The official visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Serbia, on January 17, has raised high expectations among both the Serbian leadership and the public that Moscow would help Belgrade win its territorial dispute with Kosovo (Balkan Insight, January 17; TASS, January 16). Moscow evidently plans to help its strategic partner by demanding that the ongoing Serbia-Kosovo dialogue be moved from under the umbrella of the European Union to the United Nations Security Council, where Russia has veto power.
Most Serbs consider Russia one of their closest allies, especially after Moscow opposed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) intervention to protect the Kosovo Albanians from mass murder and ethnic expulsions in 1999 and, subsequently, condemned Pristina’s declaration of independence in February 2008. According to an opinion survey by the local newspaper Politika, in March 2018, Vladimir Putin is the highest-ranking foreign leader in Serbia, with public approval of 58 percent (Balkan Insight, January 17). Russia has supported the Serbian government’s efforts to deny Kosovo admission to international organizations, while Serbia in return has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea.
But Belgrade’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence has become an obstacle to Serbia’s accession negotiations with the European Union. The Serbian political establishment has found itself in a difficult spot: it needs to secure EU membership, but that is only possible if it signs an agreement with Pristina recognizing the legitimacy of the Kosovo state. At the same time, the potential agreement also needs to be acceptable to nationalist audiences at home that are adamantly against losing Kosovo. The only possibility Belgrade sees to achieve both goals is the potential partition of Kosovo that would allow Serbia to annex its northern municipalities and thus justify granting some kind of acknowledgement to the Kosovo state before domestic constituencies (Balkaneu.com, August 6, 2018).
However, the unilateral partition of Kosovo is clearly unacceptable to Pristina, which led to Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaçi proposing “corrections of borders” that would reportedly involve a land swap between the two countries: exchanging Serb-populated territories in northern Kosovo for the Albanian-majority Preševo Valley in Serbia (European Western Balkans, August 26, 2018). Thaçi stated, after talks in Geneva in October 2018, that an agreement on a lasting peace between the two countries, including the demarcation of 400 kilometers (250 miles) of border, would open the way to prosperity and closer ties to the EU, as well as full international recognition for Kosovo. He saw a small window of opportunity to make the deal happen (VOA, October 4, 2018).
The proposed deal has invoked mixed reactions from international players and in the Balkans. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, who has been brokering the negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, embraced a potential solution involving land swaps as long as they abide by international law and avoid attempts to create ethnically homogeneous states (The National, August 31, 2018). US President Donald Trump has promised to receive the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo in the White House “to celebrate what would be a historic accord” (Serbian Monitor, December 19, 2018).
But many European politicians and Balkan leaders caution against partition in the region, as it could set a precedent to be used elsewhere. Whether successful or not, partition in pursuit of ethnic homogenization of any state in the Balkans could trigger demands for secession, annexation, or border changes in several potential flash points, including the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) in Bosnia-Herzegovina, western Macedonia, and the Muslim-majority Sandžak region divided between Montenegro and Serbia. Furthermore, such a precedent can be used by Moscow in regions further east, where Russia has annexed territories or supported regional separatism. Judging by its previous attempts to use the secession of Kosovo for its own political purposes (see EDM, December 17, 2014), Russia could exploit another Balkan precedent for its ambitions in Crimea, Georgia, Moldova and elsewhere.
Russia’s official position on a potential land swap between Serbia and Kosovo is that it would support a satisfactory, mutually acceptable decision, if Belgrade and Pristina reach it. Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov added that “any decision should comply with international law, should at least be approved by the United Nations Security Council, and be enforceable” (TASS, January 16). Although this position seems rooted in international law, in practice it introduces a new element: Russia’s desire to transfer the talks and the endorsement of their results from the European Union to the UN Security Council. There is one simple reason for this maneuver: Russia has veto power in the UN Security Council and no vote in the European Union.
Interestingly, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who earlier put his trust in the EU to facilitate the talks with Kosovo, also requested a greater future role for the UN in the continuation of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue during the December meeting of the UN Security Council. The meeting was called by Belgrade following Pristina’s decision to transform the Kosovo Security Forces (KSF) into a full-fledged army, a move that was bitterly criticized by Serbia, Russia and China. Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić said that returning “the Kosovo and Metohija issue” under the auspices of the UN could result in “a mutually acceptable solution that would be guaranteed, along with our strong allies Russia and China, by the US” (B92, December 19, 2018).
Unlike Russia and China, however, the US and the majority of European countries support both Kosovo’s independence as well as its plans to build an army. In addition, despite criticism by Belgrade and Moscow, the Brussels-hosted dialogue on normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina has successfully produced 33 agreements so far.
Not surprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin used his visit to the Serbian capital to criticize Western policy in the Balkans. He berated NATO enlargement as “a vestige of the Cold War” and claimed that it undermines trust and increases tensions in Europe. He attacked the EU for “turning a blind eye” to Kosovo’s decision to create its own army, warning that this could “hardly be in the EU’s interest, especially if Brussels expects to continue acting as a mediator in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina” (Kremlin.ru, January 16, 2019). The latter statement is a clear signal that Moscow will work with Belgrade to try to bring the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations under the auspices of the UN Security Council, where it will make sure to endorse the kind of partition precedent that could best serve Russian interests both in the Balkans and in Europe’s East.