It’s hard to know which direction the Western Balkans region is headed these days. There are some encouraging signs, even amid very worrying trends. Signs of promise include the ratification of the agreement between Greece and Macedonia to resolve their name dispute, nixing Russia’s interference and opening the route for the newly renamed Northern Macedonia to move toward integration with NATO and the European Union. In Bosnia, voters elected a democratic Croat over a stalwart nationalist for their tri-member presidency. And Serbia took tentative steps towards greater military cooperation with NATO.
At the same time, there are causes for significant concern: crony capitalism, resurgent ethno-nationalism, and Russia’s attempts to destabilize Bosnia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, and to manipulate Serbia politically and economically. Among the latest signs of danger is a fundamentally misguided proposal to change the border between Serbia and Kosovo as a precursor to normalized relations between the two, as well as to alleviate persistent ethnic tensions in the latter.
The idea is sure to be on agendas this week, during Kosovo President Hashim Thaci’s visit to Washington D.C. As welcome as normalized relations would be, the unintended consequences of a proposed land swap are dire for the region, its environs, and transatlantic security.
Following nearly two decades of acrimony between Belgrade and Pristina since 1999, signs of progress towards normalization have surfaced intermittently in recent years, with mediation by the European Union via the 2013 Brussels Agreement. Developed under EU auspices, it comprises a process towards normalized relations between Kosovo and Serbia, negotiated and concluded by their respective heads of state. Endorsed by the United Nations, NATO, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Brussels Agreement provides an initial framework for aspirations of membership in the EU and other international bodies.
Seeking to accelerate the momentum, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic floated the prospect of a “border correction” in July 2018. He and Thaci then floated the idea one month later at the European Forum Alpbach in Austria. Participating in a panel on perspectives for EU enlargement, the presidents’ remarks opened the door to the prospect of border changes without any detailed plan.
Since then, specifics have remained elusive, apart from the transfer of four ethnic Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo’s north to Serbian sovereignty. Whether Serbia would reciprocate by granting Kosovar rule to ethnic Albanian-majority lands in the neighboring Presevo Valley is vague at best. Nor has Vucic clarified whether the proposed land swap would result in Belgrade’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence or simply an agreement not to protest its potential membership in international bodies such as the United Nations or Interpol.
U.S. Position on a Land Swap Remains Adaptable
Murkiness aside, there is little indication that the idea has been abandoned. On the contrary, the U.S. administration’s position – National Security Advisor John Bolton initially said the United States wouldn’t oppose a border change if the two countries could work it out, but then other officials seemed to back off slightly — remains adaptable. In January, the Washington Post reported talks of a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House following some sort of negotiated settlement between Thaci and Vucic, but the administration remained non-committal on the subject of potential land swaps.
In Europe, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini is pushing the deal, but most other member states have remained publicly reticent at best. Germany and Britain, as well as Austria and Luxembourg, are all forthright in their opposition to the idea, jointly defending the need for a multi-ethnic solution.
Proponents of the Vucic-Thaci land swap proposal often argue that it is a unique case and that no precedent would arise from the resultant border changes. This position is unrealistic at best and disingenuous at worst.
For starters, the precedent that would emerge from legitimized, ethnically-based land swaps between Kosovo and Serbia would embolden extreme nationalist sentiments throughout the region. Bosnia’s irredentist Serb leader Milorad Dodik and his Croat fellow traveler, ultranationalist Dragan Covic, have been unrelenting in their agitation to dismember that country. Montenegro’s democratically-elected government was nearly ousted by a Russian-backed coup attempt in 2016, under cover of a vocal minority supporting reunion with Serbia and the country’s largest Orthodox church, whose patriarch sits in Belgrade. Throughout Kosovo and Macedonia, ethnic Albanian nationalists still fly Albania’s black-and-red flag in place of Kosovo’s or North Macedonia’s national standards, respectively.
Temptations for the Kremlin
The opportunity for mischief would not be lost on an adversarial and interventionist Kremlin. Intent on keeping not only its near abroad unstable – e.g. Georgia and Ukraine, among others – but rocking the Balkans too, Moscow could readily apply its tried-and-true tactics: back extreme ethno-nationalist proxy forces with money and weapons; encourage them to foment political and social unrest; and when enough shells are lobbed and the West begrudgingly intervenes, deceitfully offer to be the benevolent power broker. Stained by renewed bloodshed and bigotry, these states would be fundamentally barred from integrating into European and transatlantic institutions – exactly what Vladimir Putin wanted all along.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and our NATO allies would have implicitly messaged that racist violence, if grand enough, can be rewarded. The legacy of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia – along with other hard-won reconciliations – would be as tattered as the credibility of the Western institutions that fought to keep the peace in the wake of Yugoslavia’s collapse.
The resounding wreckage of precedent aside, the idea of a Kosovo-Serbia land swap further rests on fundamentally flawed political ground. Hatched behind closed doors, it has alienated key players whose support would be needed, e.g. Kosovo’s parliament, where the majority currently is opposed, and its leader, Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj. Moreover, potentially complicating matters is the possible indictment of Thaci by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, a recently established tribunal in The Hague for war crimes committed during and in the aftermath of the 1998-99 Kosovo conflict.
In Belgrade, the likelihood of parliamentary support is uncertain. Indeed, the two-thirds of the national assembly’s governing coalition comprises Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party; however, the opacity surrounding the Vucic-Thaci dialogue prevents a genuine assessment of party positions.
In terms of public support, a poll conducted late last year in Kosovo indicated overwhelming disapproval for any territorial “adjustment” with Serbia. In Serbia, another survey reported that Kosovo’s status is not among respondents’ primary concerns, weakening the perception that Vucic needs territorial acquisition to effectively placate reactionary nationalist sentiments.
Stirring Future Trouble
Contemporary politics apart, no border change would effectively dispel extreme ethno-nationalist narratives. The area being considered for incorporation into Serbia would exclude more than half of Kosovo’s ethnic Serb population and hundreds of sites of Serbian cultural and religious heritage. That could fuel any future pan-Serbian firebrand harboring political ambitions. A similar character cut from Kosovar Albanian cloth could rally popular sentiment with an assertion of injustice over land lost in disrespect of the sacrifices made by warriors and innocents alike. The touted “demarcation” won’t mute such narratives.
For a just and lasting reconciliation between Serbia and Kosovo, a promising alternative to border changes has been put forward in the Brussels Agreement. A proposed Association of Serbian Municipalities, for example, would affirm significant autonomy for Serb-majority communities throughout Kosovo. The communities would oversee economic development, education, health, and urban and rural planning, with options for other sectors as well.
Kosovo’s parliament, however, has resisted the idea, understandably fearful it would produce the kind of dysfunction that plagues relations in nearby Bosnia between the central government in Sarajevo and Dodik’s majority-Serb entity of Republika Sprska.
However, Serb communities in Kosovo will need certain substantive powers if normalization with Serbia — and, eventually, full international recognition — are to be achieved. Further problematic is the absence of civic or political leadership for those Kosovar Serbs opposed to a land swap, stemming in part from the 2018 assassination of Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, who had advocated reconciliation with Kosovo’s majority Albanian leadership.
Forceful yet patient political and diplomatic engagement by the EU and the U.S. will be the best way forward. Rewarding poor statesmanship in Belgrade and Pristina by pressuring for or acquiescing to a flawed and ultimately dangerous change in borders is not in the long-term interest of Kosovo’s Albanians, its Serbs, or the democratic West. It should be taken off the table now and for good.