President Donald Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton are engaged in a campaign to pressure a close American ally into ceding parts of its territory to a historic adversary. The two are pushing a strategy to strong-arm Kosovo into border changes or a land swap with Serbia that would upend a decades-old bipartisan policy – one that has been supported by the entire Euro-Atlantic community — of opposing the redrawing of international borders along ethnic lines.
Such a move would risk a return to violence not just in Kosovo or along its border with Serbia, but across the entire Western Balkans. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, who is leading talks between Serbia and Kosovo for an agreement, is on board with the plan, even though the EU’s most powerful member state, Germany, is opposed. The U.S. Congress needs to wake up to the risks such a proposal poses for renewing conflict in the Balkans and for the transatlantic alliance, and oppose Kosovo’s partition.
At stake for the U.S. is decades of political, military and economic investment in Kosovo, premised on its democratic, multiethnic potential as an example of stability in the Western Balkans. The administration of President Bill Clinton spearheaded an effort for a peaceful settlement to an insurgency in the then-province of Kosovo against Serbian oppression. After war erupted in 1998 and early 1999, the U.S. and its NATO allies took on their first military operations outside NATO territory. To force Serbian security forces out of the province, they mounted a bombing campaign that began 20 years ago this month, on March 24.
Less than 10 years later, the U.S. was among a handful of countries to recognize Kosovo the day it declared independence in 2008, against vociferous opposition from Russia, China, and Serbia. Today, most member states of NATO and the EU recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state.
Meanwhile, Serbia is seeking to join the EU, which has made a binding normalization agreement with Kosovo a precondition for joining, possibly as early as the mid-2020s. But Serbia has never accepted its loss of control over Kosovo. Backed by Russia, it has blocked Kosovo repeatedly from joining various international organizations, above all the United Nations. At the same time, various Serbian leaders have floated ideas to absorb the Serb-inhabited and Belgrade-controlled north of Kosovo.
The latest such idea of border changes was advanced by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić last July. It found an enthusiastic supporter in Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi for still opaque reasons, though the crux of his mostly general arguments have been to get Kosovo out of limbo and into the U.N., as well as enabling future NATO and EU membership.
Nothing about the terms of the deal, if a specific proposal exists, is known reliably, though rumors swirl constantly, with the predictable destabilizing effect. Its basic feature seems to be that Serbia would grant recognition to Kosovo in exchange for absorbing much or all of north Kosovo, perhaps with Serbia ceding a few Albanian-inhabited villages near the border. Vučić refers to the border change as a “demarcation.” Thus far, only Thaçi has proposed that Kosovo get certain Serbian land populated by Albanians in addition to diplomatic recognition.
Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj has opposed what he called “`peaceful’ ethnic cleansing,” and the proposal is struggling to find supporters among citizens in either country. An overwhelming majority – over three quarters – of Kosovo Albanians object to what they rightly see as partition. Many Serbians – just under half according to an October 2018 poll – also oppose “delimitation” or a “land swap.” A large number resist any formal acceptance of Kosovo independence, within any borders.
Serbs in the north of Kosovo who likely would be within the areas Serbia would take in harbor deep misgivings despite pressure from Belgrade, and feel again like pawns in a game over which they have no say. In any case, most Serbs in Kosovo live south of the Ibar River, a likely “demarcation” line, and they worry about their rights in a post-partition Kosovo. Likewise, Kosovo Albanians on the “wrong” side of the Ibar are disconcerted by the prospect they might be drawn out of their state.
Backers of a land-and-recognition deal argue that it would end Kosovo’s limbo status, leading also to recognition by Moscow and Beijing. Serbia and Kosovo then could each pursue membership in the EU (and in Kosovo’s case, NATO as well), as recognized U.N. members.
Vučić and his government present a “demarcation” as belated justice for the loss of Kosovo 20 years ago. Some supporters have even posited the counter-intuitive argument that the deal could weaken Russia’s influence in the Western Balkans. In fact, there is no logical reason that Russia would ease the grip with which it holds Serbia and the Serb entity of Bosnia or end its fomenting of divisions, even after a deal.
The proposed deal received quick backing from EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, whose five-year term is up this fall. She has said she favors a “mutually agreed” deal that is “in line with international law” and with EU laws, though she hasn’t commented publicly on border changes or land swaps.
Instead, she has pursued the idea without transparency to the people whose lives would be directly or indirectly affected, or for that matter, to the EU’s member states. Only a handful of the EU’s national leaders seem to have endorsed the idea—Thaçi says France’s Emmanuel Macron expressed his support. But most appear unwilling to spend political capital on pushing back against it, which gives Mogherini her maneuvering space.
Trump Promising a Rose Garden
Mogherini’s position has won surprising support from Trump, who previously had scotched the biggest foreign policy victory of her time in office when he withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in early 2018. The U.S. president even offered to host a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden to seal a deal. His backing not only puts him on the side of an acolyte of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but also places him – again — squarely opposite Merkel. Britain, too, has opposed the idea of ethnically delineated border changes.
In early March, U.S. National Security Council officials reportedly went so far as to threaten to withdraw the roughly 600 American troops from the NATO deterrent force in Kosovo, citing gratuitously that these deployments come up for regular review. A U.S. Embassy statement the following day attempted to reassure Kosovars about the American commitment, while reiterating the review.
Every unfulfilled agenda in the Western Balkans – there are many and most involve borders – has had its appetite whet by the Trump administration’s openness to, and advocacy for, border changes. But these inherently entail forced population movements on an ethnic basis and could incur significant bloodshed.
Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, for example, is seizing on a potential Serbia-Kosovo border shift as a precedent to push for his long-mooted calls to break away from Bosnia. Any — or a combination of — such actions would drag the EU and likely the U.S. into another conflagration, just as it did in the Balkan wars of the 1990s that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Congressional Oversight Lacking
To date, there has been little or no U.S. congressional oversight of Trump and Bolton’s radical policy shift on Kosovo and Serbia. Most members of Congress seem either unaware or reluctant to acknowledge the extremely high risk of renewed conflict in the Western Balkans, not to mention the potential damage to the core of the transatlantic alliance – the relationship between the U.S. and Germany.
Similar stakes finally forced the Clinton administration to get serious about ending the war in Bosnia in 1995. Voices in Congress from both parties were the conscience of America in the Balkans then. They need to speak up again now.
Congress has given episodic attention to the Western Balkans in recent years, and several members of both houses – and both parties – have demonstrated a consistent interest and will to engage. However, even these members seem to have been lulled into standby mode by the State Department to wait and see what sort of proposal emerges.
If this remains the case, Congress – just as Kosovars and Serbians of all stripes and EU member officials and legislators – may be presented with a fait accompli that will be advertised as the only guarantee of “peace.” That’s the argument proponents of the still-amorphous deal already make. And this is just one part of the broader U.S. policy on the Western Balkans that has shifted from previous bipartisan baselines.
Congress should immediately scrutinize the land swap and the wider U.S. policy on the region, which appears to be driven by the National Security Council. The effort could start with requests for information as well as mutually reinforcing hearings of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as Congress’s U.S. Helsinki Commission. Administration officials and external witnesses could assess the already evident effects of the proposed policy change and the potential impact.
Only with such a panoptical view can members of Congress fulfill their oversight obligations, and protect America’s legacy, reputation, values, and interests in Kosovo and the Western Balkans.
IMAGE: A board in Mitrovica, Kosovo, in February 2019 advertises the refurbishment of Mitrovica bridge by the European Union. President Hashim Thaci has said that 2019 should be the year Kosovo reaches comprehensive agreements with Serbia, including on border demarcation, to normalize relations and facilitate future NATO and EU entry for Kosovo. (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)