Kosovo, Serbia Mull Territorial Swap in Quest to End Dispute, Join EU

A decade-long dispute between Kosovo and Serbia is compelling both countries to consider a territorial swap along ethnic lines — a move that has long been opposed by both Brussels and Washington. But the leaders of both Balkan countries say redrawing the borders could help them resolve their differences and advance in their quest for European integration.  

Experts have mixed opinions over whether such a deal is workable or even desirable. 

Ten years after Kosovo declared independence, there has been little to no progress between the two countries in settling their disputes. Kosovo considers itself a sovereign nation, though Serbia refuses to recognize it as such. Both countries want to join the European Union, but Brussels will not allow it until disagreements over Kosovo’s sovereignty are settled. 

WATCH: Trade of territory by Kosovo, Serbia brings concerns

Now, Kosovo’s President Hashi Thaci and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic have suggested a deal to trade territory or change borders that could spark a breakthrough. Some experts caution, however, such a move could create myriad problems. 

“It would create instability, it would be dangerous. It could spark violence in Kosovo as well as in Serbia,” said David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. 

The proposed exchange would involve Serbia getting part of northern Kosovo, an area with a mostly Serb population, and Kosovo getting Serbia’s Presevo Valley, inhabited by a majority of ethnic Albanians. It also would mean the change would be along ethnic lines — anathema in Western thinking. 

“The principle of pluralism and democracy is something that is a cornerstone of U.S. policy. It’s also a cornerstone of Europe’s approach to countries that aspire to membership,” Phillips said. 

But David Kanin, adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former CIA senior analyst, notes that Europe has a history of changing borders and population movements. 

“That has not stopped. Every change in Yugoslavia since the old Yugoslavia collapsed has been about changing borders, moving people around, some supported by the West, some opposed,” he said.

Diplomatic gap?

In the past, both Brussels and Washington have shot down the idea of redrawing borders along ethnic lines, but this time it appears they are not in agreement. 

The European Union has not openly commented on this issue. The office of the EU’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, has not responded to VOA questions about this issue. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected any changes to the borders, saying, “The territorial integrity of the states of the Western Balkans has been established and is inviolable.”

The U.S. position has been more ambiguous. In a statement to VOA’s Albanian Service, the State Department said the solution should come from the parties themselves. It also said the parties should show flexibility, but stopped short of rejecting the idea of a border change. 

“If Kosovo and Serbia were able to agree on a settlement that would allow for permanent peace that would allow for mutual recognition, I think that would help settle politics in Serbia in some ways. It would give Kosovo a way forward,” said Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. 

Phillips, a former State Department senior adviser, suggested a lack of clarity does not signal a new policy.

“The U.S. government does not have a coherent policy toward Kosovo. It doesn’t pay any attention to the Western Balkans. I don’t think we should read too much into these vague and ambiguous statements. Right now U.S. policy remains as it always has been. It recognizes Kosovo within its current frontiers. That hasn’t changed.”

Benefits, ramifications

Even if the idea is officially included in the EU-mediated Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, many questions remain, including whether Serbia should recognize Kosovo first and what that would portend.

“The discussion right now around partition, as noisy as it is, is dealing with the secondary issue of who gets what territory,” said Kanin. “The question of Kosovo’s sovereignty is the central issue and that will remain open as long as it is not recognized by Serbia and by the five outstanding EU members. And I see no sign that this is going to change.”   

EU members Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania and Greece still have not recognized Kosovo’s independence.

“Here it is a disservice to everybody in the Balkans, first of all the Kosovars, that their state is not recognized by Serbia, that they are not recognized by all members of the European Union and therefore they’re blocked in some of their relationships with the EU,” said Volker.

Experts and former diplomats warned that rethinking borders in the Balkans would pose a risk to stability in the region. 

“If the EU isn’t prepared to mediate a deal that allows Serbia to recognize Kosovo within its current frontiers, then Albanians will start thinking of unification of Albanian territories and creating an Albanian state that encompasses lands where all Albanians live,” Phillips predicted.

That concern is amplified, given the sizable Albanian minority in Macedonia, a country dealing with its own agreement about a name change with Greece. And Serbs in Bosnia already have said if Kosovo gets a U.N. seat, they will request the same.

The latest debate suggests there are no clear-cut prescriptions for a region attempting to shed the vexing legacy of the 1990s conflicts.

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First a Wedding, Then Hard Work: Putin to Visit Germany’s Merkel

Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday for talks about the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project that has drawn U.S. ire.

Putin arrives in Germany after a stop at an Austrian vineyard to attend Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl’s wedding to entrepreneur Wolfgang Meilinger.

Merkel warned on Friday against expecting too much from her discussions with Putin at the government’s Meseberg palace, but said the two countries needed to remain in “permanent dialogue” on the long list of problems they face.

“It’s a working meeting from which no specific results are expected,” she told reporters. The two leaders last met in Sochi in May and struggled to overcome differences.

But both Juergen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for Merkel’s conservative bloc, and Achim Post, a senior member of the Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in the coalition government, were more upbeat.

“We can be cautiously optimistic,” Hardt told the Stuttgarter Zeitung and Stuttgarter Nachrichten newspapers in an interview published Saturday. “The Russian president has maneuvered himself into a dead end on Syria and eastern Ukraine, and needs international partners. For that he has to move.”

A senior German official told the papers: “There has been some movement,” but gave no details.

Post said in a statement that he expected both Merkel and Putin to look for pragmatic solutions based on common interests. “In a world that is increasingly uncertain, we must speak particularly with difficult partners like Russia,” he said.

Russia and the West remain at loggerheads over Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine in 2014 and the ensuing conflict between Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east and the Ukrainian army.

On Syria, Germany wants Putin to finalize a lasting cease-fire there in agreement with the United States. Merkel on Friday said a four-way meeting on Syria involving Germany, Russia, Turkey and France was possible.

Germany is also under strong pressure from the United States to halt work on the planned Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will carry gas from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea.

The United States says it will increase Germany’s dependence on Russia for energy. Ukraine fears the pipeline will allow Russia to cut it off from the gas transit business. Germany’s eastern European neighbors, nervous of Russian encroachment, have also raised concerns about the project.

Merkel and Putin will each make statements at 1600 GMT on Saturday before the start of the talks. They do not plan to take questions.

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Stormy Daniels Drops Out of UK Reality Show at Last Minute

Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress and nemesis of U.S. President Donald Trump, has pulled out of a British reality-TV show at the last minute after a dispute with producers. 

Daniels was due to take part in “Celebrity Big Brother,” which locks contestants in a house under constant surveillance. But she failed to join housemates including actress Kirstie Alley and psychic Sally Morgan for Thursday’s first episode.

Lawyer Michael Avenatti said Friday that Daniels argued with producers who attempted to “control her and produce a certain result.”

Broadcaster Channel 5 said Daniels told producers hours before airtime that she no longer wanted to participate.

Daniels alleges she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006, and was later paid $130,000 to stay silent about it. The president denies the encounter.

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US to Impose More Sanctions on Turkey Over Detained Pastor

The United States says Turkey faces more U.S. sanctions if it refuses to release an American pastor held on allegations of helping the organizers of the failed 2016 coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The United States says Ankara has no evidence for the allegations and has held the pastor for too long. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday the United States is ready to hit Ankara with more sanctions if it does not release the American soon. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Ukraine Demands 15-Year Sentence for Ousted President

Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office on Thursday said had it demanded a 15-year prison sentence for former President Viktor Yanukovych, accusing him of “betraying his nation” to Russia. 

Pro-Moscow Yanukovych has lived in exile in Russia since he was ousted in a Western-backed popular uprising in 2014, and it is highly unlikely he will ever face trial as the two countries remain locked in a bitter standoff.

“Viktor Yanukovych betrayed his nation. He betrayed his army. At the most difficult time for the country and the people,” prosecutors said in court, according to a statement.

“He left the country at the mercy of fate and fled into the arms of the aggressor,” it said. “Without a drop of remorse, in order to please the enemy, he did everything in his power for Ukrainian territory to be seized by the aggressor.”

Yanukovych sparked massive protests when he ditched an association accord with the European Union and then fled to Russia in early 2014 after a bloody crackdown in Kyiv failed to quell the demonstrations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin later revealed this was made possible by a special operation organized by Moscow to exfiltrate Yanukovych. 

After Yanukovych fled Ukraine, Moscow annexed the country’s Crimean Peninsula and war erupted between Kyiv and Russian-backed rebels in the east of the country.

Since then, the fighting has cost 10,000 lives despite repeated international efforts to forge a lasting cease-fire.

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Finance Minister: Turkey Will Emerge Stronger from Lira Crisis Despite Row with US

Finance Minister Berat Albayrak assured international investors on Thursday that Turkey would emerge stronger from its currency crisis, insisting its banks were healthy and signalling it could ride out a dispute with the United States.

In a conference call with thousands of investors and economists, Albayrak — who is President Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law — said Turkey fully understood and recognised all its domestic challenges but was dealing with what he described as a market anomaly.

With Ankara locked in a complex rift with Washington, he also played down a decision by President Donald Trump to double tariffs on imports of Turkish metals. Washington later said it was ready to impose further economic sanctions on Turkey.

Many countries had been the target of similar U.S. trade measures, Albayrak said, and Turkey would navigate this period with other parties such as Germany, Russia and China.

Turkey, he said, has no plans to seek help from the International Monetary Fund or impose capital controls to stop money flowing abroad in response to the recent collapse of its lira currency.  Before he spoke, the lira strengthened more than 3 percent, despite signs that the dispute with the United States is as wide as ever.

The lira held steady during Albayrak’s conference call but later weakened when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the United States was prepared to levy more sanctions on Turkey if detained American pastor Andrew Brunson was not freed.

The Turkish currency was trading at 5.85 at 1740 GMT, more than 1 percent stronger on the day. Turkey’s sovereign dollar bonds extended their gains.

The lira hit a record low of 7.24 to the dollar earlier this week, down 40 percent this year, as investors fretted over Erdogan’s influence over monetary policy and the row with the United States.

Turkey’s foreign minister said Ankara did not want any problems with Washington.

“We can solve issues with the United States very easily, but not with the current approach,” Mevlut Cavusoglu told a news conference in Ankara late on Thursday.

Facing Turkey’s gravest currency crisis since 2001 in his first month in the job, Albayrak has the daunting task of persuading investors that the economy is not hostage to political interference.

Albayrak, a 40-year-old former company executive with a doctorate in finance, said Turkey would not hesitate to provide support to the banking sector. The banks were capable of managing the volatility, and there had been no major flow of cash out of deposits lately, he added.

Qatari pledge

Economists gave Albayrak’s comments a qualified welcome, and praised his ambition to get inflation down into single figures next year from above 15 percent now. But his father-in-law’s opposition to higher interest rates may complicate that quest.

“He said all the right things, but it’s one thing saying them and another thing doing them,” said Sailesh Lad at AXA Investment Managers. “He said capital controls weren’t part of the agenda, and never will be. I think a lot of the market liked hearing that.”

The lira gained some support from the announcement late on Wednesday of a Qatari pledge to invest $15 billion in Turkey. Trump has used trade tariffs in a series of disputes ranging from with Turkey and China to the European Union.

In a sign that Turkey may hope to make common cause with other affected countries, Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by phone on Thursday, discussing developing economic and trade ties and boosting bilateral investment, a Turkish presidential source said.

Albayrak will also meet his German counterpart Olaf Scholz in Berlin on Sept. 21.

However, in a potential complication, a foreign ministry source in Berlin said Turkish police had arrested a German citizen. ARD TV reported the man was accused of “terrorist propaganda” after criticising the government on social media.

In another element of the row with Washington, a U.S. court sentenced a senior executive of state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank to 32 months in prison in May for taking part in a scheme to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions. That case has increased speculation that the bank itself could be fined for sanctions-busting.

Halkbank has said all of its transactions were lawful and Albayrak played down the risk. “We are not expecting any fines on Halkbank for sure,” he said. “But hypothetically speaking, …if one of our public banks need help, the government will stand strong by it for sure.”

The White House said on Wednesday that it would not remove steel tariffs on Turkey, appearing to give Ankara little incentive to work for the release of Brunson, a pastor on trial in Turkey on terrorism charges.

Washington wants the evangelical Christian freed but Turkish officials say the case is a matter for the courts.

The pastor row is one of several between the NATO allies, including diverging interests in Syria and U.S. objections to Ankara’s ambition to buy Russian defence systems, that have contributed to instability in Turkish financial markets.

Economic war

Erdogan has repeatedly told Turks to exchange gold and hard currency into lira, saying the country was involved in an economic war with enemies.

However, Turks appeared not to be heeding his appeal. Central bank data showed foreign currency deposits held by local investors rose to $159.9 billion in the week to Aug. 10, from $158.6 billion a week earlier.

Erdogan has called for a boycott of U.S. electronic goods and Turkish media have given extensive coverage to anti-U.S. protests, including videos on social media showing Turks apparently burning dollar bills and destroying iPhones.

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White House: ‘We Won’t Forget’ How Turkey is Treating US Pastor

The U.S. continued to press Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release detained American Pastor Andrew Brunson, after a Turkish court Wednesday rejected a second legal appeal to release him from house arrest. And Turkey is pushing back hard, sharply raising tariffs on a range of American goods in retaliation to the tariffs imposed last week by President Trump. VOA’s Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from the State Department on deteriorating relations with a U.S. NATO ally.

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US F-22 Stealth Jets Take on Norway’s F-35 in Simulated Dogfights

Two U.S. F-22 stealth fighter jets squared off in simulated dogfights with two of Norway’s expanding fleet of F-35 aircraft Wednesday as part of an exercise aimed at strengthening the NATO alliance and increasing its deterrent power.

The two U.S. F-22s are among 13 in Europe for a series of short-term deployments in places such as Greece and Poland, with further training missions planned in undisclosed locations in coming days.

The Norwegian deployment lasted one day but will lay the groundwork for NATO allies as they work to integrate their stealth warfare capabilities, Colonel Leslie Hauck, chief of the fifth generation integration division at the U.S. Air Force’s headquarters in Europe, told reporters in Norway.

The deployment is part of U.S. efforts to reassure European allies after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

F-35s arriving in Europe

Growing numbers of Lockheed Martin Corp F-35s are arriving in Europe as the world’s most advanced warplane and most expensive weapons program matures following a raft of cost increases and technical challenges in its early years.

“Every training opportunity that we have betters our readiness for any potential adversary of the future,” Hauck said at the Orland air base, home to six of Norway’s expected 52 F-35s.

Hauck leads a new office at Ramstein Air Base in southwestern Germany, that is working to ensure a smooth transition for about 40 F-35s scheduled to be in Europe by year’s end. The first of which are set to arrive in 2021.

Next month, a group of senior officials from the United States and seven other F-35 operator countries — Norway, Denmark, Italy, Turkey, Israel, Britain and the Netherlands — will meet to compare notes on the new warplane, which was first used in combat by Israel in May.

Better battlefield overview

The United States has more than 150 of the aircraft, whose sensors pilots say give them the most extensive overview of a battlefield of any combat jet available.

Norwegian Air Force Major Morten Hanche, who piloted one of the Norwegian F-35s, said the mock fight with the F-22s was great practice, especially since the F-35s generally surprise and overpower other nonstealth aircraft.

He declined to name the winning aircraft, saying only: “The F-22 is a very formidable opponent.”

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US: Serb Vote on Srebrenica Massacre Report ‘Wrong Direction’

The United States said Wednesday that Bosnia’s autonomous Serb-dominated region was attempting to deny history by revoking a report that concluded that Bosnian Serb forces killed about 8,000 Muslims in and around Srebrenica during the country’s 1992-95 war.

The U.S. State Department said adoption by the Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) government of the 2004 report on the Srebrenica genocide had been an important reconciliation step.

Reconciliation step reversed

“The August 14 session of the Republika Srpska National Assembly is a step in the wrong direction,” a State Department statement said.

“Attempts to reject or amend the report on Srebrenica are part of wider efforts to revise the facts of the past war, to deny history, and to politicize tragedy. It is in the interest of the citizens of Republika Srpska to reverse the trend of revering convicted war criminals as heroes, and to ensure their crimes continue to be publicly rejected.”

A vote Tuesday by lawmakers in Bosnia’s Serb Republic to revoke the 2004 report was initiated by the region’s nationalist President Milorad Dodik, and some analysts say it is the latest issue used by Serb ruling parties to mobilize voters around the nationalist agenda ahead of elections in October.

Dodik, an advocate of the Serb region’s secession from Bosnia, has always rejected rulings by two war crimes courts, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and The International Court of Justice, that the Srebrenica atrocity qualified as genocide.

Official says scope overblown

Though acknowledging a crime occurred, Dodik says the numbers of those killed had been exaggerated in the 2004 report and it should have included Serb victims.

The parliament concluded that a new independent international commission should be formed to determine the damages suffered by all peoples in the Srebrenica region.

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Paris Installs Controversial ‘Solution’ to Public Urination

In Paris, there is an experiment under way to find an environmental solution to the unsightly urban problem of men urinating in the street. However, the project has prompted strong reactions from some residents and visitors.

The city has turned to open-air street urinals, called “uritrottoirs” and “pavement urinals,” which are similar to planters with an opening in the front and a floral display on top. The receptacles contain straw, which transforms into compost for later use in parks and gardens.

Some see the pavement urinals as an innovation that might help rid the French capital of unpleasant sights and smells, while others complain that the bright red boxes are a blight on the city’s picturesque streets.

“It is definitely a desirable and historic neighborhood, but seeing people urinating right in front of your door is not the nicest thing,” said a 28-year-old resident.

However, at least one visitor sees advantages.

“It’s a little bit open … in the open space,” said Jonathan, who is from the U.S. “So some people might feel uncomfortable. But, again, if you need to go, it’s better than going on the street.”

The Reuters news agency reports that reaction to the urinals has been mixed, prompting the local government to reconsider the project in September.

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