Talk of partitioning Kosovo has heightened tensions in the region and provoked public alarm, with Serbian bishops calling on believers to pray for the “salvation of Kosovo”.
The reaction follows statements by Serbian and Kosovar leaders that splitting Kosovo, or a swapping of territories, may be on the cards.
Kosovo, with a 90 percent Albanian population, declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The US has since advocated its independence, but Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo as well as its ally Russia.
Since then, the relationship between the countries has remained tense and they have struggled to reach an agreement in EU-brokered “normalisation” negotiations, which began seven years ago.
Many warn that partitioning Kosovo could provoke more ethnic conflict in the surrounding region, and could cause a ripple effect in nearby Bosnia and Herzegovina – paving the way for Bosnia’s Serb entity Republika Srpska (RS), comprising 49 percent of Bosnian territory, to secede.
While talk of partition and secession are not necessarily new, recent meetings between Serb officials – from both Serbia and Republika Srpska – and members of US President Donald Trump‘s administration as well as his former campaign aides have raised eyebrows.
While on a visit to Washington, DC, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic told Reuters on July 31 that he had discussed partitioning Kosovo with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
“The model of partition or delimitation is a proposal that I have pointed at as a solution … now all cards are on the table,” Dacic said following the meeting.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has also proposed a territorial swap along ethnic lines, while Kosovo President Hashim Thaci has said he is against partition but open to discussing a “correction” of borders.
Under the US and European-mediated Dayton peace agreement signed in December 1995, Bosnia was split into two entities – the “Federation” for Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, and “Republika Srpska” (RS) for Bosnian Serbs, ending the nearly four-year war.
Milorad Dodik, president of RS and leader of the separatist Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) party, once described as the “darling” of the international community, has been under US sanctions since January 2017, partly for his calls for secession and defiance of the constitutional court.
In January Bosnian online magazine Zurnal broke the news that a Russian-backed militia was organising a paramilitary unit to back Dodik’s separatist aspirations.
Dodik, who claims that Bosnia is not a real state, has for more than a decade been openly calling for RS to break away, saying that the “final frame” would ideally include RS uniting with Serbia.
Immediately following talk of Kosovo’s partition, Dodik announced that if Kosovo becomes a member of the UN, RS would follow suit.
“In this aspect, resolving relations between Belgrade and Pristina on a permanent basis should also mean solving the question of Republika Srpska’s status,” Dodik said. “After all permanent borders haven’t even been set here.”
Jasmin Mujanovic, a political scientist who focuses on southeastern Europe, told Al Jazeera that a move towards secession by the RS authorities “will immediately trigger conflict, a conflict that by its very nature will draw in each of Bosnia’s neighbours.
“That’s precisely why the US has historically backed Bosnia’s statehood, because a sovereign, democratic, and territorially integrated Bosnia and Herzegovina is the foundation for stability throughout the entire Western Balkans.”
Serb politicians such as Dacic and Dodik have talked of partition and secession for years, but analysts say this time around the advocates of these political projects have finally found a right-wing audience and may now take advantage of the opportunity to revive the “Greater Serbia” project.
There is public concern over a lack of reaction by US and EU officials concerning Kosovo.
On Tuesday, 37 NGOs from Kosovo and Serbia – including some from Serb-majority northern Kosovo – sent a letter to Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, calling her to condemn the proposed ethnic division of Kosovo.
“Such developments would inevitably produce a chain reaction in other Balkan states and lead to numerous requests for changes in borders in the Balkans, which opens the door to new conflicts,” the letter read.
Daniel Serwer, who served as the US special envoy for the Federation entity and helped to negotiate the Dayton peace accords, explained to Al Jazeera that the US has changed its policy towards the region and no longer objects to such proposals as it normally would.
“This is a change from previous policy, which unequivocally supported Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as defined in its constitution and (not incidentally) drawn in its flag,” Serwer wrote on his website.
“The US and EU working together have a superb track record in the Balkans. Local ownership has a truly terrible track record there, especially when it comes to issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity… Someone in Washington needs to wake up. Havoc impends.”
Dacic isn’t the only politician who has met with important figures in the US.
Also in late July, Zeljka Cvijanovic, prime minister of RS of Dodik’s SNSD party, met members of Trump’s administration, former Trump campaign officials such as Jason Osborne, Mike Rubino, Corey Lewandowski and Steve Bannon, who recently announced plans to set up a foundation in Europe called The Movement aimed to boost right-wing populists.
Osborne and Rubino have recently registered with the US Justice Department to lobby for Dodik’s and Cvijanovic’s SNSD party in elections in October.
Osborne told online magazine Mother Jones that his work for the Bosnian Serbs so far includes setting up meetings for Cvijanovic with officials such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who chairs a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on “Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats” and has stoked ethnic tension in Iran to push for an independent state for the ethnic Azeris.
Serwer, the former US special envoy, agrees that advocates of new ethnic boundaries may have been emboldened since finding an audience with the Trump’s administration and affiliates along with growing right-wing populism.
“[US officials] used to say, ‘there’s no way we’re going to allow this'”, Serwer told Al Jazeera.
“The ethnic nationalists getting a hearing at the Trump administration would never have gotten it in the previous administrations – Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush – none of them would have given these ideas the time of day,” Serwer said.
Eric Gordy, a professor at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European studies, told Al Jazeera that politicians in the region have found a channel that circumvents what had been a consensus shared by the US and EU for years.
“It seems that [they] have taken the lesson that has already been used by many other countries to make use of the fact that the experienced professionals have been sidelined and major moves can be forced by ignorant and unqualified people like Kushner, Bannon, and Trump himself,” Gordy said.
Former political adviser Lewandowski also visited Serbia last April. He spoke at a gathering called “America Today” related to Trump’s campaign, saying that US policy was now more open to building new relations and that Serbia should grab at that chance.
Political scientist Mujanovic said recent meetings are “incredibly disconcerting”, and suggested the US is turning its back on its landmark support for Bosnia’s sovereignty.
“Even the mere hint of a change in US policy towards Bosnia and the region could embolden extremist nationalist elites, eager to revisit certain political projects from the 1990s,” Mujanovic said.
“Chief among these are Dodik, but also large segments of the Vucic administration in Belgrade. So even if outright secession remains unlikely, the conditions for as much are becoming more favorable due to the more broadly chaotic international climate.”
Reuf Bajrovic, Bosnia’s former minister of energy and founder of Bosnia’s Civic Alliance party, says the proposals over Kosovo are designed to generate support among the international community in recognising Kosovo, with the end goal of retrieving a part of Bosnia in return – thus achieving Dodik’s “final frame”.
“The goal is still a Greater Serbia. It’s been that way since 1999 [end of the Kosovo war] and that’s perhaps been the only constant political stance [of Serbia] towards Bosnia and towards Kosovo,” Bajrovic said.
“Partitioning Kosovo is an idea which also has consequences on Bosnia. Creating Greater Serbia is a century-old dream of these kind of politics. In the minds of those who advocate this idea who still dominate political-social relations in Serbia, crossing the Drina river [which marks Serbia’s western border] is the equivalent of retrieving Constantinople.”