Serb Leader Floats a Kosovo Partition, Triggering Alarm

(Bloomberg) -- Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he prefers partitioning Kosovo along ethnic lines, a proposal that risks reopening the wounds created across the Balkans in Europe’s bloodiest conflicts of World War II.

Vucic and his allies have floated the idea of Belgrade taking control of areas in Kosovo with majority ethnic-Serb populations as they try to normalize ties on the path toward European Union membership. Kosovo, an ethnic-Albanian majority state of about 1.7 million people, declared independence in 2008, a decade after a war with Serb forces that ended with a 1999 NATO bombing campaign. It has rejected the idea.

"I favor Kosovo partitioning -- that’s my policy," Vucic was quoted as saying on regional N1 television Thursday. "To have a territory that no one knows how to treat or what belongs to whom is always a source of potential conflict."

While some western diplomats have explored the partition proposal, experts have warned that redrawing borders in the Balkans would pose a risk to stability in a region still struggling to come to terms with the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia. It is also stoking tension between global superpowers as Russia accuses NATO and the EU of pushing into its former sphere of influence.

As many as 120,000 Serbs live in Kosovo, which is considered to be their ethnic heartland and home to scores of historically important cultural monuments including chapels and monasteries of the Serbian Orthodox Church. As many as 70,000 ethnic-Albanians live in Serbia.

‘Dangerous Message’

Left out of the expansion of the EU and NATO into eastern Europe last decade, most of the region has languished far behind their ex-communist peers in terms of economic development and improved living standards. That has triggered the exodus of young people seeking better jobs and hindered the mending of ethnic ties among many of those who stay.

EU officials have made clear that Serbia can’t join the world’s largest trading bloc, which it hopes to do next decade, without coming to an agreement with Kosovo. That poses a problem for the country of 7 million which, backed by Russia and China, has vowed to never recognize its neighbor. Kosovo President Hashim Thaci has called for EU-mediated talks to conclude with recognition that would allow Kosovo to join the United Nations.

Any partitioning could have serious implications from Macedonia to Bosnia Herzegovina, countries that have experienced persistent unrest among their ethnically mixed populations in the decades that followed the wars of the 1990s. The president of Bosnia Herzegovina’s ethnic-Serb part, Milorad Dodik, has declared he would seek independence from his Bosnian-Muslim and Croat partners if Kosovo receives recognition and a seat at the United Nations.

Thirty-five non-governmental organizations condemned the partitioning proposal in a letter to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, writing on Aug. 7 that it sent a "very dangerous message."

"There’s a realistic possibility of making the dangerous principle of ethnic ownership of territories legitimate -- the principle that has pushed this region into bloody conflicts on several occasions," they wrote. It "would certainly produce a chain reaction in other Balkan countries and lead to numerous demands for the change of borders in the Balkans, leaving the door wide open for new conflicts."

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