Europe's volatile flank finds itself focus of global attention

Kosovo Force and Kosovo Border Police conduct a joint patrol on the Administrative Boundary Line between Kosovo and Serbia, Nov. 17, 2015, in Rogaqic, Kosovo.


By ANDREA DUDIK, MISHA SAVIC AND STEPAN KRAVCHENKO | Bloomberg | Published: September 6, 2018

If history is anything to go by, Europe's most volatile region is headed into another precarious period, and the repercussions could again be felt around the world.

Serbia and Kosovo are seeking to mend ties after years of failed efforts and animosity stemming from the Yugoslav wars and their ultimate split a decade ago as the Kosovars declared independence. A key component of a proposed deal involves swapping chunks of territory to allow people of the same ethnicity to live together.

Yet as Serb President Aleksandar Vucic and his Kosovar counterpart, Hashim Thaci, prepare for talks in Brussels on Friday, the very notion of the land deal is causing diplomatic tremors from Moscow to Washington, Berlin and Beijing. Where some claim to see an opportunity for permanent peace, others regard the proposal of swapping territory as an unacceptable risk to take in the Balkan region, where Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II raged on and off throughout the 1990s.

The proposal, which is seen to be gaining ground, has also sent shock waves throughout former Yugoslavia. While some countries in the region have progressed and joined the European Union and NATO, Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia remain in vulnerable limbo as world powers jostle for influence and nationalist forces advance across the continent.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is alert to any hint of stoking instability on Europe's southeastern flank, has rejected redrawing borders. The foreign ministry in Berlin believes it would set a damaging precedent for other fragile regions divided along ethnic lines, including Bosnia and the Republic of Macedonia, which Merkel is due to visit on Saturday.

Michael Roth, Germany's minister for Europe, said this week "such a move would open a Pandora's box of ethnic recriminations."

Russia, a traditional ally of Serbia, thinks differently. President Vladimir Putin's ambassador to Belgrade said Moscow would support any decision Serbia finds appropriate. The U.S., instrumental in establishing peace in the Balkans in the late 1990s, wants to see a deal that's durable, but not destabilizing, a State Department official said. National Security Adviser John Bolton signaled in August he wasn't opposed to a land swap.

"Any future development that would include a change of borders would bring an even bigger problem and even bigger suffering," said Tvrtko Jakovina, a contemporary history professor at the University of Zagreb. "The solution would trigger a domino effect, not only in southeastern Europe but it would open endless issues on European borders."

Europe has for centuries been defined by shifting borders, redrawn maps and territorial claims. Yugoslavia, once divided between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, was born out of the rubble of World War I.

Under leader Josip Broz Tito, it held until the 1980s before violently fragmenting as the old eastern bloc revolted against dictatorships. As well as preserving peace, the region is a prominent corridor for refugees arriving in Greece and moving north to other parts of the EU.

Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, has led the charge to pull the Balkans to face west. She regularly hosts Balkan leaders including Vucic and has made several visits to the region. She's due to travel to Skopje in the Republic of Macedonia directly from Marseille, where she will hold talks on Europe's future with French President Emmanuel Macron.

But Serbia, particularly, has gravitated eastward in recent years as the prospect of EU membership dimmed, not least because of the ongoing claim over territory in Kosovo, whose independence is considered illegal by Russia and isn't a member of the United Nations. Vucic, a former minister of the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, has been nurturing close ties with Russia politically and China economically.

Putin will visit Serbia in October or November and is sending executives and government officials to Belgrade for "important meetings that will determine plans for the coming years," Tanjug, the Serbian state news service, reported on Tuesday, citing Russian Ambassador Alexander Chepurin. The Russian embassy in Belgrade confirmed the report.

For its part, China is keen to protect its investments in the Balkans. Its second-biggest copper producer, Zijin Mining Group Co. Ltd., won a bid to acquire a majority of Serbia's biggest mining and smelting company in August, offering to invest almost $1.5 billion over six years. It will come after China's Hesteel Co. bought the Zelezara Smederevo steel mill in 2016.

"China values the stability and prosperity of the Balkans – it's where the First World War began and it's key to the refugee issue," said Wang Yiwei, a professor of international affairs at Renmin University in Beijing and a former Chinese diplomat in Brussels. "China has also invested a lot in the Balkans, especially infrastructure building in Serbia. If there are any problems in Serbia, China would be very concerned about that."

The EU is moderating the talks between Vucic and Thaci, but any agreement is still likely a long way off and would face obstacles. A referendum would be needed to endorse it in each state and even the process of talking has already run into a fierce opposition in Serbia and Kosovo.

There's also concern in neighboring Bosnia, where peace has largely held since the Dayton accords in 1995. The leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Milorad Dodik, is an ally of Vucic and is building support to break away from the rest of Bosnia.

"It's unclear to me why the international community is so insistent on resolving the Kosovo issue as soon as possible, because it is obvious to any regional expert that the domino principle will start working," said Nikita Bondarev, a Balkan expert at the Russian State University for the Humanities.


Bloomberg's Gordana Filipovic, Bill Faries, Justin Sink, Peter Martin, Jasmina Kuzmanovic, Patrick Donahue, Alan Crawford and Dimitrios Pogkas contributed to this report.