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North Macedonia’s name deal was a historic success. But any Serbia-Kosovo land swap would be a repetition of historical mistakes

Three reasons why one swallow does not make a (Balkan) summer.

July 3, 2019 - Kristijan Fidanovski - Articles and Commentary

The Bistrica River passes through the old Turkish quarter of Prizren, Kosovo, with the Sinan Pasha Mosque (1615) on its left bank. Photo: David Stanley (cc) flickr.com

For too long, Western strategy on the Balkans has followed a Tolstoian logic: all happy Balkan countries are alike, but each unhappy one is unhappy in its own way. Last summer, Greece signed an historic agreement with what is now North Macedonia to end а decade-long dispute about the latter’s name. Аround the same time, the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo revealed a plan to reach their own historic agreement on the latter’s status. This rare display of political will for difficult compromises in a region that is not known for them has dazzled Western policymakers. Just like North Macedonia, Serbia wants to join the EU. But neither country can do this until it swallows the bitter pill of reaching a compromise with a neighbor that holds all the cards. To join the EU, North Macedonia will need a green light from Greece. To do the same, Serbia will need one from the West, which has largely recognised Kosovo’s independence.

So far, Tolstoy gets it right: compromise is a mandatory checkpoint for both countries on their path to happiness. And this is where the analogy stops. After all, if the two countries have been “unhappy in their own way” for decades, can there really be one cookie-cutter solution for their diverging misfortunes? Like unhappy families, deals can take many forms. Whatever shape – if any – the one between Serbia and Kosovo ends up taking, there are three reasons why it cannot replicate North Macedonia’s success story.

A deal that unites and a deal that divides

Since independence in 1991, the Macedonian people had repeatedly asked themselves: what’s in a name? Does it define who you are? And is it any less good if others have it too – or parts of it? The answer to this last question did not make much difference. Whether Macedonians like(d) it or not, Greece is their neighbor, and the largest Greek region also happens to be called – Macedonia. Names can coexist, but they don’t have to. If that co-existence breeds resentment, there is an easy fix.

The Prime Ministers Alexisis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev pose after the press conference in the Government building in Skopje, North Macedonia. Photo: EPA-EFE/GEORGI LICOVSKI (cc) flickr.com

But easy fixes don’t work well for territories. The plan that was revealed by Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić and his Kosovar counterpart Hashim Thaçi – still unspecified almost a year later – would involve border revisions that would make the two countries more ethnically homogenous. For Macedonia, the epithet “North” reaffirmed an obvious geographical status quo: the country Macedonia does lie to the north of the namesake Greek region. By contrast, any attempt to make Serbia and Kosovo more homogenous would ignore – and inevitably alter – the status quo of Serbs and Albanians living together.

Drawing a physical line between small neighboring cities with different ethnic make-ups – as well as a proverbial one between the Serbs and Albanians living within those cities – has rightly been likened to performing a reckless open-heart surgery. By creating more rather than less division in an already divided region, the land swap would vindicate the notorious mantra of every Yugoslav hatemonger from the war-plagued 1990s: these people are incapable of living together.

The misguided Western search for the Balkan Richard Nixon

And yet, major world leaders have stood behind a dangerous deal that doesn’t even exist on paper yet. EU High Commissioner Federica Mogherini has pledged support for “whatever outcome is mutually agreed as long as it is in line with international law”. US President Donald Trump has urged the two presidents to “seize this unique moment”. The reason for their support might not lie in the merits of the deal. In fact, it may have nothing to do with the deal. It is instead based on the idea that this is the only chance for some compromise between Belgrade and Pristina, and bad compromise is better than none.

This conviction rests upon the belief that the only side that needs convincing in order to make concessions is Serbia, and that the best person to sell this deal to his people is Mr. Vučić; Kosovo, one of the most pro-American countries in the world with a statue of Bill Clinton in its capital, will always fall in line. Serbia, having been bombed by NATO just twenty years ago, might not. This is where a popular strongman such as Mr. Vučić comes in. Having proven his patriotic credentials during his time as Minister of Information in Slobodan Milošević’s wartime regime, Mr. Vučić can never be accused of national betrayal. Like Richard Nixon’s famous visit to the “Chinese enemy” in 1972, the West is hoping to use Mr. Vučić to fight fire with fire and convince the Serbs that a deal pitched by their patriot in chief cannot possibly be a bad one.

EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
Federica Mogherini with Isa Mustafa, Prime Minister of Kosovo; Hashim Thaci, President of Kosovo; Tomislav Nikolic, President of Serbia and Aleksandar Vucic, Prime Minister of Serbia. Photo: European External Action Service (cc) flickr.com

What the West seems to be forgetting is that it once tried the exact same approach with North Macedonia – and it failed. Mr. Vučić is not the first Balkan politician who has been groomed as the modern “Balkan Nixon”. The predecessor of North Macedonia’s current prime minister Zoran Zaev, who signed the name deal last year, was a strongman named Nikola Gruevski and his conservative party VMRO-DPMNE, which had ruled the country for eleven years.

At first glance, Mr. Gruevski seemed like the perfect man at the perfect time to sell an unpopular compromise with Athens: popular, patriotic, and determined to catch up with Macedonia’s fast-progressing neighbors. (Curiously, these included Serbia, which began its EU accession talks in 2014 as a result of its normalisation of relations with Kosovo via the 2013 Brussels Agreement, which would effectively be nullified by any potential land swap.)

Thus, the EU was pinning all its hopes for the resolution of the name dispute on Mr. Gruevski. It lavished his country with positive language as late as 2014, insisting that “all political criteria [for accession talks] continue to be met” in what was increasingly becoming a captured state. Yet, after eleven years in power, Mr. Gruevski proved to be no Nixon. He never found the courage to use his patriotic credentials to sell a bitter and reluctant compromise with Greece. Instead, it was Mr. Zaev who used his progressive credentials to frame the name deal as a friendly understanding between two neighbors for a better future.

While the West ponders, Moscow gets it right (albeit for the wrong reasons)

For now, unlike North Macedonia’s name deal, which is already being implemented, the Serbia-Kosovo land swap seems unlikely to materialise. At a recent summit in Berlin, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated their opposition to border changes. This served as a sober reminder of the considerable international opposition to the idea – even inside the West.

While Paris and Berlin are just being consistent to their respect for the inviolability of borders, other EU member states might have a more selfish reason to oppose the land swap. Five EU countries – Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain – do not recognise Kosovo due to their own fears of domestic secessionist movements. Afraid of a domino effect at home, they are unlikely to endorse any land swap.

Of course, the entire objective of a land swap would be to facilitate Serbia’s European integration. If so, then the opposition of five states that have the power to block that integration should probably kill the idea at its root. By contrast, North Macedonia’s name deal received universal Western support, which was expressed to Mr. Zaev in no uncertain terms by an ensemble cast of world leaders visiting Skopje, including Ms. Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and former U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

At the same time, while the West is divided on the land swap, Russia is strongly opposed to it. This may matter more. To be sure, Moscow was also opposed to North Macedonia’s name deal, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov explicitly questioning the legitimacy of the agreement. Yet, while Russian sympathies in North Macedonia are marginal, Russian President Vladimir Putin is the most popular foreign politician in Serbia, mainly thanks to his lip service about protecting the national interests of a fellow Slavic country. This allows the Kremlin to effectively veto any Western-supported land swap and gives Mr. Vučić a tactical reason – on top of a pile of objective ones – to bury the land swap speculation once and for all.

The art of not making a deal

Not all deals are good news. One that aims to redraw borders can only make a bad situation worse, especially in a region where the memory of the fatal consequences of ethnocentric thinking is so fresh. The same goes for a deal that relies on an increasingly authoritarian leader striking a compromise for a European future, even though there is nothing European about his own rule. Finally, a deal that is opposed by so many abroad will never be accepted at home, especially not by people who have little experience with compromises. For now, the land swap seems bound to fail. Now that would be good news.  

Kristijan Fidanovski is a Master of Arts in Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. His research focuses on his native North Macedonia, the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, where he examines policy issues in the realm of European integration, public health, and demography.

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