Making up is hard to do — and even more so in the Balkans. Kosovo Albanians on Sunday disrupted a planned two-day visit by Serbia’s president to the former Serb province by blocking roads and burning tires.
Aleksandar Vučić, a one-time ultranationalist, had planned to detail on the trip a proposal for a future land swap with Kosovo, part of a bid to mend relations between the two Balkan foes, which would improve Serbia’s chances of joining the European Union. But he and his entourage were stopped by local police and prevented from visiting a Serb village for security reasons.
The derailed trip is adding to alarm in Western capitals about a plan he and his Kosovo counterpart, Hashim Thaçi, broached in August at a forum in Austria, where they said they’re considering border changes in order to pull off a historic peace settlement. They called on the EU to provide crucial support for their efforts.
EU leaders have long opposed any border changes, fearing demands will destabilize the region, reigniting nationalist tensions and sparking ethnic violence. The area surrounding the village Vučić planned to visit Sunday, Banje, west of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, was the scene of the first crackdown by Serbian troops against ethnic Albanian separatists in 1998.
A Serb enclave in the Drenica Valley, a stronghold of Albanian nationalism, Banje and a nearby Serb-majority village were attacked in May 1998 by soldiers of the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA. The Drenica Valley saw many armed clashes between the KLA and Serb forces during the 1998–1999 Kosovo War, which was brought to an end by a U.S.-led NATO intervention that forced Serb forces to retreat.
In a Facebook posting, Thaçi said the agitation in Drenica was understandable, saying it “shows that the pain and war injuries are still fresh.” He added that as he and Vučić inch along in their efforts toward reconciliation, such protests “don’t help us.” Normalizing bilateral ties is a key condition for both countries to move toward their eventual goal of EU membership. Kosovo also wants U.N. membership but is blocked by Russia, a traditional Serbian ally, which doesn't recognize the country's 2008 declaration of independence.
According to Vučić, his entourage could hear gunfire coming from the direction of the roadblocks on Sunday. “I don’t like guns, but we won’t allow anyone to harass Serbs in Kosovo,” he said.
Addressing Serbs in Banje by phone, Vučić apologized for not meeting them in person and blamed Kosovo authorities, saying, “I couldn't come because the authorities in Pristina didn't want me to.” The Serb president also criticized NATO peacekeepers based in Kosovo for not preventing the blockade by hundreds of Kosovo Albanians, including 200 KLA veterans. Some protesters brandished placards with messages declaring, “Vučić does not pass” and, “Those who committed genocide against innocent civilians cannot pass.”
Serbian media also reported gunfire in the area but could not independently verify the claims.
The majority of Kosovo's Serbs live in the northern part of the former Serb province bordering Serbia. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. And more than 100 countries have since recognized Kosovo as a sovereign state. Serbia, however, refuses to accept Kosovo independence, and Vučić, who is seen widely as a ‘chameleon nationalist,’ has been fiercely denounced by Serbian ultranationalists, for even contemplating a plan that could lead to Belgrade eventually recognizing Kosovo’s independence.
Thaçi and Vučić were on opposite sides of the 1998-1999 war that ended Serb control of Kosovo. Thaçi was the political leader of the KLA, and Vučić served as Serbia’s information minister during the war. Under one possible variation of their plan, Serb-majority northern Kosovo would revert to and be allocated to Serbia with the mainly ethnic Albanian Presevo Valley of Serbia joining of Kosovo. They were due to meet face-to-face Friday, but Thaçi abruptly canceled the meeting.
Speaking in an interview with VOA, Serbia’s main opposition leader, Vojislav Šešelj, who was found guilty by an international court of crimes against humanity for his role in instigating the deportation and flight of Croats from the village Hrtkovci in May 1992, denounced the land-swap plan.
“What are we talking about? Kosovo is just a part of Serbia and is being occupied,” he said. Šešelj served as a deputy prime minister for two years under Serbia’s wartime leader, Slobodan Milošević.
He said Serbs and ethnic Albanians should be separated into their own enclaves in Kosovo, with the entire province coming under Serbian sovereignty. “History has proven that when Albanians and Serbs live together, things go very bad. In that case, we are talking about violence and rape and people being beaten up. When you divide them, things go better,” he said.
Šešelj, who founded and leads the Serbian Radical Party, added, "Our proposal is for a population exchange so there aren’t mixed areas. The Albanian enclaves could then self-administer,” but within Serbia.
Opposition to changing borders or swapping land is not only coming from Serbian and ethnic Albanians but from liberals and rights activists in Balkan countries, who, like some EU leaders, notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, fear any tinkering could trigger demands for similar deals in the highly volatile region, stirring passions for ultranationalists to exploit.
Last week, notable intellectuals, academics and rights organizations from the Balkans signed an open letter calling for the rejection of proposals to resolve the Kosovo-Serbia dispute through a “border correction.”
“We implore the EU, its member states, and the United States to reconsider — including through their legislative bodies — their position on such a return to ethnification of polities and frontiers,” the letter read.
Among the worried signatories is Nobel Peace Prize nominee and rights activist Nataša Kandić. “It is not a good idea,” she told VOA in the offices of the Humanitarian Law Center in Serbia's capital, Belgrade. “The whole war in the former Yugoslavia was focused on territory and to continue the issue of territory is not a good idea.“ She warns that border changes based on ethnic homogeneity would “inflame violent nationalist passions.”
Award-winning Serb theater director Đorđe Makarević said that most young people in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina feel completely disconnected from the Balkan wars of the 1990s, adding that for them, it is ancient history. But he warns that could change. Sitting on a sun-dappled terrace outside a cafe in the old town of Belgrade Sunday, he said, “nationalism could bubble up, if someone pushes ethnic differences — and the proposed land-swap deal risks igniting a flare-up.”