Daniel Serwer. Photo: BIRN.

Daniel Serwer: This deal will be a slideback for Kosovo

In an exclusive interview for Jeta ne Kosove, Balkan affairs analyst and former advisor of current president Hashim Thaci, Daniel Serwer, comments on the current border corrections debate.

The Kosovo-Serbia border correction scenario is a dangerous plan resulting in a step backwards for Kosovo in its statehood ambitions, said Daniel Serwer during his interview with BIRN’s Jeta Xharra on Wednesday for TV program Jeta ne Kosove.

Serwer said that Kosovo should accept no price in return for territorial swaps, even the promise of a UN seat, and most definitely not before Serbia recognizes Kosovo as a sovereign state.

In his interview, Serwer also comments the shift of the American position on the issue of Kosovo with the Trump administration in power, and explains that in the end, the only beneficiary of this land swap idea will be Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Read the full transcript of the interview below.

Jeta Xharra: Mr. Serwer, you have been following Kosovo for the last twenty years, also you are considered a big friend of Kosovo, you have worked for our government, so what do you think of the latest ideas being discussed between Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic that have to do with territorial swaps, border correction, exchange of territories. What do you think of them?

Daniel Serwer: I think these are bad ideas whose time should not come. I also think it’s not really about territory, it’s really about people that are being swapped or people who are thought to be on the wrong side of the line. I don’t know any line that should be drawn that tells people they’re on the wrong side. People in Kosovo should be treated as citizens of Kosovo, and they have the right to be protected no matter who they are.

Xharra: But the argument of Hashim Thaci is that Serbia does not accept Kosovo as it is, we’ve got to give something away. This is basically, behind the scenes, what his advisors have been telling people. This is his motivation, why he wants to give up the north. What do you say to this?

Serwer: I think it’s a bad deal. It’s a bad deal because it will undermine Kosovo’s statehood and it’s a bad deal because Vucic is going to have to recognize Kosovo before Serbia can accede to the EU. And that day is not so far off. He wants to qualify for 2023. Even if he doesn’t succeed at that, he will want to qualify by 2025. At that point, all the leverage will be on the side of the EU and the EU will have to demand recognition of Kosovo.

Xharra: So I’ll be more direct immediately in asking you, why do you think this idea is coming from a Kosovo leader? Why has the president of Kosovo started mentioning this as an option? What in his right mind could he be thinking?

Serwer: You should ask him. But my interpretation of what’s going on is this: Aleksandar Vucic has been talking about this for years. Before him Djindjic wanted to press this idea as well. What happened recently was that these ideas got a little bit of traction in Washington, and they got a little bit of traction within LDK inside Kosovo, particularly my friend Lutfi Haziri, who was talking about wanting Presevo.

Xharra: But he is not the head of LDK or the head of parliamentary group. He is just a mayor.

Serwer: No. He is just a mayor, but he’s an opposition politician and I think if you are the president of Kosovo and you see the Serbs outflanking you in Washington, and maybe the opposition starting to outflank you inside Kosovo, you want to respond to them and you will respond to them in a way that helps you. I think the proposal to take part of Presevo in exchange for the north in Kosovo was a political maneuver intended to solve some problems both domestically and internationally.

Xharra: Just before interviewing you, I interviewed an analyst in Belgrade that is close to Aleksandar Vucic’s circles, and he told us that giving up Presevo valley would be two to one Kosovo-Serbia. He said that it has never even been imagined that Vucic would give up Presevo, but here in Kosovo, that is something that Hashim Thaci is telling the Kosovo audience. But there, in Belgrade, it is unimaginable that Vucic would swap any territory of Serbia and especially since a very strategic highway goes through the middle of Presevo, so do you really think that Vucic in any scenario would give up Presevo valley?

Serwer: Again you’ll have to ask him, but I don’t think there is a deal to be had here. I think Vucic has the problem of the road, and Presevo valley has the way out to the sea that the Serbian army has always wanted to protect. I think Hashim Thaci has the issue of the Albanians in the northern Kosovo and Pristina’s major water source, as I understand this Gazivoda, so I don’t think this is a good deal here. But more importantly, I think the discussion of this is destabilizing both for the region and beyond. So I think it is very unwise for leaders to engage in this discussion, especially publicly. I know that they discussed it privately many times, but public discussion seems to me to be very unanalyzed, and to risk creating effects on the ground would be extremely damaging to Kosovo and to Serbia.

Xharra: What concrete effects would this have for Republika Srpska, Albanians of Macedonia, minorities in Moldova, the situation in Georgia, would this have consequences in reality?

Serwer: I do believe it would have consequences. I think the consequences first and foremost would be inside Serbia and Kosovo, because if the north goes to Serbia the fate of the majority of Serbs in Kosovo who live in the south of the Iber river is going to become highly uncertain, even if nobody touches anything. Their future becomes questionable.

Xharra: Why do you think that?

Serwer: I think that because the exchange of territory would be an ethnically-based one and their presence in Kosovo south of Iber river would be inconsistent with the ethnic principal. And father Sava [Janjic] has been very clear about this, he understands that giving up the north will endanger the Serbs south of the Iber but it also endangers any Albanians who happen to be in Presevo. It also raises questions about Bosnians who live in Sandzak. It even raises questions about the Republic of Srpska and about Albanians in Macedonia. Now let me be clear, this issue is not a legal one. Vucic and Thaci, so far as they are concerned, can discuss what they want. They’re two sovereigns. But the question that I ask is whether this is wise even to begin to discuss because of the repercussions,the non-legal repercussions inside Kosovo and inside Serbia in Macedonia, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, not even to begin to mention countries further away from the Balkans which will be destabilized by this. The one thing missing in this conversation is Vladimir Putin.

Xharra: What about Putin?

Serwer: He would gain, because partition of Kosovo will strengthen his argument for partition of Georgia, via independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and partition of Ukraine,via annexation of Crimea. More generally, he gains whenever ethnic nationalism prevails over liberal democracy. Swapping territory and people certainly strengthens his ethnic principle.

Xharra: We’ve seen you being very supportive of Hashim Thaci in this dialogue so far, you even worked for him, does this change of the direction of his surprise you at all?

Serwer: It surprises me completely to tell you the truth. I tried to give you my explanation of how I see it both internationally and domestically.  I haven’t discussed it directly with him since he came out in public in favor of the border correction idea. But you know people respect each other and differ on even very important issues and that’s a key lesson here. We didn’t have the chance to talk to each other about this.

Xharra: Can you explain, Mr. Serwer, how come the US position over this issue of borders has changed with this administration?

Serwer: It has changed because this is a new administration, with very little experience in the Balkans. And it’s an ethnic nationalist administration. Dacic came to Washington pushing this idea and [this administration] was willing to listen because it’s about nationalist principles.

Xharra: Sorry to stop you there, but most people think that there was a bipartisan agreement about Kosovo and the US. Bush was clear on Kosovo and he was a republican like Trump. Not only Clinton, but Clinton and Bush were consistent about Kosovo. How come this republican president changes 180 degrees from them?

Serwer: Because this is not a traditional republican administration, it’s a radical administration which likes to upset matters and it includes some people like Bolton, themselves who were opposed to Kosovo’s independence, and NATO bombing. And what better way of negating the Clinton legacy than to advocate and listen the people who want to partition Kosovo.

Xharra: So what does it say also about the fact that previously high US officials did not have meeting with high Serbian officials and recently Kushner, a close Trump adviser, met with Dacic. What does it say about this change of policy?

Serwer: It means that they are willing to listen.  They have not promised to recognize [this deal] and it’s important to recognize that they listen to any Serbian politician.

Xharra: Let’s assume hypothetically for a moment that the Serbia and Kosovo agree. Is this administration, that is willing to listen to the idea of land swap or division of Kosovo, also the same administration who will actually follow through on what needs to be done in this process, guarantee Kosovo entry to the UN, and by this I mean would they convince Russia to accept Kosovo in the UN, since this is an administration that is friendlier with Russia than any previous US administrations. Do you think we can trust it to guide Kosovo through this process and choreograph Kosovo’s entry to the UN? Because this is what Hashim Thaci has been telling the public in Kosovo, in exchange for the north we can get a seat in the UN and recognition of  the independence by Serbia. Can the US guarantee that?

Serwer: I personally don’t believe it, but Hashim Thaci has talked to American officials more than I have. I don’t know what they promised him. I’d be very skeptical, however. One thing you have to understand is the partition of Kosovo from the point of view of the five non-recognizing states in the European Union and from the point of view of China. It is worse than just approval of Kosovo’s entry into the UN without partition. So it’s not only Russia the US has to deliver, it is also China. I’m very skeptical that either can be done.

Xharra: So it’s interesting what you’re saying, that even if Serbia recognizes Kosovo, the five non-recognisers would not automatically accept Kosovo.

Server: I think that’s correct, in fact some of them might think partition would make it more difficult to recognise Kosovo.

Xharra: Do you think this leverage of the US position on Kosovo is also because the EU has been basically very weak in imposing the implementation of agreements that were signed in Brussels for the last seven years?

Serwer: I think there are big problems with implementation, but If you think about the situation seven years ago and the situation today it has manifestly improved. Kosovo is meeting with Serbia on an equal base. There are lots technical achievements, in principle the Kosovo constitution applies to the entire territory of Kosovo, including the north. I think that good progress has been made. I think the right way to handle is to continue in that direction.

Xharra: Precisely because you say the position has improved, should Kosovo act so desperate as to give up territory? Is Kosovo really that desperate and also, is the UN seat really key for a functioning state, I mean is it the most important thing in the world?

Serwer: It’s not the most important thing, I think it would be extraordinarily helpful, it would end a lot of doubts about Kosovo throughout the world.

Xharra: Is giving up territory worth a UN seat?

Serwer: I don’t think the issue is territory for a UN seat. I think this emphasis on territory is wrong. This is about the principle that all citizens of Kosovo are equal and giving up that principle for a UN seat in my view is not worth it.

Xharra: How do you explain that Germany and the UK are very explicit in a no-change-of-border policy, and what does it say about transatlantic relations of these allies, that were together in a NATO bombing with the United States?

Serwer: Look, good things happen when the EU and US agree, bad things happen when they don’t agree. Right now they don’t agree on many things. Britain and Germany are principal defenders of liberal democracy and I hope they continue in that direction. The United States have become unreliable in that respect. I think that this is very unfortunate.

Xharra:  If United States is like that, is there an opportunity to educate this administration, and what is your advice? What can be done by Albanian diaspora in the US? Can they have an impact in this reeducation of the Trump administration, to point out that they are playing with fire if they support this idea?

Serwer: I think is very important for the Albanians in the US to continue to support Kosovo statehood. That means opposing partition in my view. In addition, I’m a professor and I’ve been aware of lack of consciousness about the Balkans in the US, so five years ago I begin writing a book about what we did in the Balkans and the ways in which it has been both problematic and successful, and the book comes out in December.

Xharra: We are waiting to read it. Can you also comment on the fact that when the Special Court was established for Kosovo, Hashim Thaci has been heard saying: “I thought that if we allowed this special court to happen we would get visa liberalization, it would help to get more recognitions especially from five EU non-recognisers.” Is he acting naive in this case also, where he imagines that he gives up some part of Kosovo territory, Kosovo will get more recognitions of its independence?

Serwer: One thing has to be very clear, recognition comes first. You can not give up territory unless you are recognized in that territory. So recognition must come first. Exchange could come very quickly after, but recognition is first.

Xharra: If you were to evaluate what Kosovo got out of negotiations in the last year, would you say Kosovo was back footed, hoping the dialogue will get it anywhere and in fact Serbian diplomacy was more successful? Even though the Kosovo won the moral and legal case when International Court of Justice issued a decision in favor of Kosovo’s declaration of independence? The case was won, but Kosovo did not use the momentum to gain more.

Serwer: Kosovo has got less that it hoped for. It got less with the Kai Aide report that it hoped for, it got less in the Ahtisaari plan than it hoped for, but in each stage it still made progress and Kosovo never slid backwards.

Xharra: Would this deal be sliding backwards?

Server: I believe that this deal will be a slideback for Kosovo and its ambitions to join to the EU and NATO and with this deal, it would make it harder, not easier.

07/09/2018 - 11:16

07 September 2018 - 11:16

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