The EU-brokered meeting between President of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić which was due on 7 September 2018 did not happen. Both the presidents were at Brussels, Belgium, but they abruptly called off the meeting—they refused to speak to each other moments before their meeting was due to start at the EU’s headquarters leaving Federica Mogherini (EU’s High Representative who brokered the meeting) to meet them separately several times during the day to keep talks alive.
The meeting was supposed to discuss the border land swap between the two countries, which, if it happens, would likely see a part of southern Serbia centered on the ethnic Albanian-dominated city of Presevo (70% unemployment according to official records) transferred to Kosovo, while the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovo, around Mitrovica, would become part of Serbia. Many hoped that the land swap would resolve the conflict between the two countries amid many objections from both inside the two countries and from many parts of Europe especially the volatile Balkan region. Many in the Balkan region fear that the swap, if it materializes, will trigger demands for similar deals in the already volatile region. They claim that it would set a dangerous precedent at a time when ethnic nationalism is already surging in Europe and beyond. In particular, the swap could fuel calls in other parts of the Balkans for borders to be redrawn along ethnic lines. Separatist sentiment among ethnic Serbs in Bosnia, ethnic Albanians in Macedonia or minorities elsewhere could strengthen.
On a two-day visit to the Gazivoda Lake Dam in the Serb-populated parts of northern Kosovo on 8 September (one day after the cancelled meeting), Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said “an agreement resolving his country’s dispute with Kosovo will be difficult to achieve given European opposition to remaking borders in the Balkans region.”
The dam where Vučić visited is also a source of controversy. Part of the artificial Gazivoda Lake—which supplies water to some cities in Kosovo, including parts of Pristina, the Kosovar capital—is located in Serbia, where the source of its water exists. Serbia and Kosovo disagree over who should control the lake, most of which is located in a northern Kosovo region populated mainly by Serbs. The land-swap deal would allow Serbia to keep control over northern parts of Kosovo that are mainly populated by Serbs.
Of Kosovo’s population of almost two million, roughly 90 percent are ethnic Albanian and some 6 percent are estimated to be ethnic Serb. Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but around half of Kosovo’s Serbs—high estimates reach 70,000—live in northern Kosovo, where they make up some 90 percent of the population. Because of its Serb majority, northern Kosovo (about 10 percent of the country’s territory) has been part of the country in name only since independence. Serbia has continued to hold political and economic sway there—Serbian List, the dominant political party representing the Serbs in Kosovo, runs all of Kosovo’s mostly Serb municipalities and holding the 10 seats that are reserved for the Serb minority parliament in Pristina. This leaves Kosovars with a sizable chunk of their country that has no interest in belonging to an independent Kosovo. In an interview with the Balkan Insight news service in October 2017 (a few months before his assassination on 16 January 2018), Oliver Ivanović (a Kosovo-Serb politician and former former State Secretary of Ministry for Kosovo) said that northern Kosovo was not really run by elected officials but from shadowy “informal centres of power.”
The failed meeting puts further doubt into a possible land swap between the two countries that was floated by both Serbia and Kosovo last month.
Zoran Ostojic, an analyst from Belgrade, said he believed that Vučić and Thaçi are “testing the ground, primarily with the international community” by floating the swap idea.
Mogherini is expected to seek another meeting with the two presidents late September though “difficulties exist.”
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