Border plan sparks fear in Kosovo’s Serb enclaves

A Kosovo Serb woman walks past a statue in the town of Gracanica near Pristina on December 29, 2018. (AFP / Armend Nimani)
Updated 13 January 2019

Border plan sparks fear in Kosovo’s Serb enclaves

  • A possible land swap between Serbia and Kosovo has sparked concerns that the border could be redrawn along ethnic lines
  • Critics warn that such a move could reignite festering communal ethnic animosities

GRACANICA, Kosovo: A possible land swap between Serbia and Kosovo, suggested by their leaders to end one of Europe’s most volatile territorial disputes, has sparked concerns that the border could be redrawn along ethnic lines and reignite festering communal ethnic animosities.
With few details yet made public, media reports say that the Serb majority northern border region around the city of Mitrovica would be incorporated into Serbia under the plan, which would also see Belgrade hand over a mainly ethnic Albanian region in Serbia.
The trade-off would also see Belgrade finally recognize its former province as an independent state, 20 years after a bitter war between Serbia’s forces and pro-independence ethnic Albanian guerrillas that led to Kosovo breaking away from Serbia in 2008.
Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci, who along with Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic last year raised the possibility of redrawing the border, has insisted a revised version would not be drawn along ethnic lines.
But the plan has sent ripples of alarm through minorities in these regions, notably among ethnic Serbs living in enclaves dispersed in Kosovo who would be unaffected by such a deal.
A territory swap would mean “clear ethnic division so that within decades there will be no Serbs left in Kosovo,” said Stefan Filipovic, a 24-year-old Kosovan Serb activist in Gracanica, one of those enclaves and a short drive south of the capital, Pristina.
There are an estimated 120,000 Serbs living in Kosovo in total. Of those some 40,000 are thought to live around Mitrovica — and are likely set to be part of the land swap — while a further 80,000 live deeper in Kosovo and would remain under Pristina.
Gracanica, home to one of Kosovo’s main Orthodox monasteries, is one of six mainly Serbian municipalities that are like islands surrounded by Kosovo Albanian neighborhoods.
For Rada Trajkovic, an ethnic Serb politician in her 60s living in Gracanica, the border change would amount to creating “two mono-ethnic spaces” and lead to Serbs leaving Kosovan enclaves.
Trajkovic is one of few Kosovar Serbs willing publicly to criticize Srpska Lista, or Serbian List, the minority’s main political outlet. Most of Trajkovic’s fellow Serb colleagues back the Belgrade line of President Vucic.

Hard-line nationalism
Long a taboo subject, a territorial exchange has the backing of the United States as well as several EU officials.
Germany, however, is opposed, warning of the potential for a renewed flare-up of the hard-line nationalism which has marked the still fragile Balkans in the past.
A NATO-led peacekeeping force has guarded Kosovo since it broke away from Serbia in a bloody war in 1998-99 that left more than 13,000 dead.
Border revision “is a very dangerous, particularly dramatic idea,” says Filipovic, who feels “abandoned by Belgrade.”
For Trajkovic, “if they cede the north of Kosovo to Serbia, I don’t see why the (Kosovar) Albanians would show empathy with those (Serbs) living” in the enclaves.
In the nearby village of Laplje Selo, a mainly Serb area home to around 1,000 people encroached upon by the glass and steel residences of Pristina, few people will speak openly of the border topic, still less openly criticize Vucic.
But in the local pub four Serbs sip “rakija” brandy as they debate whether Vucic is abandoning them to “an Albanian prison.”
With barely a hint of irony one explains that “if someone can save us it’s (Ramush) Haradinaj,” the former Kosovo Liberation Army fighter-turned prime minister who Belgrade and the Serbs consider a war criminal.
Haradinaj opposes border revision, warning that it will only lead to “new wars.”

Irrational attack
“I imagine president Vucic won’t leave us to fend for ourselves,” says Jagoda Trajkovic, a 69-year-old pensioner dropping off a grandson at Laplje Selo’s tiny school.
Others are not so confident.
They include Father Sava Jancic, abbot at Visoki Decani, a Serb Orthodox medieval monastery and a UNESCO world heritage site.
Recent years have passed in the vicinity in tranquil enough fashion, save for occasional demonstrations by Kosovar Albanians demanding the monks give up some of their land.
But in 2008, the year Kosovo declared independence, an Albanian fired a missile at the churchyard wall.
“I am personally in possession of very credible information... according to which they are already working on the details of an exchange of land along ethnic lines,” says Father Sava, who during the conflict protected Kosovar Albanians from Serbian forces.
In his view, border alterations “would amount to abandoning 80,000 Serbs, leaving them with a very low and dubious level of security and protection.”
One of the very few to oppose President Vucic in public, Father Sava was last year the target of a Belgrade tabloid press campaign that described him as a “great Albanian patriot” — or, essentially, a traitor.


Macron spearheads pressure on Bolsonaro over Amazon fires

Updated 4 min ago

Macron spearheads pressure on Bolsonaro over Amazon fires

PARIS: France’s Emmanuel Macron led a growing wave of international pressure on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest Friday, telling him Paris would block efforts to seal a major trade deal.
With global leaders gearing up for the G7 summit, which opens Saturday in the western French resort of Biarritz, Macron drew Bolsonaro’s ire by saying the wildfires would be high on the agenda and pledging that delegates would hammer out “concrete measures” to tackle them.
Bolsonaro had earlier blasted Macron for a “colonialist mentality,” prompting the French president hit back, accusing his Brazilian counterpart of lying in pledges to fight global warming.
“Given the attitude of Brazil over the last weeks, the president can only conclude that President Bolsonaro lied to him at the Osaka (G20) summit” in June, a French presidential official said.
As a result, France would oppose a trade deal between the EU and South America’s Mercosur nations, effectively killing any chance of it being ratified, he said.
Moves to prioritize the Amazon wildfires on the G7 agenda won backing from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeting that the fires were “heartbreaking” and offering help to put them out.
But in a sign of EU disagreement, Germany said Macron’s proposal to block the Mercosur deal was “not the right response.”
“Failing to conclude the Mercosur agreement would not contribute to reducing the clearing of the rainforest in Brazil,” a German government spokesman told AFP.
So far this year, there have been 76,720 forest fires in Brazil — the highest number since 2013, official figures show, with more than half in the Amazon rainforest.
“The Amazon rainforest — the lungs which produce 20 percent of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire,” Macron tweeted late on Thursday, suggesting it be high on the summit agenda.
But Bolsonaro blasted the move to make it a G7 item without any participation by Brazil, saying it reflected a “colonialist mentality.”
The leaders of France, the US, Canada, Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan already face a litany of issues in Biarritz, which is on a security lockdown for the summit.
Macron met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif earlier Friday for last-minute talks trying to soothe tensions between Tehran and Washington.
A nuclear deal between Western powers and Iran all but collapsed after Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew US support in May 2018, reimposing economic sanctions on Tehran.
“We’re at a critical moment,” Macron warned on Wednesday, acknowledging that Iran is “laying out a strategy” for exiting the 2015 deal.
“President Macron made some suggestions last week to President (Hassan) Rouhani and we believe they are moving in the right direction, although we are not definitely there yet,” Zarif told AFP in an interview.
He said he had a “good discussion” with the French leader, who would now hold talks with other European leaders to seek a way forward.
Macron’s diplomacy is a delicate task, with France seeking to roll back some of the US measures imposed as part of Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, which insists its nuclear program is peaceful.
French diplomats have raised the idea of US waivers on sanctions affecting Iranian oil exports to India and China, or a new credit line for Tehran that could help the struggling economy.
That prompted Trump to accuse Macron of sending Tehran “mixed signals” in his attempt to broker fresh talks between the longtime adversaries.
But Trump appears to be the outlier among America’s G7 partners on Iran, despite speculation that Johnson, who claims a close personal rapport with the US leader, might be more amenable to endorsing his stance.
On Friday, a British diplomatic source said the UK would continue to back the 2015 nuclear deal, which it helped broker, as the “best way” of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Iran is just one of a host of issues over which G7 members are at loggerheads, upending a formerly cosy club of rich nations.
Trump will arrive in the glitzy beachside resort on Saturday already riled by a new French law increasing taxes on US Internet giants such as Google and Facebook. He is also threatening tariffs on the European automobile sector.
Just before the summit, China fired the latest salvo in its trade war the US, announcing new tariffs on $75 billion of American imports.
But in a sign of the summit’s lowered ambitions, French officials have scrapped the idea of a joint declaration at the end, breaking a longstanding G7 tradition.