PRISTINA -- Senior government officials in Kosovo and Serbia have indicated a willingness to consider border changes as part of a peace process aimed at ending a dispute over Kosovo’s independence that has hampered both countries' accession to the European Union.
But critics on August 7 warned that the entire Balkan region could be destabilized by the idea of swapping a predominantly ethnic Albanian part of southern Serbia for mostly ethnic Serb populated parts of northern Kosovo.
Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, has suggested that the idea of unifying Serbia’s southernmost Presevo Valley region with Kosovo should be raised during the next round of EU-mediated talks between Pristina and Belgrade, which are expected to take place in Brussels in September.
Ethnic Albanians form an overwhelming majority of the residents in the Presevo Valley, as well as in southern Serbia's nearby regions of Bujanovac and Medvedja.
The area had been part of Kosovo until shortly after World War I. Kosovo was redesignated as an autonomous province of Serbia after WWII and had that autonomy strengthened substantially in 1974.
Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008 has been recognized by more than 100 UN member countries. But Belgrade, backed by Russia, refuses to recognize Kosovo as a state.
'Correction Of Borders'
On August 6, Thaci defended his proposal -- saying he was open to discussing what he called a "correction of borders" in order to normalize relations with Serbia.
But Kosovo’s president rejected the idea of dividing Kosovo’s territory along ethnic lines -- including the predominantly ethnic-Serb region of northern Kosovo.
Separated from the rest of the country by the Ibar River, northern Kosovo is home to about 50,000 ethnic Serbs who oppose Pristina’s rule and still look to the government in Belgrade as their government.
"My proposal for a peaceful solution with Serbia is clear," Thaci said. "No ethnically based divisions, but a correction of border and mutual recognition."
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic on August 7 suggested that Thaci’s proposal could be an opportunity to reach a compromise and resolve Belgrade’s long-running differences with Kosovo.
"It's not a secret that the main obstacle for reaching an agreement is Pristina's commitment to go engage in talks with maximalist goals," Dacic told Radio Television Serbia. "They don’t want a compromise but us to recognize an independence, but also for them to get something else -- what they call eastern Kosovo, Presevo and Bujanovac."
"This opens a window for compromise," Dacic said, adding that he thinks the division of Kosovo on an ethnic basis would be the best solution.
"If there’s dialogue, dialogue should also include a proposal," Dacic said.
Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic said on August 7 that a "solution to Kosovo's problem is necessary, as well as the declaration by Serbs and [ethnic] Albanians on whether we need peace or continued killing for territory."
"It is necessary because we need a long-lasting peace between Serbs and Albanians -- a solution that would create some kind of security for our citizens," Vucic said.
Borders 'Established By War'
But the idea of swapping territory is at odds with the position of Kosovo’s Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj and other public officials in Pristina.
On August 3, Haradinaj told Kosovo television that "no one wants a change of borders except Russian President Vladimir Putin."
"No one dares to change the border, or to try to make a correction of the border," Haradinaj said.
On August 7, Haradinaj reiterated his opposition to bringing the issue of possible border changes to the EU-mediated negotiations, saying "the borders of Kosovo were established by war and only war can move them."
"Whoever believes that the borders can change in a different way, he is wrong," Kosovo’s prime minister said. "These borders have been established after the last war of the Kosovo Liberation Army and NATO intervention."
Haradinaj added that tens of thousands of people were "under the soil because of these borders -- and not just the last generation but the ones who were here earlier."
He also dismissed Thaci's statement about "border corrections," and Belgrade's called for "divisions" of Kosovo's territory as "only mutual rhetoric."
The speaker of Kosovo’s parliament, Kadri Veseli, also insisted on August 6 that Kosovo "has nothing to give and its territorial integrity is inviolable."
"Kosovo will join the UN, NATO, and the EU with its current borders," Veseli said.
In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokesman told RFE/RL that the full normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo was "essential for regional stability."
"Normalization would also open a clear path for both countries towards eventual membership in the European Union," the spokesman said, adding that Washington supports the EU-mediated peace process.
"Now is the time for the parties to be creative and flexible," the spokesman told RFE/RL. "The solution must come from them and be locally owned. The United States is ready to listen and help support the parties in finding a mutually agreed solution."
Nongovernmental organizations and rights groups have expressed alarm at the idea of border changes or territorial swaps as a way to resolve the ongoing dispute between Pristina and Belgrade.
A joint letter sent to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on August 7 by more than two dozen civil society organizations in Serbia and Kosovo warns that "the division of Kosovo or the exchange of territories between Kosovo and Serbia" on the basis of ethnicity risks destabilizing the Balkans.
"More frequent mentions of the possibility of redrawing the borders send a very dangerous message to the citizens of Serbia and Kosovo, as well as to the entire region, that there is a real possibility of legitimizing a dangerous propaganda of ethnic ownership over the territory -- a principle that has pushed the region on several occasions into bloody conflicts," the letter says.
The nongovernmental organizations told Mogherini that such a development would 'inevitably produce a chain reaction in other Balkan states and lead to numerous requests for changes in the borders in the Balkans, which opens the door to new conflicts.'
The letter also said such a move 'would send a dangerous message to all Serbs and Albanians which are living on the 'wrong side' of 'their' ethnic states, which could lead to another exodus of the population in the Balkans.”
"The ethnically clean countries, the outdated 19th-century model, must not be the goals of any policy, nor should they be tolerated and supported by representatives of the international community," the civic organizations warned.