A Cold War solution for Serbia and Kosovo?

Balkan leaders are in Berlin to "exchange opinions" with Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Emmanuel Macron. The mini-summit is to focus on the bid to revive the talks between Belgrade and Pristina.

Ahead of the Berlin summit, attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and leaders of several countries in southeast Europe, DW learned of a new way for Germany to relaunch stalled talks between Kosovo and Serbia. Sources close to the Berlin government said that a solution for Belgrade and Pristina could be modeled on a 1972 agreement between West and East Germany.

West German Chancellor Willy Brandt spearheaded the agreement as part of his government's ostpolitik — or detente policy — towards the GDR and the Eastern bloc. The deal allowed the two German states to somewhat normalize their relations without formally recognizing each other.

Serbia still sees Kosovo as one of its provinces, although an armed rebellion and NATO bombings forced Belgrade to pull out its forces two decades ago. Kosovo, which is populated mostly by Albanians, formally declared independence in 2008.

The EU has been brokering normalization talks, but the talks have stalled over Kosovo's reluctance to grant autonomy to a Serb-populated region and Kosovo's unexpected introduction of steep tariffs on Serbian imports last November.

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Little hope of breakthrough

Could Brandt's ostpolitik policy really be applied to Serbia and Kosovo? Diplomatic sources told DW it is unlikely that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic would sign any document prohibiting Serbia from blocking Kosovo from joining international institutions. In practical terms, Belgrade would consider such a pledge tantamount to recognition of Kosovo's independence.

Vucic himself has been trying to dial down expectations ahead of the Berlin summit. Appearing on Serbian channel Pink TV on Sunday, Vucic said that nothing of consequence would happen in Berlin and that the summit would serve only to "cool off" the opposing sides.

Signals from Pristina were also less than encouraging. Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said that not much should be expected from the talks, and Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj asked for wartime reparations from Serbia just before leaving for Berlin — neither exactly betting the farm on de-escalation.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Traces of war on the Kosovo field

The Kosovo conflict intensified at the end of the 1990s. Ten thousand people were displaced. When all efforts to bring peace to the region failed, NATO started air strikes on Serbian military bases and strategic targets in Serbia on March 24, 1999. After 11 weeks, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic finally backed down.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Non-violent resistance fails

Protests against Belgrade's attempts to undermine the rights of the Albanian majority in Kosovo began in the mid-1980s. The 1990s saw a massive increase in Serbian repression. Ibrahim Rugova (l.), who took the reins of Kosovo's political movement in 1989, called for non-violent resistance and sought to convince Slobodan Milosevic (r.) to change course — to no avail.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Armed guerrilla war

An armed resistance formed in Kosovo, in which the self-proclaimed Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) began a brutal guerrilla war. The UCK undertook violent attacks on Serbia as well as against Albanians it considered to be collaborators. Serbia retaliated by torching houses and looting businesses. Hundreds of thousands of people fled.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Systematic expulsion

The war grew increasingly brutal and Serbian forces stepped up attacks on civilians in an attempt to destroy the UCK and its supporters. Scores of people fled into the forests. Thousands of Kosovo Albanians were loaded onto trains and trucks to be transported to the border, where they were thrown out without passports or other personal documents that could prove they were from Kosovo.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Last attempt to negotiate

In February 1999, the USA, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and Germany convened a meeting of warring parties in Rambouillet, France, in an attempt to establish autonomy for Kosovo. Kosovan representatives accepted the proposal, yet Serbia was unwilling to compromise. The negotiations collapsed.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

'Humanitarian intervention'

On March 24, 1999, NATO began bombing military and strategic targets in Serbia and Kosovo in an attempt to end violence against the Albanians. Germany also participated in the bombing. "Operation Allied Force" became the first war in NATO's 50-year history — one conducted without the backing of the UN Security Council. Russia harshly criticized the intervention.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Crippled infrastructure

Beyond military targets, NATO also bombed supply lines, train tracks and bridges. Over the course of 79 days and nights, allied forces flew more than 37,000 sorties. Some 20,000 missiles and bombs rained down on Serbia. Many civilians were killed: "collateral damage," in the words of NATO.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Toxic cloud over Pancevo

Industrial sites were also targeted. In Pancevo, near Belgrade, NATO bombs hit a chemical and fertilizer factory. Massive amounts of toxic substances were released into rivers, the ground and the skies — resulting in grave health risks for the nearby civilian population. Moreover, Serbia accused NATO of deploying uranium-enriched munitions as well as cluster and fragment bombs.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Targeting the propaganda machine

State television offices in Belgrade were attacked in an attempt to deprive Slobodan Milosevic of his most important propaganda tool. Although the Serbian government was warned of an impending attack in time, Belgrade withheld that information. Sixteen people were killed when the site was bombed.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Misguided bombs

NATO bombs in Kosovo inadvertently hit a group of Albanian refugees, killing an estimated 80 people. NATO also claimed that the accidental bombardment of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was another case of "collateral damage." Four people were killed in the misguided attack, leading to a diplomatic crisis between Beijing and Washington.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

The ghastly toll of war

In early June, Belgrade signaled that Slobodan Milosevic might be prepared to surrender, prompting NATO to end its campaign on June 19. The final toll of the war: thousands of dead and 860,000 refugees. Serbia's economy and large swaths of its infrastructure were destroyed. Kosovo was put under UN administration.

Burying the idea of land swap

Even so, the Monday summit could still serve a very important purpose — it could finally bury the controversial idea of trading territory between Serbia and Kosovo.

Both sides floated this solution, which would see a Serb-populated region of Kosovo returned to Belgrade's authority and Kosovo annexing several Albanian-dominated towns in Serbia. However, many international officials fear that redrawing borders would eventually prompt fresh bloodshed in the Balkans.

Germany's Merkel has clearly opposed the swap from the start. Still, there are also notable voices supporting this solution, and the Berlin summit may serve to suppress them. This message is intended not just for Belgrade and Pristina, but for other powerful players as well.

'Ethnically pure state' impossible

German lawmaker Christian Schmidt, who serves on the Bundestag's foreign policy committee, recently returned from the Balkans where he was laying the groundwork for the Berlin talks. Talking to DW, Schmidt said that Berlin would not accept changing borders under any conditions.

"The idea of ethnically pure states in southeast Europe is as impossible as squaring a circle," he told DW.

Also, the Berlin government now believes the time is right for the EU, led by France and Germany, to take the matters into its own hands.

"Finding a solution (for the Kosovo conflict) requires the active cooperation of the EU, France and Germany," Schmidt said.

It sends a clear message to Brussels, but also to Washington and Moscow — Germany and France are the ones deciding Europe's future and the EU's expansion process.

Merkel's anger over land swap

Regarding the EU and Berlin, sources told DW that Chancellor Merkel is "extremely angry" at the EU's top diplomat Federica Mogherini over Mogherini's support for land swap.

According to Radio Free Europe, this is the reason that Mogherini had not been officially invited to the Berlin summit. She still attended the talks, but only because her boss, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, was unavailable.

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German officials specifically stated that the topic of the meeting was to "exchange opinions" with Balkan leaders and not to discuss EU expansion. However, Merkel was also scheduled to meet the prime ministers of North Macedonia and Albania before the main talks.

Specifically, she was expected to take on the unhappy duty of explaining to North Macedonia's Zoran Zaev that there would be no opening of EU accession talks this June. According to a source in Brussels, the talks with Macedonia could not possibly start before an EU summit in December — the reason being France's fierce opposition to any hint of further EU expansion.