Rights and Territories in the Western Balkans

30 August 2018

Serbia and Kosovo are moving towards an agreement on a land swap. The chances of success, however, are very low.

By Vladimir Gligorov

  • Serbia and Kosovo appear to be moving towards a deal that would involve the swapping of land between the two countries.
  • From the Serbian government’s perspective, the hope is that by taking back land from Kosovo, it will be able to get the population to accept a recognition of Kosovan independence.
  • On the Kosovan side, the government is divided and is likely to face the same legitimacy issues as in the past.
  • Moreover, the move towards a deal throws up two particularly problematic issues in the region: possible unification between Albania and Kosovo, and the secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia.
  • The interests of outside actors in the region are mixed. Russia is against the deal, fearing that it will lose influence in the Western Balkans. For the US and the EU, the implications are likely to be more positive.
  • In the end, the chances of a workable agreement being reached are slim, reflecting domestic political factors on both sides.

An agreement on normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo appears to be becoming more likely. The deal apparently involves the correction of the borders or a swap of territories. How did the parties in conflict arrive there? What are the regional and international ramifications? And what are the chances for success?

How Serbia came to accept the idea of a territorial swap

Serbian politics has been in two minds about Kosovo since at least the mid-sixties (although in reality the dilemma is older and goes back to the Balkan Wars and the inclusion of Kosovo into Serbia at the beginning of the 20th century). The dilemma was centred on the territorial separation of Serbs from Albanians, or alternatively about the extent of Serbian rule over Kosovo. The latter implied the scrapping of Kosovo’s political autonomy or, more realistically, determining the scope of that autonomy within the Serbian state. Basically, the dilemma has been between a territorial solution, or one that is constitutional, rights-based, and political.

A territorial solution was not the preferred option in Serbia until quite recently. Faced with the pressure to normalise relations with Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and his government adopted the territorial solution as their policy (it had previously been rejected by all Serbian governments). The rationale is rather simple: if any part of the current Kosovo territory could be repatriated to Serbia, recognising Kosovo‘s independence might not look like a complete defeat for the current government.

The problem, however, is with the ethnic criterion of territorial separation. According to this approach, Serbs and Albanians cannot live together, and cannot share territory, so they should separate. There are territories in the south of Serbia which are majority Albanian, and the north of Kosovo is overwhelmingly Serbian. Thus, the territorial solution means swapping Kosovo’s territory, e.g. four counties in the north, for e.g. three counties in the south of Serbia. Giving up on something that is already lost, Kosovo, and perhaps getting a small part of it back is one thing for the Serbian public. However, giving up further currently Serbian territory in exchange is another story altogether.

The initial proposal of territorial separation, advanced by Dobrica Ćosić in the mid-1960s, included the exchange of population to accommodate territorial interests. He advanced the same proposal during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, having not just Kosovo but also Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in mind, with disastrous consequences. He was for a short period the President of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) in the first half of 1990s.

It is conceivable that the current proposal for territorial accommodation might also include an agreement to swap populations on ethnic grounds. This would mean Serbs living in the south of Kosovo being resettled in Serbian northern Kosovo, while ethnic Albanians in the south of Serbia would perhaps be concentrated in one or two counties there in order to minimise the amount of the Serbian territory to be exchanged for northern Kosovo. Moving population around for political reasons has a long history in the Balkans, none of it good or leading to stability.

Does the agreement have any chance of being accepted by the Serbian public?

Whatever agreement the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo arrive at will have to be put to referendum in Serbia. On the existing evidence, Serbs might arguably accept the separation of Kosovo, given that indeed it is already an independent state. If the offer is sweetened by some repatriation of Kosovo’s territory, that would make the decision easier. Swapping territories and people, however, is in all probability going to be a much more difficult sell.

Here, the implicit promise might be that Serbia will be eventually compensated with the annexation of Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is to be noted that Milorad Dodik, the President of Republika Srpska, has been advocating that outcome for some time now. This, clearly, cannot be the explicit political commitment, but will be an implicit offer to the voters in the Serbian referendum (I will return to the Bosnia and Herzegovina angle below).

Any kind of land swap is only one part of the deal however, and in reality such an agreement would be fraught with difficulties. There will be all sorts of rights and rights-based claims to be settled. Most importantly, the Serbian Church for one will hardly be happy with territorial separation as most of its churches, monasteries, and property will remain in Kosovo.

What about Kosovo?

Putting aside history, Kosovo’s long-term political strategy has been to secure independence from Serbia by participating in a wider political integration like Yugoslavia or the European Union. Alternatively, and more recently, the prospect of integration of Kosovo with Albania has gained political support. The former political strategy was about rights, the latter is about territory. Clearly, the politics of the President of Kosovo, Hashim Thaçi, is to endorse the latter strategy. There are two conditions to assess the political potential of this strategy. One is that of the current constitutional set-up of Kosovo. The other is the state of legitimacy of Kosovo’s government (in the broad sense of that word).

Kosovo’s current constitution is based on the Ahtisaari plan which was rejected by Serbia and vetoed in the Security Council by Russia, but was adopted by Kosovo. The Ahtisaari plan had three main elements: the independence of Kosovo, collective rights for the Serbian minority and its church, and international legitimacy. The latter meant at first international supervision (conditional independence) and later an international pact, guaranteed by the UN Security Council, with the aim of ruling out integration with Albania. The latter provision is similar to that in Bosnia and Herzegovina (see below).

Therefore, if there is a territorial agreement with Serbia, Kosovo will be free to change its constitution and also to integrate with Albania if it so chooses. If, in addition, there is a swap of territories (giving up the north of Kosovo for the majority ethnic Albanian south of Serbia) the strategy might look appealing to the Kosovan public. It would also secure the political future of Hashim Thaçi.

The selling of the agreement to the public is important because successive governments of Kosovo have suffered from a lack of legitimacy. The reason has been that they did not have sufficient democratic support, but were rather a second best choice given the external circumstances. This is why, quite aptly, the main opposition party is called Self-determination (Vetëvendosje). With that in mind, the proposal of territorial settlement with Serbia might be appealing, but not necessarily seen as legitimate. Thus, political developments, e.g. elections, might be needed in Kosovo before any proposed agreement can be put to vote in the parliament or to a referendum. And the Prime Minister is already opposed to the deal, while the opposition is likely to win the elections.

What are the potential ramifications for the region?

A potential Serbian-Kosovo land swap throws up two main issues for the wider region: a possible unification of Albania and Kosovo, and the stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The first would certainly change the balance of power in the region. However, it would not necessarily lead to destabilisation of other countries with Albanian minorities in the Balkans, for two reasons. First, the Kosovo problem will be solved by agreement, not by unilateral decisions. As it is not to be expected that other countries would be ready to agree to relinquish their territories to Albania, the potential ethnic and other issues would be those of rights and democratic representation. In most cases, e.g. in Macedonia and Montenegro, these have already been accommodated enough. Second, after unification of Kosovo with Albania, more than 90% of Albanians living in the region would be living in the enlarged Albania, so Albanian minorities in other countries would be rather small by European standards. Thus, there might remain issues of rights and political participation, but no territorial ones.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is another story. That country’s constitution cannot be changed without international agreement, given that it is part of an international settlement agreement sanctioned by the UN Security Council. It explicitly rules out unilateral secession by one part of the country. Therefore, if Serbia and Kosovo come to a negotiated settlement, that would weaken the prospects for a unilateral declaration of independence by Republika Srpska. A unification of Kosovo and Albania might work in the other direction, but the unification of Serbia with Republika Srpska would still require international consent together with the agreement of Bosnia and Herzegovina itself, and neither would be forthcoming.

The role of outside actors

The question of what happens in Bosnia and Herzegovina leads naturally to the question of the influence the international factors. Rather crucial is the position of Russia. Some expect that a territorial agreement between Serbia and Kosovo will strengthen Russia’s position in Serbia and in Republika Srpska, and thus in the Balkans. However, that is not how Russia sees it. The initial reaction to news of the potential Serbia-Kosovo deal by Sergei Lavrov was that Russia is for strict adherence to the UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which Russia interprets as guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Serbia, including Kosovo. As a result of Mr Lavrov’s statement, if it sticks, Russia has joined the side of the Serbian opposition. 

The calculation form the Russian side is fairly as follows. Russia’s influence in the Balkans is mostly based on its roles in the Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina settlements. The growth of its influence in Serbia depends on its veto on Kosovo’s independence and in Bosnia and Herzegovina on it being party to the Dayton-Paris peace agreement. A solution of the Kosovo problem would take one international crisis away from Russia’s influence, and Russia would end up one client state short. In addition, it cannot support openly the secession of Republika Srpska because that would conflict with its intention to present itself as the champion of international law, e.g. in Syria, which it needs given the loss of credibility that is suffered in Ukraine. Supporting secessions in the Balkans, which is outside of its “near abroad”, would require a level of commitment from Russia in the Balkans that is hardly worth its while.

What about the US and EU?

By contrast, any Greater Albania, as a NATO member, would not be against US interests (it can actually be seen as furthering them). It is unclear how cognizant the current US administration is of that, as it appears to think in ethnic rather than security terms, but that must be clear to the State Department and to NATO. Thus, a territorial accommodation of Serbia with Kosovo might prove beneficial to the US.

Assuming that regional ramifications can be contained, as they most probably would be, the EU has no reason to stand in the way. A land swap would be far from its preferred way to solving interstate conflicts, in Europe in any case, because it is a territorial rather than rights and democracy-based solution, but if it is a bilateral agreement rather than some kind of imposed solution, the EU might go along with it. This would be especially the case if it has no destabilising effects in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Which is why EU member states and their politicians, certainly for example in Austria, are well advised to stay away from advancing separatism or any kind of territorial accommodation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The EU may acquiesce also because it has not very much to offer if it continues to push for normalisation within existing borders. The agreement between Serbia and Kosovo may make EU accession of these two countries and Albania less urgent, the implementation of the separation deal will take time, which may be seen as a welcome development in some EU capitals, e.g. France. In any case, the EU policy of economic integration leading to improved security and political normalisation has proved unsuccessful, so the EU might have no plausible alternative strategy on offer.

Notably, the UK has lost influence rather dramatically in the region where it traditionally used to be one of the principle international actors. It has lost its voice of the supporter of the region‘s integration into the EU, as UK itself is leaving, and it cannot provide the liberal alternative now that it has turned nationalistic itself. This is just one among many signs of the UK’s declining international influence post-Brexit.

So will it actually happen?

In the end, the chances of a deal are low, but because of dynamics within Serbia and Kosovo rather than opposition from outside the region. If the agreement involves an exchange of Serbian territory for Kosovan territory, as it most probably must, it is almost a non-starter in Serbia. Even if these are only cosmetic corrections, as sometimes suggested by Mr Thaçi, that will also probably prove to be a hard sell in Serbia, because there is nothing to show for the acceptance of Kosovo‘s independence. If Kosovo were to give up territory for international recognition only, that would not go down well in Kosovo. If there is political change in Kosovo, which is not unlikely, there will be no agreement. Only if Serbia were to give up enough territory in the south of Serbia, if it is a proper swap of ethnic territories, the agreement might have a chance in Kosovo, but not in Serbia.

Even in the unlikely case that an agreement is reached, Russia is likely not to support it in the Security Council, which has to vote to annul the Resolution 1244. That still does not mean that there will be no agreement, but the chances are slim.

A better alternative is a rights-based normalisation of relations with international backing, but that might not be in the interest of the current leaders of Serbia and Kosovo. It is crucial to understand that this territorial accommodation is proposed as a substitute for the ongoing process of political normalisation championed by Germany primarily, and may prove to be just a detour.