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Serbia-Kosovo possible border changes explained: What's at stake?

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Serbia-Kosovo possible border changes explained: What's at stake?

Serbia-Kosovo possible border changes explained: What's at stake?
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The leaders of Kosovo and Serbia Saturday voiced their intention to change the border between the two countries.

Professor Dr Florian Bieber of Southeast European Studies, University of Graz, told Euronews exactly what this change might entail, the potential ramifications for those in the affected regions, and why the European Union fears redrawing the borders might reignite the ethnic violence the region saw in the nineties.

What are the proposed changes?

There has never been a formal plan released in which border changes were laid out, but Bieber says this is understandable as the modifications are "much more complicated in practice than as an idea".

Based on previous debates, the main areas involved in discussions include four municipalities in the north of Kosovo which host a large, majority Serbian population.

Leposavic, Zvecan, Zubin Potok and North Mitrovica have "not fully been under Kosovan governmental rule since the country became independent", according to Bieber.

He said the most likely scenario, which has not been officialised by either country, involves these four municipalities being given to Serbia.

The question of Bujanovac and Presevo, municipalities in Serbia with mainly ethnic Albanian populations, being divided and given to Kosovo is also a possibility, according to the professor.

Why are we talking about it now?

While the idea of border changes has been talked about for several weeks, the two concerned leaders, Kosovo’s Hashim Thaci and Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic, Saturday went before the international community for the first time to ask for support for the deal.

“Kosovo is determined to reach a binding legal agreement with Serbia. The time to do this is now,” Thaci said at a panel discussion in Austria. “We have a short window of opportunity. It is not easy at all; it is very, very difficult. That’s why everybody has to be behind it.”

Who are the main actors in the discussions?

President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, and President of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, were wartime enemies, both active members for different sides during the 1998-99 Kosovo War.

At the European Forum Alpbach in the Austrian Alps, despite Thaci claiming the pair "don't like" each other, they presented a united front in asking the EU for its support regarding the border issue.

REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo and REUTERS/Laura Hasani
President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić (L) and President of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi (R)REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo and REUTERS/Laura Hasani

"I think they are both very much motivated by personal, political survival and power," said Bieber of the two leaders.

"I don't think they are particularly concerned by the larger political implications," he added.

The Serbian government might hope to use the deal as a way of speeding up EU accession, which is currently under negotiation, according to the professor.

"It seems like this idea (the border change) is not widely supported in Kosovo," he said. For Thaci, this would be a way of getting a deal that would allow Kosovo to join the United Nations.

Why might the EU block the move?

While remaining diplomatic, Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner responsible for the Balkans, emplored the two leaders at a panel to make sure any eventual deal would not destabilise the wider Balkan Peninsula.

"This is a high-risk strategy," explained Bieber, "something that seemed unachievable before suddenly becomes possible."

Those that dream of changing the borders might become more adamant in demanding change, according to the professor.

He said there is a "significant risk" that areas in Bosnia could be redrawn, along with FYRO Macedonia and Montenegro, which are all home to regions that are not immediately challenged but have been in the past.

What about people living near the border?

The motivation for the proposed change is to have fewer Serbs and more Albanians in Kosovo, but borders can rarely be redrawn cleanly, according to Bieber.

"There will always be people on the wrong side," he said. In this case, Serbs that might suddenly find themselves in Kosovo.

He also flagged the Serbs living in Kosovo that are not in any of the regions that would move, for whom there is a risk that their minority rights may deteriorate upon becoming even fewer in number.

Is the border move likely to come to fruition?

For Vucic, keeping the subject on the political agenda might be interesting, rather than being forced to deal with issues of political reform that are more sensitive, according to Bieber.

He said the deal is more plausible now than it was six months ago, but the challenge of both leaders agreeing on the details of the change "rather than just talking about it" will be the real turning point.

Serbia sees Kosovo as a rebel province, despite most EU countries recognising it, and refuses to recognize the country’s declaration of independence in 2008.

This sees Kosovo's membership to the UN in limbo, blocked by Russia, an ally of Serbia.