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Ashdown: Kosovo-Serbia Border Changes Would Please Bosnian Serbs, Putin

Paddy Ashdown, former EU high representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina

Former EU envoy to Bosnia-Herzegovina Paddy Ashdown says a proposed land swap between Serbia and Kosovo is dangerous and could lead to other border revisions that would inflame ethnic tensions and be used by the Kremlin to justify Russian aggression against Ukraine.

The warning comes amid indications that leaders in Belgrade and Pristina are willing to consider a territory swap to resolve mutual grievances over swaths with local ethnic Serb and Kosovar majorities, and with U.S. officials signaling that they won't stand in the way if Serbia and Kosovo reach a "mutually satisfactory settlement."

Ashdown, who was the EU's high representative in Sarajevo from 2002-06, told RFE/RL on August 30 he was warning Western leaders and Balkan politicians that redrawing borders along ethnic lines is taking a path "fraught with danger" and could unravel fragile Balkan agreements.

One day earlier, Ashdown and fellow former EU high representatives Carl Bildt and Christian Schwarz-Schilling issued an open letter urging EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini not to support a land swap.

The August 29 letter says that "moving borders like this will not solve divisions, it will deepen them...and be misused by nationalist politicians to further challenge borders and destabilize other countries in the region."

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic floated a plan in early August whereby Serbia would take control of predominantly ethnic Serb areas in northern Kosovo in exchange for the majority ethnic Albanian Presevo Valley in southern Serbia.

Kosovar President Hashim Thaci pledged on August 14 that he would unveil a plan "to correct the border" when he meets with Vucic in Brussels in September.

Belgrade has officially refused to acknowledge Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, which has been recognized by at least 115 countries.

Both Serbia and Kosovo are bidding to join the European Union, but Brussels has made a "normalization of relations" a precondition for membership.

Ashdown told RFE/RL that any agreement between Vucic and Thaci to redraw their common border would lead to "a series of events that will lead to other adjustments or claims for other adjustments of borders."

He added that he thought it would also prompt a "migration of minorities" from territories "that have been passed on to the [new] government that they don't necessarily agree with" and "damage and destabilize some states, including Bosnia."

If you want to go around creating mono-ethnic pockets in the Balkans, then you really have to redraw a lot of borders, and eventually [you] end up with ethnically pure states."
-- Paddy Ashdown

Ashdown was alluding to the situation in Republika Srpska -- one of the entities that composes Bosnia -- whose president, Milorad Dodik, has hinted at his region breaking away from Bosnia.

A Kosovo-Serbia land swap could also encourage others in the Balkans to seek revised borders.

"I have no doubt that if Presevo, let's say, is going to be handed back to Kosovo.... then the Albanians in [the Macedonian cities of] Tetovo and Gostivar would say, 'We should be handed over to [Kosovo] as well,'" he said.

"Are you going to redraw the Macedonian borders to combine the Albanian population in western Macedonia with Kosovo as well? Are you going to redraw the Hungarian-Serbian borders to cope with the area with the [ethnic Hungarian] Vojvodina? Are you going to let [the ethnically Muslim] Sandzjak [region split between Serbia and Montenegro to move] into Bosnia as well? If you want to go around creating mono-ethnic pockets in the Balkans, then you really have to redraw a lot of borders, and eventually [you] end up with ethnically pure states."

Ashdown said such a move would also affect territorial and ethnic disputes far beyond the Balkans.

"The one person who would be rubbing his hands with approval if this were to happen is [Russian] President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, because this is exactly what he would like to see happen in the Ukraine: solve the Ukrainian problem by handing over a chunk of the Ukraine to Russia," he said. "And here's a precedent established that [would help] him do that."

Ashdown noted that Russia had so far been silent on the possibility of the Kosovo-Serbia land swap.

"[The Russians] know perfectly well if they intervened to say they are in favor, it would not help it happen," he said. "But they'd be delighted if it did happen."

Written by Pete Baumgartner based on an interview by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Biljana Jovicevic