A blueprint solution for Kosovo: What is at stake?
Changing national borders can be a complicated and contentious process. The partition or exchange of territories between Kosovo and Serbia would re-establish ethnic boundaries and increase the likelihood of ethnic violence.
In November 2005, the Contact Group for Kosovo (comprising of the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Russia) stated that there would be no partitioning of the territory of Kosovo, no return of the situation to as it was before 1999, and no unification of Kosovo with any other country.
As of 2019, the circumstances are vastly different. Kosovo is an independent state but only partially recognised. Russia has invaded South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Crimea. The Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina is threatening to split. The UK is dealing with Brexit at the same time when EU politics are fragmented, On the other side of the Atlantic, the US has elected a president who does not share the same values as his predecessors.
A final agreement between Kosovo and Serbia to settle long-standing disputes is beginning to take shape. The presidents of both countries, Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, appeared together at a news conference in the Austrian town of Alpbach on August 25th 2018. However, while Vucic is supposedly being cooperative, his keynote speech in North Kosovo in early September showed otherwise. He urged for reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians but also praised former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in the same speech.
Since June 2018, both sides in the EU-mediated talks on the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo have stated that the negotiations are entering their final stage. Although the EU has made it clear that the governments of Pristina and Belgrade must normalise relations in order to gain membership in the bloc, tensions remain high despite eight years of negotiations and ten years of independence for Kosovo. The failure of Kosovo to join INTERPOL infuriated Kosovo’s authorities. Kosovo retaliated by imposing a ten per cent tariff on Serbian and Bosnian goods which was later increased to 100 per cent. Serbian authorities have stated that there will be no continuation of dialogue until Kosovo withdraws its trade barriers.
The EU-facilitated dialogue has struggled to produce a final settlement, unable to reach a deal between the two nations. The EU itself has been incapable of forging a common position on Kosovo. EU member states have differing opinions on how the Kosovo-Serbia dispute should be handled and five of the countries (Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain) do not even recognise Kosovo’s independence.
As we enter the final stage of the facilitated Brussels negotiations, the window for implementing the Association/Community of Serb municipalities is closing, whereas terms such as land swap, exchange of territories, border adjustments and border corrections are gaining momentum.This has left the international community unprepared as both Vučic and Thaci strongly consider a solution that would involve a change to the current borders.
If Kosovo and Serbia are to become EU member states one day, then a normalisation agreement that is legally binding and thorough is necessary. Kosovo and Serbia are being pressured to reach a deal and end their cold peace. EU Commissioner for Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn stated that the “goal of [the] EU should be that Serbia and Kosovo reach an agreement by the middle of 2019.”
On November 11th 2018, both Thaci and Vucic were among the many leaders invited by French President Emmanuel Macron to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War. What made this occasion special from the Kosovo perspective was the brief but historical meeting between Thaci and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although Russia has opposed Kosovo’s independence on almost all fronts, Kosovo is aware that it must improve relations with Russia in order to become a member of the UN. President Thaci tweeted that President Putin supports a comprehensive and binding deal between Kosovo and Serbia but he did not provide any further details.
American President Donald Trump has also emphasised the importance of reaching a final deal. For the first time since the beginning of the Brussels Negotiations in 2011, a US president has commented on the issue. This comes as a big surprise, considering Trump’s lack of interest in this region of Europe. One thing is for sure: Trump and Putin’s involvement on this matter is no coincidence and might experience serious developments of existing disputes and involve changes of current borders.
Change of national borders
A national boundary revision comes in many different forms, such as a “partition,” “border adjustment,” “border correction,” “land swap” or “exchange of territories.” In principle, the change of territories along ethnic lines is presented by many as a fair deal where Kosovo can trade the southern Presevo Valley of Serbia (consisting of an Albanian majority) with Northern Kosovo (consisting of a Serb majority).
However, negotiations will be complicated in all respects. Apart from the ethnic and demographic issues inherent to territorial exchanges, Serbia also demands that the Serbian Orthodox monastery of Visoki Decani, along with a few other Orthodox monasteries in Kosovo, be granted extraterritoriality (the status of being exempted from the jurisdiction of local law, usually as the result of diplomatic negotiations.). Economically speaking, In addition, there are economic benefits to both regions that are being considered for border adjustments. Northern Kosovo is home to Gazivode Lake and the Trepca Mines — both crucial economic giants — whereas southeast Serbia contains a railway and highway (Corridor 10) that connect to Macedonia and Greece, making that area of major strategic importance as well.
In Kosovo, the idea of national border adjustment also faces legal hurdles. Within existing parameters, the constitution of Kosovo does not even allow territorial adjustments. Basic provisions of the constitution of Kosovo, specifically Article 1, point 3, state the following: “The Republic of Kosovo shall have no territorial claims against, and shall seek no union with, any State or part of any State.” Moreover, the document claims that, “The sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Kosovo is intact, inalienable, indivisible and protected by all means provided in this Constitution and the law.”
The idea of adjusting national borders is not a new suggestion. Various political analysts, such as former British diplomat Timothy Less, have asserted in the past that an entire region must be partitioned along ethnic lines in order to be stable. Kosovo’s President Thaci has not ruled out the possibility of resorting to territorial exchanges and has floated ambiguous terminology such as the “correction of borders.”
The experts and former diplomats have warned that rethinking the borders in the Balkans poses a risk to the stability of a region that is still struggling to come to terms with the wars of the 1990s, which tore apart Yugoslavia in Europe’s deadliest conflict since the Second World War. Former US special envoy to the Balkans Daniel Serwer stated, “It’s a bad idea because it could be destabilising for the Balkan region, [and it could] enhance political support for those inside Kosovo who oppose Kosovo statehood and want unification with Albania.” Furthermore, David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights said, “It would create instability, it would be dangerous. It could spark violence in Kosovo as well as in Serbia.” Last but not least, former adviser to President Obama Charles Kupchan described the scenario as “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”
In 2015, Belgium and the Netherlands reached an agreement in which Belgium ceded a small peninsula (about 14 hectares in area) in the Maas River to the Netherlands. In return, Belgium received a smaller piece of Dutch territory where it had already built a water lock. The swap made sense because the area had become unreachable over land from Belgium following the straightening of the Maas River during the 1960s. Thus, it made it difficult for the Belgian police to patrol there, transforming the area into a safe-haven for drug dealers and criminals. The border change was prompted by a violent murder and arduous police investigation. Both countries’ deputy prime ministers and ministers of foreign affairs signed the border correction treaty in Amsterdam at the end of 2016. This way, Belgium and the Netherlands settled a festering territorial dispute without firing a single bullet.
It is this sort of border correction that President Thaci attempts to reach. However, he seems to overlook the fact that countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands maintain excellent bilateral relations, and their agreement was a goodwill gesture. Furthermore, Thaci has yet to explain to the people of Kosovo what the compromise with Serbia will look like. Instead, he uses ambiguous terminology and secret diplomacy, although most of the population is already aware of the land swap option. Furthermore, a possible exchange of territories requires strong and democratic institutions and a highly transparent process. Neither Kosovo nor Serbia possess such institutions and values; thus, if there are no friendly relations between two countries, and the agreement is not proposed or signed in goodwill, then the agreement is doomed to fail. In the worst-case scenario, it can ignite conflict.
Locally, the idea of border changes produced strong criticism both in Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo’s opposition and civil society are strongly against this option. The Serbian Orthodox Church declared itself firmly against the division of Kosovo or exchange of territories, as most of its holy sites are located in the southern part of Kosovo. In Serbia, Vucic might face opposition from many at home who see the deal with Kosovo as an admission that Kosovo is lost forever. However, Vucic won the last presidential election with around 54 per cent of the votes, and he carries enormous influence in daily politics as well as local media. Thus, his legitimacy is strong among the electorate. In addition, Vucic plays the victim card, claiming that he bears a strong responsibility to solve the “Kosovo knot” once and for all, so that future generations can live in peace. He often states that it is better to win something than lose everything; thus, Vucic’s rhetoric heightens the sense of emergency accompanying the final talks.
Kosovo’s president, however, struggles more than Serbia’s. Not only is the opposition against Thaci, but he also lacks support from the government and Prime Minister Haradinaj. The media and civil society strongly question his mandate to represent Kosovo, since Kosovo is a parliamentary republic and, unlike Serbia, the president of Kosovo is appointed by the parliament, not directly by the people. The question of legitimacy remains valid, as does the question of credibility. At the end of September, more than ten thousand people gathered at Pristina’s main square to protest Thaci’s ideas. The protest was organised by the main opposition party, the Self-Determination Movement (LVV).
It is believed that the party of Ramush Haradinaj, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), made a deal with Kosovo’s Democratic Party (PDK) to choose Haradinaj as prime minister, expecting him to handle domestic politics. In return, PDK gained control over most of the ministries and paved the way for President Thaci (the former leader of PDK) to deal with foreign policy, particularly the dialogue with Serbia.
As the media and civil society question Thaci’s legitimacy, it seems that Haradinaj is grasping this opportunity to further weaken Thaci’s position. The parliament of Kosovo has adopted a resolution which will select a new dialogue team to negotiate with Serbia. According to the resolution, the team will consist of representatives from the government, opposition and civil society.
The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina remains volatile. The Serbian political representatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina have shown tendencies in the past to declare independence or reunite with Serbia. For instance, the Serb representative of the tripartite Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina Milorad Dodik has stated that he will demand a UN seat if Kosovo gets one. At the end of May, Dodik stated at a lecture given at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade that the Republika Srpska (the entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Serbia should join as one state in the future.
In Kosovo, the exchange of territories would automatically open the debate for reunification with Albania. If not through a federal system, Kosovo would probably consider the confederate system. This would be an excellent offer to sell. The reunification could be argued on two bases: historical claims and socio-economic prosperity (more development, less barriers). Kosovo citizens would automatically feel more secure and represented being in NATO, the UN and other international bodies and without visa restrictions.
However, this could be problematic for Albania, as the EU would put enormous pressure on them not to undertake such a choice. Angela Merkel said during a press conference in Berlin, “The territorial integrity of the states of the Western Balkans has been established and is inviolable… this has to be said again and again because again and again there are attempts to perhaps talk about borders and we can’t do that,” thus rejecting any idea of trading territories. The reason is simple: every time a Balkan country changed its borders, conflict or war ensued. The EU wants to avoid the slightest risk of having an armed conflict in the most volatile region of Europe.
The US stance remains unclear at the moment. Former US Ambassador to Kosovo Greg Delawie has neither denied nor accepted the possibility of border changes. This might be an effect of the Trump administration, which has adopted a relaxed attitude toward international relations. Under Trump, a deal between Kosovo and Serbia would probably be favoured over territorial integrity. For the first time, we are witnessing a shift in US foreign policy, from a clear “no” to the notion of border changes in Kosovo to a more open “let us consider this option.” Trump’s new national security adviser John Bolton stated during an interview, “If the two parties (Kosovo and Serbia) can work it out, we do not exclude territorial adjustments between Serbia and Kosovo.” He emphasised that the Kosovo-Serbia dispute is a very important issue in the region, the stability of which depends on it. During the statement he quoted former US secretary of state James Baker, saying “we cannot want peace more than the parties themselves. If the parties involved agree on a common solution, the US will not oppose it.”
Border adjustments between Kosovo and Serbia carry implications beyond the Balkans. Russia could take advantage in Crimea, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. As such, the territorial swap alternative is likely to create more problems rather than solve the current one. What if Kosovo and Serbia agree to exchange territories? In this event, it would be very difficult to argue against their negotiation. After all, the logic of reconciliation and cooperation dictates that such countries must agree with each other, and that the agreement must not be imposed from the outside.
Easier said than done
Changing national borders is an easy idea to mention, but it is difficult and dangerous to implement. The partition or exchange of territories between Kosovo and Serbia would re-establish ethnic boundaries and increase the likelihood of local ethnic violence; it could possibly even repeat the ethnic violence of March 2004. In addition, border adjustments would impact the region as a whole. This arrangement could spark a wave of nationalism that would surely open the old, nationalist Pandora’s box of the Balkans and create incentives for other minorities in the Western Balkans to secede or reunite with their ethno-state. The creation of ethno-states would be an excellent opportunity for nationalists to advocate reunification and feed the collective imagination of romantic nationalism to their people. Only then might the West understand the virus they have unleashed by choosing a “pragmatic solution.”
Visar Xhambazi is a research fellow at Prishtina Institute for Political Studies (PIPS). He holds an MA from Old Dominion University in International Studies specialising in US foreign policy. His latest publication is: The Incomplete Puzzle: How should Kosovo approach