Pandora’s box in the Balkans

Pandora’s box in the Balkans


EU should reconsider its support for the Kosovo–Serbia “land swap”


Source: Wikimedia Commons


The attempts to settle one of the hottest borders in the Western Balkans have once again returned to ethnic divisions. The border demarcation proposal, or “land swap”, between Kosovo and Serbia has recently received support from the EU and the United States, both of which are looking to achieve shortcuts for the long-term problem that the two powers have attempted to solve for over a decade. The current plan to swap land along ethnic lines, however, threatens to weaken the core basis of the Western efforts in the Balkans based on the post-Cold War ideals of multi-ethnic, liberal states operating under the rule of law and European values.


Acceptance by the EU of redrawing borders based on ethnicity would not only be likely to have significant repercussions elsewhere in the Western Balkans but also in other disputed territories. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, for example, has justified its occupation of Crimea partly by asserting that the peninsula has a mostly ethnic Russian population. Making matters worse, the Trump Administration – which has been leading the return of the US to Central and Eastern Europe – has been supportive of the “land swap” proposal. The President’s eyes seem glued to the credit-taking photo-op of hosting a historic signing ceremony at the White House Rose Garden.


“I look forward to hosting you in the White House to celebrate what would be a historic accord”, wrote the US President Donald Trump in the letters to the Presidents Hahsim Thaçi of Kosovo and Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia in December 2018.


Domestic political conflict over the “land swap” in Kosovo


Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after the 1998-1999 war that claimed around 13,000 lives. Since 2011, the two parties have engaged in a continuous dialogue facilitated by the High Representative of the EU as per the 2010 UN Consensus Resolution. The negotiations initially led to the 2013 Brussels Agreement, which was not signed by either of the sides but has nonetheless been recognised as a prerequisite for EU accession talks.


Since November 2018, however, the dialogue has stalled as a result of Kosovo imposing a 100% import tax on Serbian and Bosnian products. Kosovo imposed the tax originally at 10% on 6 November and lifted it to its current level on 21 November, arguing that it was a reaction to Serbia lobbying against the country’s admission to international organisations. On 20 November, Kosovo had failed to secure the support of the required two-thirds of Interpol member states in a vote to join the international police organisation. When faced with calls from the EU and US to remove the tariff that counters Kosovo’s obligations under the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), the country’s prime minister Ramush Haradinaj responded that he will not remove the measures until Serbia recognises Kosovo’s independence. Serbia, which constitution specifies Kosovo as an ‘integral part’ of its territory, has vowed never to recognise the region’s independence.


While the Kosovar Prime Minister Haradinaj and Speaker Kadri Veseli ramped up popular support with the measures against Serbia (benefitting Albania and Macedonia, which exports to Kosovo have increased 39% and 10% since November, respectively), Presidents Thaçi and Vučić have continued to promote their controversial border demarcation proposal. First introduced in August 2018, the “land swap” would involve granting parts of Serbia’s Preševo municipality to Kosovo in exchange for parts of northern Kosovo. In addition, The town of Bujanovac in Serbia would become a special district akin to the status of Brčko in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while the divided Kosovar town of Mitrovica would become a ‘free city’. The mines of Trepča would also be given a special status. Since becoming public, the proposal has remained solidly unpopular in both Serbia and Kosovo. The swap would also add a new non-Schengen border on the route of Pan-European Corridor X.


Perhaps more than anything, the demarcation proposal has been a source of internal schism in the politics of Kosovo.  President Thaçi’s support of the “land swap”, which is unpopular in both Kosovo and Serbia, has seen tensions rise between the presidency and the parliament. Thaçi’s efforts to sidelines the national legislators in the opaque talks led to the Parliament of Kosovo endorsing its own ‘Delegation for Dialogue’ on 15 December to conduct the talks with Serbia instead. This internal struggle has only brought further confusion to the already fragile dialogue, which the demarcation proposal has thus failed to boost. In addition, together with the aforementioned import tax measures, Kosovo’s domestic situation has also begun to undermine its most important international alliance – its relationship with the United States.


Current Commission races against time to conclude the dialogue


Meanwhile, the EU has lost much of its footing in the Western Balkans, displaying once again the bloc’s difficulties in dealing with its own backyard. The decade of crises and the rise of populists have certainly hindered both the appeal of EU membership, which is generally argued to be the bloc’s most powerful tool in shaping its neighbourhood, as well as its ability to conduct external relations as a coherent unit. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s announcement that no new member states would be accepted during his mandate did not exactly motivate the Western Balkans candidate states to implement reforms either. Furthermore, the EU has not done itself any favours by delaying the visa liberalisation scheme promised to Kosovo in return for fulfilling specific reform criteria. Visa-free travel regime is seen as one of the main incentives for Kosovo to continue the EU-led talks with Serbia, as the country remains one of the only two territories in Europe (Belarus) to have Schengen restrictions.


Most recently, the EU’s standing in the Kosovo–Serbia dialogue has been undermined by the opposing positions taken on the issue by influential players within the bloc. Germany, the UK, and Austria (which held the rotating EU presidency when the demarcation plan came to light) have all raised concerns about redrawing the map along ethnic divisions in the region. “The focus should be on creating national rather than ethnic identities”, said the Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl reportedly. Nonetheless, some EU officials, most notably High Representative Federica Mogherini and the Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Johannes Hahn, have been supportive of the proposal in order to speed up the negotiations.


The Commission is obviously concerned about the end of its term in a couple of months’ time, but no one seems as concerned about their legacy as Mogherini. Much like her predecessor Catherine Ashton hurry to conclude the first International Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalization of Relations between Kosovo and Serbia before the end of her term, Mogherini’s urgency to end the dialogue seems to stem from personal ambitions. This rush to achieve something concrete before the end of the current Commission’s five-year term does not, however, encourage the forging of a long-term and sustainable solution between the two sides.


Theory ≠ Practice


What may sound like a relatively quick solution in theory to the slowing dialogue process, is most likely not going to work in practice. For example, the rural areas surrounding the majority-ethnic Albanian towns in Serbia have a Serbian farming population who simply cannot move their livelihood between redrawn borders as it is tied to the land. Thus, any breakthrough in the Serbia–Kosovo dialogues should not be based on ethnicity.


Allowing redrawing of the fragile map of the Western Balkans threatens to open a Pandora’s box of ethnic shuffling between Serbia and its neighbours. There just simply is not a way this could be contained as a one-off instance. One only has to think about the precedent this would set to Republica Srpska’s Milorad Dodik.

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