Europe’s volatile flank finds itself focus of global attention

If history is anything to go by, Europe’s most volatile region is headed into another precarious period, and the repercussions could again be felt around the world.

Serbia and Kosovo are seeking to mend ties after years of failed efforts and animosity stemming from the Yugoslav wars and their ultimate split a decade ago as the Kosovars declared independence. A key component of a proposed deal involves swapping chunks of territory to allow people of the same ethnicity to live together.

Yet as Serb President Aleksandar Vucic and his Kosovar counterpart, Hashim Thaci, prepare for talks in Brussels on Friday, the very notion of the land deal is causing diplomatic tremors from Moscow to Washington, Berlin and Beijing. Where some claim to see an opportunity for permanent peace, others regard the proposal of swapping territory as an unacceptable risk to take in the Balkan region, where Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II raged on and off throughout the 1990s.

The proposal, which is seen to be gaining ground, has also sent shock waves throughout former Yugoslavia. While some countries in the region have progressed and joined the European Union and NATO, Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia remain in vulnerable limbo as world powers jostle for influence and nationalist forces advance across the continent.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is alert to any hint of stoking instability on Europe’s southeastern flank, has rejected redrawing borders. The foreign ministry in Berlin believes it would set a damaging precedent for other fragile regions divided along ethnic lines, including Bosnia and the Republic of Macedonia, which Merkel is due to visit on Saturday.

Michael Roth, Germany’s minister for Europe, said this week “such a move would open a Pandora’s box of ethnic recriminations.”

Russia, a traditional ally of Serbia, thinks differently. President Vladimir Putin’s ambassador to Belgrade said Moscow would support any decision Serbia finds appropriate. The U.S., instrumental in establishing peace in the Balkans in the late 1990s, wants to see a deal that’s durable, but not destabilizing, a State Department official said. National Security Adviser John Bolton signaled in August he wasn’t opposed to a land swap.

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