The price of normalisation: Serbia, Kosovo, and a risky border deal

This is the time for EU and its member states to push for solutions to the Serbia-Kosovo landswap that have domestic support and that enhance wider stability in the region

One of the most contentious topics in the Western Balkans in recent months has been a proposed Serbia-Kosovo land swap. Under this “comprehensive deal”, Belgrade would regain control of disputed territory in North Kosovo and recognise the Republic of Kosovo as a state, while Kosovo would gain some municipalities in the Presevo Valley. For once, the sides seemed to be on a rational quest for a solution to a difficult regional problem. Yet, for other Balkans countries and many other observers, Serbia and Kosovo now seem intent on a deal that would set a dangerous precedent for redrawing national borders along ethnic lines (outside the extraordinary circumstances of military aggression and genocide seen in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s). This type of agreement would primarily threaten to destabilise Bosnia, Macedonia, and Montenegro – but it could also boost nationalists engaged in territorial disputes elsewhere in Europe, from Trieste to Transylvania and Tyrol.

Against this background, the European Commission adopted in February 2018 a strategy for enhancing engagement with the Western Balkans under which Serbia could have a shot at acceding to the European Union by 2025. However, the Commission has emphasised that this will only happen if Belgrade and Pristina normalise their relationship.

At the August 2018 meeting of the European Forum Alpbach, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi publicly discussed the idea of border “correction” (as they call it) for the first time. During EU-facilitated talks in June-September this year, Vučić had refused to participate in a trilateral meeting with Thaçi and EU High Representative Federica Mogherini. His intransigence brought the dialogue to a halt. However, during a meeting with ECFR the previous March, Vučić mentioned his desire to end the frozen conflict between Serbia and Kosovo, indicating that his country “should gain something” from a normalisation deal even if there was no complete swap.

Vučić may imagine that the EU is longing for a heroic Balkans strongman who can strike geopolitical deals, whereas it really wants Serbia to become a predictable, well-run country that minds its own business and gets on with its neighbours

Some European countries are concerned that the talks between Serbia and Kosovo will not solve existing problems but create new ones if they continue in their current direction. Nonetheless, it is unclear whether the discussions are going anywhere or whether citizens of Kosovo would accept a land swap. There is still a long way to go.

Due to Serbia’s evident lack of ambition to improve relations with Kosovo and the absence of dialogue with local communities, the territorial exchange proposal falls within the tradition of top-down ethnic homogenisation seen in the Balkans in the early 1920s. Any substantive deal on a land swap will likely proceed from high-level diplomatic negotiations. This is quite different to, for example, the delineation of the border between Denmark and Germany, which involved extensive consultation with residents in affected areas.

While Thaçi has gained little domestic support for the proposed land swap, Vučić has nurtured Serbs’ expectations that he will fulfil his promises (“he can be our de Gaulle”, as some of my liberal Serbian friends put it). And, while public support for swapping territory with Kosovo only has the support of around 40 percent of Serbs, the Serbian president seems quite confident that, should his country hold a referendum on a deal with Kosovo that included a border change, “it would not fail as the one in Macedonia did.” Serbian officials are convinced that the EU-led Belgrade-Pristina dialogue is no longer a viable avenue for cooperation and that “it is time to move from constructive ambiguity to clarity on Serbia-Kosovo”.

But Belgrade and Pristina do not appear to have worked out a detailed plan yet. Given the opposition to the idea in Kosovo, such an agreement would probably intensify mutual recriminations between Serbia and Kosovo if it failed part way through. This has often been the case with the EU-led dialogue in the past few years.

Meanwhile, the United States’ position on a land swap has shifted dramatically out of alignment with the EU’s. Vučić and Thaçi believe that Washington has encouraged them to pursue the idea. Speaking in Belgrade in October, US Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Palmer said that the festering long-term dispute between Kosovo and Serbia poses a danger to stability. However, he added new conditions to a possible solution: it should be comprehensive and durable, and should have widespread public support in both countries.

Critics of the proposal point to its potential inflame territorial disputes elsewhere in the Balkans. In response, Serbia maintains that it will continue working to protect the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, if those effects spill over into Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian community, there are few guarantees one can expect from Serbia.

Belgrade seems less concerned about public opposition to the proposal in the Western Balkans than about a lack of support from Germany. As Vučić put it at the October 2018 meeting of the Belgrade Security Forum: “the Balkans are a chessboard of great powers”.

But this preoccupation with geopolitics distracts from the real issues Serbia must address before it can join the EU – particularly weaknesses in democracy and the rule of law. Vučić may have persuaded himself that, because Kosovo is so important to European policymakers, Serbia can avoid difficult democratic reforms and join the EU if it pushes through a border agreement. He may imagine that the EU is longing for a heroic Balkans strongman who can strike geopolitical deals, whereas it really wants Serbia to become a predictable, well-run country that minds its own business and gets on with its neighbours. “Stability over democracy” is the mantra of the Serbian government and most of its international partners (as it was of the government of then Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski in 2015-2016).

The debate over the land swap proposal may re-ignite if nationalist forces make significant gains in the May 2019 European Parliament elections. Sovereignists in the Balkans hope that nationalist parliamentarians will have a natural sympathy for redrawing borders along ethnic lines. They also hope that Angela Merkel will step down as Germany’s chancellor soon, and that her successor will be too ignorant of the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo to effectively oppose a land swap. (Whoever replaces her will likely take years to grasp the region’s complexities and the reason why one should pay attention to them.)

The Kosovo-Serbia land swap discussion has been so intense that it has even side-lined Belgrade’s EU integration talks. Serbia sees EU leaders as divided over whether to support Balkan countries that have already made progress towards EU accession. In June this year, after the European Council suspended Macedonia’s and Albania’s accession talks until July 2016, Serbian journalists and political analysts argued that the countries “were fooled by the EU”. Yet Serbia now takes for granted its membership discussions with the EU (which started in 2014): the overwhelming expectation in Belgrade is that all the EU really cares about is an agreement with Kosovo. President Vučić appears to be preparing the ground for a possible referendum on a change of constitution, in which he could include measures that strengthen his hold on power even more. Further complicating matters, Serbia’s administrative capacity is declining due to a large-scale brain drain.

The Serbian leadership appears to be increasingly aware that, if a border deal with Kosovo is to succeed, it will need to consult with locals who a land swap would affect, and to gain the backing of Germany and other key EU partners, the countries in the region, and most citizens of Serbia and Kosovo. Therefore, this is the moment for EU capitals to set out clear and coordinated positions on the proposal from Serbia and Kosovo. Rather than merely reacting to developments in the countries’ discussions, the EU and its member states should push for solutions that have domestic support and that enhance wider stability in the region. Moreover, they need to think creatively about how they will respond if the talks lead Serbia and Kosovo down yet another blind alley.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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