped the swap, at least for the moment, but what comes next is unclear. Thaci continues to profess optimism, saying that an agreement is possible this year and that, “We have to sit down even with our arch enemies, but without any preconditions.” The US continues to call for lifting the tariffs, although in more moderate tones, and to urge a resumption of moves toward a deal, while at the same time warning that its patience is not limitless.

At the end of April German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron summoned the leaders of Kosovo, Serbia, and other Balkan countries to a meeting in Berlin. Its apparent purpose was to block a swap by establishing a new European channel to broker a different deal. According to press accounts, one possible arrangement on offer — some form of “joint sovereignty” for Serb areas — was rejected even before the meeting began. By the time it ended, the meeting – which reportedly featured a heated discussion between Macron and Haradinaj – had accomplished little more than highlight “divisions not just between Kosovo and Serbia, but also between Paris and Berlin and between the EU’s member countries and its foreign policy apparatus in Brussels.”

After the meeting Thaci, who met with the outspoken US ambassador in Berlin on the margins of the talks, told the media that EU weakness and disunity meant the US must have a “leading role” in the process. As is so often the case in the Balkans there are no easy solutions and there may well be no good solutions either. With the Trump administration, against the expectations of many, seemingly playing a responsible role in Kosovo, a return to constructive US activism, at least in this small Balkan country, is possible. But this cannot be at the expense of an equally active and responsible role for Europe.End.


Louis Sell

After a career in the Foreign Service, primarily in Soviet and Yugoslav affairs, Louis Sell served in 2000 as Kosovo Director of the International Crisis Group. In 2003 he was one of the founders of the American University in Kosovo and served as its Executive Director until 2007. He has a B. A. from Franklin and Marshall College (1969) and an M. A. from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Mr. Sell’s second book, From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR, was published by Duke University Press in August, 2016. His political biography of Slobodan Milosevic, Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, was published in 2002. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Maine at Farmington. He lives in a 200-year-old farm house in Whitefield, Maine, where he is a member of the volunteer fire department.

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