Lake Gazivode, troubled waters between Kosovo and Serbia

The reservoir continues to be a source of diplomatic dispute 20 years after the Serbia-Kosovo split


Afp October 25, 2018
Lake Gazivode. PHOTO: AFP

PRISTINA: Controlled by Serbs but a key resource for Kosovo, the cool blue waters of Lake Gazivode reflect the chilly relationship between the former war foes over their contested border.

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Kosovo was a southern province of Serbia that broke away during a 1998-99 insurgency led by its ethnic Albanian majority. A NATO intervention stopped the war and put Kosovo under UN administration until it unilaterally declared independence in 2008 -- a move Belgrade has refused to recognise.

But now the two territories are under pressure to normalise relations in order to move forward in EU accession talks. Resolving the border issue is key to any agreement.

The proposal of a "land swap" as a way to break the deadlock gained traction in August after officials on both sides gave a nod to the possibility.

Local media speculated that an ethnic-Albanian slice of Serbia could be traded for a Serb-dominated region of northern Kosovo, home to Lake Gazivode.

Rights groups swiftly sounded the alarm over a proposal that would redraw the map along ethnic lines, recalling the bloodshed of the brutal break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

But Gazivode and its 370 million cubic metres (13 billion cubic feet) of water offer another reminder of why altering the borders would be anything but simple.

Three-quarters of the lake lie in Kosovo's ethnic Serb-dominated north -- a region where Belgrade has maintained a strong influence and would naturally demand if a land swap was on the table.

But for Kosovo to give up Gazivode, a man-made lake created by a dam on the Ibar river, would threaten the drinking water supply of more than a third of its 1.8 million population.

The lake also supplies crucial cooling water for the two coal plants -- Kosovo A and Kosovo B--that produce around 95% of Kosovo's electricity.

"Without Gazivode, Kosovo would be without electricity," said Srdjan Vulovic, head of the Belgrade-founded company Ibar which manages the lake.

Yet he maintains that "the right to manage Gazivode belongs to Serbia", saying it was Belgrade who repaid the $90 million (78 million-euro) loan to build the dam under the former Yugoslavia in the 1970s.

The lake became a stage for diplomatic theatre in September, after planned talks between the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo fell apart at the last minute in Brussels, where the EU is moderating their negotiations.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic pushed ahead with a controversial visit to Lake Gazivode, despite opposition from Pristina's leaders, who eventually relented.

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"There was pressure from the European Union...we had no choice," Kosovo's Foreign Minister Behgjet Pacolli said.

Standing near the dam that workers had decorated with a Serbian flag, Vucic described the lake as a symbol of the stalemate.

"Gazivode shows in the clearest way the extent of the problem we face, our differences, our bitter political struggles," he said.

Three weeks later, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci countered with a photo shoot on a boat in the lake, which is known in Albanian as Ujman.

"A normal visit to one of our beauties," Thaci said at the time.
Kosovo's chief negotiator with Serbia, Avni Arifi, has warned it would be "inappropriate" to "launch any debate about the lake" in future EU-led talks.

"It is a Kosovo resource...and we are not talking about our resources with Serbia," he told AFP.

Agon Dida, a Pristina-based expert on energy issues, said Kosovo's "independence and stability" would be at risk if the lake became Serbian territory.

"Vucic and his political friends in Serbia know very well that [the lake] is Kosovo's Achilles' heel," he told AFP.

That keeps the talks at an impasse, with both sides claiming ownership of the lake's waters.

"Gazivode is everything for us," said Suzana Maksimovic, who lives in the northern Serb-dominated half of Mitrovica, the Kosovo city divided between ethnic Serbs and Albanians.

"It's our property, as was Kosovo," added the 54-year-old unemployed woman.

Yet Besim Musa, an ethnic Albanian from the city's southern bank, disagrees.

"Serbs can say what they want, but the lake remains ours," said the 31-year-old taxi driver.

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