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Talk of Ethnic Partition of Kosovo Revives Old Balkan Ghosts

GRACANICA, Kosovo — On highway signs in areas of Kosovo dominated by ethnic Albanians, the Serbian names of towns are ominously blacked out.

Monuments to long-dead soldiers — Serb or ethnic Albanian, depending on where you are — line the roadways, often adorned with fresh flowers. It is rare to see the flag of Kosovo but common to see the colors of Serbia and Albania flying proudly.

All along the roads in this small, bitterly contested land, drivers encounter reminders of how divided, and entangled, Kosovo’s ethnic groups remain, 10 years after the territory declared its independence from Serbia, its neighbor to the north.

Now there is growing talk of making those divisions formal and partitioning Kosovo, essentially along ethnic lines. It is an idea the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia hope will settle lingering animosities 20 years after the two sides fought a war — and will be a step toward both of them joining the European Union.

To the surprise of many, the Trump administration has signaled that it is open to the concept, even though a new Serbia-Kosovo border, drawn along ethnic lines, would concede the failure of decades of American policy to support an ethnically mixed, independent Kosovo.

The mere suggestion of partition, with an accompanying swap of land, has inflamed fears that ethnic tensions would be reignited in a region where a series of wars killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions in the 1990s.

“This idea will turn the Balkans into a powder keg,” warned Father Sava Jancic, a monk at an ancient Serbian Orthodox Church in the heart of Kosovo who has long been an outspoken critic of ethnic division.

On a recent journey through Kosovo, which remains poor and ridden with crime, the sense of resignation that was the prevailing mood in recent years had been replaced with a tense nervousness.

In northern Kosovo, above the Ibar River, several thousand Serbs, supported by aid from Belgrade, are the dominant ethnic group. The area essentially functions as a state separate from the rest of Kosovo — with its own school system, civil servants and cellphone provider.

As far as Serbia is concerned, two decades after losing a war over the land, Kosovo does not exist as a state. Along with a disgruntled Serbia, Russia and even some European Union countries also have yet to recognize Kosovo as an independent nation.

Farther south, between 70 to 100,000 Serbs live among the ethnic Albanian majority in this country of 1.8 million people. Some of the most ancient and revered monasteries of the Serbian Orthodox Church exist as lonely islands in largely Albanian towns.

One of those monasteries is the home of Father Sava, who did not hide his dismay that the idea of partition was being taken seriously by the United States, which led the 1999 NATO intervention on the ethnic Albanian side and played midwife to the birth of an independent Kosovo.

Since the Dayton Accords of 1995 put an end to three years of fighting in Bosnia, it has been a bedrock principle of the West not to redraw borders along ethnic lines in the Balkans.

“This is incredible, what is happening,” Father Sava said. “The values of Europe and the West are not based on ethnicity.”

For more than a year, President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia and President Hashim Thaci of Kosovo have been engaged in talks about a partition and land swaps — with Serbia taking the north of Kosovo in exchange for giving up part of the Presevo Valley, according to people who have been briefed by Mr. Vucic.

Last month, both leaders appeared together at a panel in Austria and made clear that they were considering it.

“Countries of our region, E.U. member states or other countries in the world should not oppose or be afraid of a potential peaceful agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, even if such a deal might include border correction,” Mr. Thaci said.

Germany and other European Union states immediately warned that redrawing borders along ethnic lines would be courting disaster.

While the idea is being discussed at the highest levels between the two sides, no deal seems imminent.

“We are not close to any agreement,” Mr. Vucic told Serbs during a visit to northern Kosovo this month. “We do not have the support of the European Community, so the position of the Serbs south of the Ibar is very difficult.”

But in a major shift of American foreign policy, Serbia does seem to have at least the tacit support of the United States to explore the idea.

“The U.S. policy is that if the two parties can work it out between themselves and reach agreement, we don’t exclude territorial adjustments,” John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, said on a visit to Ukraine last month.

For those who live in the towns and villages that stand to be affected, the notion is unsettling, inevitably raising the specter of population transfers, along with an exchange of land.

On a recent morning in the Serb enclave of Gracanica, on the outskirts of Pristina, the country’s capital, Betim Hoxha, 33, an Albanian, sat at the Centar Caffe with his Serb friend enjoying a coffee.

“There is no need to divide the country,” he said.

At another table, a group of young Serbs said that if the border were changed, it would not take long for all the Serbs to leave their homes south of the Ibar river.

Among those deeply concerned is Father Sava, whose church has stood since the 14th century under the steep cliffs of the Prokletije Mountains, where the population is now mostly Albanian and Muslim.

He has long been an often lonely voice arguing against policies that placed ethnicity at the center of national identity. Now, he said, he can “smell the gunpowder in the air” once again as the idea of readjusting borders gains traction.

Sipping brandy on a recent day, Father Sava flipped through a book of old photographs of the Decani Monastery, taken over the course of the 20th century.

He pointed to the soldiers in the photos — from the occupying Ottoman army at the turn of the century to the Germans and the Italians during World War II — noting that history had clear lessons regarding partitioning countries along ethnic lines.

With Italian troops at the monastery — this time as part of the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force known as KFOR — he acknowledged the failed efforts to normalize relations.

“The core of the problem is you have two autocratic governments in Kosovo and Serbia,” he said.

The view from Belgrade, some 240 miles to the north, is decidedly different.

Since coming to power in 2012, Mr. Vucic has steadily gained almost total control of the institutions of the state.

Even as he has courted Western leaders, seeking to present himself as a statesman who can solve what has until now been an intractable problem, he has stifled dissent at home.

Beyond the buzzing cafes and pulsing night life in Belgrade, there is an atmosphere approaching paranoia.

In upscale restaurants along the Danube River, officials and opposition leaders critical of Mr. Vucic look around to see who is sitting nearby before speaking.

But when Mr. Vucic visited Kosovo this month, ethnic Albanians didn’t hesitate to express their antipathy. When he tried to visit a Serbian village in an ethnic Albanian part of Kosovo, his route was blocked by fiery barricades.

Mr. Vucic has sought to portray the partition of Kosovo as a victory — achieving by peaceful means what Serbs failed to win in war.

But Father Sava is not so convinced.

“KFOR has some 4,000 troops here,” he said of the peacekeeping force. “I hope they have some in reserve.”

Source: NYT > World

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