A general view of town Presevo, Serbia, Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018. In an ethnic Albanian-dominated region in southern Serbia that borders Kosovo and that has been widely assumed a potential bargaining chip in any land-swap deal between Serbia and its breakaway former province. (AP Photo/Zenel Zhinipotoku)

Official says Serbia, Kosovo leaders won't meet in Brussels

September 07, 2018 - 5:25 am

PRESEVO, Serbia (AP) — The presidents of Serbia and Kosovo will not meet each other as planned during talks in Brussels Friday that are taking place after the idea was floated that the former foes could swap territory to end their long-running dispute.

The notion would likely see a part of southern Serbia centered on the ethnic Albanian-dominated city of Presevo transferred to Kosovo, while the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovo, around Mitrovica, would become part of Serbia.

A top Serbian negotiator, Marko Djuric, said in Brussels that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has refused to meet Kosovo's Hashim Thaci because of recent "threats and deceits" from Kosovo.

"There are not minimum conditions to talk to the representatives of Pristina today," Djuric said.

Vucic met with the EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, who is the mediator in the talks that are aimed at finding a solution to the dispute stemming from the 1990s conflict. Mogherini also met Thaci.

EU officials did not immediately confirm that the joint meeting with the two presidents was called off.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is recognized as a nation by more than 100 countries. But Serbia does not recognize it, and neither do five EU countries — Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain.

Serbia and Kosovo have been told that they must sort out their differences if they want to advance toward EU membership, Officials from both nations have suggested a land swap could be a good idea, but there is opposition both inside the countries and internationally.

There are concerns that changes to the borders could trigger similar demands in Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro, also nations formed from the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Germany and some of its EU partners also have voiced fears this could open up old wounds in the Balkans rather than resolve their longstanding differences.

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has signaled it would accept any agreement between the two sides.

Although there are no fixed proposals on the table, the most commonly mentioned ideas always involve the so-called Presevo Valley area of Serbia, to be swapped for Kosovo's Serb-populated north.

Zoran Ostojic, an analyst from Belgrade, said he believed that Vucic and Thaci were "testing the ground, primarily with the international community" by floating the swap idea.

"Who knows where that could end?" Ostojic warned, echoing fears of a chain reaction throughout Balkans.

Vucic, a former hardline nationalist who now says he wants to settle the Kosovo problem so Serbia can move forward, has supported an unspecified "demarcation" with Kosovo.

But many Serbs consider Kosovo the cradle of their history and culture, and Vucic could face stern opposition from nationalists to any proposal that includes giving up claim on any part of the territory.

Liberal Serbs have warned that joining Kosovo's north with Serbia proper would probably prompt an exodus of minority Serbs from the rest of Kosovo.

Kosovo's Thaci has ruled out a straightforward exchange of territories, but has instead suggested a "border correction." That idea has met little support in Pristina. He said Thursday that the two sides should not give up looking for a "sustainable peace."

"We should exploit this momentum to make an end to the war chapter between Kosovo and Serbia," Thaci said.

Reflecting the tensions, Kosovo's parliament has been blocked for days in a dispute over who should conduct the talks with Serbia and how it should be done.

The opposition has sought to strip Thaci of any authority to discuss Kosovo's territory in the talks with Vucic.

The 1998-99 war erupted when Kosovo separatists launched a rebellion to split from Serbia after Belgrade had stripped the region of its self-rule. More than 10,000 people died in the conflict before NATO forced Serbia to pull out of the territory.

EU officials are hoping that the prospects of membership in the bloc will encourage the Balkan nations to leave the past behind, but when it comes to Serbia and Kosovo, there is a long way to go.


Lorne Cook in Brussels; Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia; and LLazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report.

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