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Kosovo, Serbia Mull Territorial Swap to End Dispute

From left, President Hashim Thaci, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speak prior to the family photo during an EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia, May 17, 2018.
From left, President Hashim Thaci, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speak prior to the family photo during an EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia, May 17, 2018.

A decade-long dispute between Kosovo and Serbia is compelling both countries to consider a territorial swap along ethnic lines — a move that has long been opposed by both Brussels and Washington. But the leaders of both Balkan countries say redrawing the borders could help them resolve their differences and advance in their quest for European integration.

Experts have mixed opinions over whether such a deal is workable or even desirable.

Ten years after Kosovo declared independence, there has been little to no progress between the two countries in settling their disputes. Kosovo considers itself a sovereign nation, though Serbia refuses to recognize it as such. Both countries want to join the European Union, but Brussels will not allow it until disagreements over Kosovo's sovereignty are settled.

WATCH: Trade of territory by Kosovo, Serbia brings concerns

Land Swap Talks Between Kosovo and Serbia: Possible Solution or Pandora's Box?
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Now, Kosovo's President Hashi Thaci and Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic have suggested a deal to trade territory or change borders that could spark a breakthrough. Some experts caution, however, such a move could create myriad problems.

"It would create instability, it would be dangerous. It could spark violence in Kosovo as well as in Serbia," said David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

The proposed exchange would involve Serbia getting part of northern Kosovo, an area with a mostly Serb population, and Kosovo getting Serbia's Presevo Valley, inhabited by a majority of ethnic Albanians. It also would mean the change would be along ethnic lines — anathema in Western thinking.

"The principle of pluralism and democracy is something that is a cornerstone of U.S. policy. It's also a cornerstone of Europe's approach to countries that aspire to membership," Phillips said.

But David Kanin, adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former CIA senior analyst, notes that Europe has a history of changing borders and population movements.

"That has not stopped. Every change in Yugoslavia since the old Yugoslavia collapsed has been about changing borders, moving people around, some supported by the West, some opposed," he said.

Diplomatic gap?

In the past, both Brussels and Washington have shot down the idea of redrawing borders along ethnic lines, but this time it appears they are not in agreement.

The European Union has not openly commented on this issue. The office of the EU's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, has not responded to VOA questions about this issue.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected any changes to the borders, saying, "The territorial integrity of the states of the Western Balkans has been established and is inviolable."

The U.S. position has been more ambiguous. In a statement to VOA's Albanian Service, the State Department said the solution should come from the parties themselves. It also said the parties should show flexibility, but stopped short of rejecting the idea of a border change.

"If Kosovo and Serbia were able to agree on a settlement that would allow for permanent peace that would allow for mutual recognition, I think that would help settle politics in Serbia in some ways. It would give Kosovo a way forward," said Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

Phillips, a former State Department senior adviser, suggested a lack of clarity does not signal a new policy.

"The U.S. government does not have a coherent policy toward Kosovo. It doesn't pay any attention to the Western Balkans. I don't think we should read too much into these vague and ambiguous statements. Right now U.S. policy remains as it always has been. It recognizes Kosovo within its current frontiers. That hasn't changed."

Benefits, ramifications

Even if the idea is officially included in the EU-mediated Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, many questions remain, including whether Serbia should recognize Kosovo first and what that would portend.

"The discussion right now around partition, as noisy as it is, is dealing with the secondary issue of who gets what territory," said Kanin. "The question of Kosovo's sovereignty is the central issue and that will remain open as long as it is not recognized by Serbia and by the five outstanding EU members. And I see no sign that this is going to change."

EU members Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania and Greece still have not recognized Kosovo's independence.

"Here it is a disservice to everybody in the Balkans, first of all the Kosovars, that their state is not recognized by Serbia, that they are not recognized by all members of the European Union and therefore they're blocked in some of their relationships with the EU," said Volker.

Experts and former diplomats warned that rethinking borders in the Balkans would pose a risk to stability in the region.

"If the EU isn't prepared to mediate a deal that allows Serbia to recognize Kosovo within its current frontiers, then Albanians will start thinking of unification of Albanian territories and creating an Albanian state that encompasses lands where all Albanians live," Phillips predicted.

That concern is amplified, given the sizable Albanian minority in Macedonia, a country dealing with its own agreement about a name change with Greece. And Serbs in Bosnia already have said if Kosovo gets a U.N. seat, they will request the same.

The latest debate suggests there are no clear-cut prescriptions for a region attempting to shed the vexing legacy of the 1990s conflicts.