The nearly two decades since the 1999 war in Kosovo and the NATO air campaign against Serbia have not brought closure to the conflict between ethnic Serbs and Albanians. Serbia and several other European countries still refuse to recognize Kosovo’s independence, and Belgrade continues to exercise control over several ethnically Serbian districts in the north, contiguous to Serbia. Just outside of Kosovo, Serbia’s overwhelmingly Albanian Preševo Valley saw an insurgency in 1999-2001 that aimed to join the district to Kosovo. Some 4,000 NATO troops remain deployed in Kosovo to maintain the peace and protect the Serbian minority. The tensions and uncertainty generated by the still-unresolved conflict take a continued economic toll on both countries, as well as impeding membership in Euro-Atlantic organizations.
In recent months, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo President Hashim Thaci have taken up the idea of resolving the conflict by means of a territorial swap, giving Northern Kosovo to Serbia and awarding the Preševo District to Kosovo. Foreign governments and experts have given this development a mixed reception. On the one hand, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton has said that “if the two parties can work it out between themselves and reach agreement, we don’t exclude territorial adjustments.” On the other hand, Angela Merkel has poured cold water on the idea, stating that “the territorial integrity of the states of the Western Balkans has been established and is inviolable.”
Writing September 19 in the Washington Post, Carnegie Europe scholar Judy Dempsey labeled a redrawing of the Serbia-Kosovo border “a terrible idea,” averring that Vučić and Thaci “could set an ominous precedent for leaders who harbor separatist ambitions.” The current stability in the Western Balkans is fragile, ethnic hatred between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians persists, the two Presidents have not yet sold their people on the idea of a territorial swap, and institutions in the region are too weak to bear the stress that such a bold move would entail, Dempsey maintained.
However, the skeptics are wrong. The proposed territorial swap, while not without risks, is potentially an extremely promising development. It would not solve all the region’s problems, but it could solve several important ones.
The most serious objection to the territorial swap is, paradoxically, the easiest to refute. As armed conflict in Kosovo erupted in the late 1990s, many governments and analysts argued along the same lines as opponents of a land swap today—that an independent Kosovo would set a horrible precedent that would spur separatism elsewhere. The riposte to this argument was that Kosovo was sui generis—a one-of-a-kind situation created by the peculiarities of the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo’s autonomous status therein, Milošević’s ill-considered decision to revoke that autonomy, and the brutality of his repression of the majority Kosovar Albanians. No other place replicated this unique set of circumstances, hence no other place could reasonably claim analogous treatment. What happens in Kosovo stays in Kosovo.
It is astonishing how completely people seem to have forgotten the sui generis argument of twenty years ago. By what conceivable logic did the forcible ripping of Kosovo from Serbia entail no broad precedent with regard to separatism, but a peaceful, consensual land-swap agreement between Belgrade and Priština would create precisely such a deleterious precedent now? The proposal mooted by Presidents Vučić and Thaci would set a precedent indeed—not for separatism in any way, shape or form, but for the peaceful, orderly resolution of conflicts through land swaps. This is an example not to fear, but to welcome. Unfortunately it is difficult to see how the example could apply in other Balkan hot spots; but by the same token, there is no inherent reason why a Serbia-Kosovo land swap need exacerbate tensions elsewhere.
The obvious concern right now is with Bosnia, where Republika Srpska’s President Milorad Dodik has been maneuvering to sunder the Bosnian state and assert his entity’s complete de jure sovereignty. However, this effort is not being driven or even encouraged by developments in Kosovo, and having Belgrade and Priština bury the hatchet would not necessarily play into Dodik’s hand. In fact, it could arguably have a contrary effect. In any event, it would be the height of folly to miss perhaps the best opportunity in a generation to end the standoff over Kosovo because any rocking of the Western Balkans boat right now might further complicate the desperate situation shaping up in Bosnia. Bosnia must stand or fall on its own merits, and according to its own internal logic. It is, like Kosovo, sui generis.
The opposition to a land swap puts Serbia and Kosovo in a Catch-22 situation. Their institutions, purportedly, are too weak to sustain a risky endeavor like the proposed land swap; but those same institutions are likely to remain weak precisely until the Serbs and Kosovars can resolve their conflict. And the land-swap proposal is a promising and elegant method of doing so.
I would challenge opponents of a land swap to present a credible alternative scenario for how a settlement and reconciliation between Belgrade and Priština might occur. How quickly do people imagine that Serbs in Kosovo, and Albanians in Serbia, might jettison their ethnocentric concept of identity/loyalty and develop instead a robust civic affinity with the state that issues their passports? Or will ethnic Serbs and Albanians adopt such a strong supranational attachment to Europe that their archaic ethnolinguistic frame of reference will fade into insignificance? How many seminars on conflict management, or soccer camps for Serbian and Albanian children, will it take before we have Serbs and Albanians holding hands in a circle and singing “Kumbaya?” And how many more billions of Euros would need to be expended, and how many more decades would NATO troops need to be deployed, before Serbs and Kosovar Albanians attain this post-modern beatific vision?
Frankly, some people seem to have forgotten the lessons of Europe’s recent history. The continent did not move seamlessly or effortlessly to its present supranational bliss. Ethnic conflicts that roiled the continent were in many cases resolved only by massacre, ethnic cleansing, the post-war redrawing of borders, and the more or less compulsory exchange of populations. Are Greek-Turkish relations still fraught? Try to imagine the tensions if there were a million-strong Greek minority still living in Anatolia. Could neighboring countries have accepted Germany’s leadership of the EU if relations with Berlin were complicated by the presence of millions of Volksdeutsch on their soil? What would be the prospects for Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation if each of these states retained to this day a large ethnic component of the other? The truth of the matter is that, in many parts of Europe, a separation was required before a coming-together became possible.
However, perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the opposition to a Serbia-Kosovo land swap has nothing to do with the merits of the idea, but with the implicit conceit that outsiders know better than the locals how to resolve the region’s conflicts. In a recent article on the Balkans, former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana struck exactly the right note. While putting the Vučić-Thaci negotiations in the context of EU mediation efforts, he was at pains to add “of course, it is not the EU’s prerogative to dictate the terms of the conflict’s resolution, and it is clear that local ownership will be key to any deal that may emerge from the process.” Indeed, it is Vučić and Thaci who bear the responsibility for their nations, and who will suffer the political consequences if their initiative fails. It is for the West to support, not to prescribe, let alone to micromanage. Unfortunately, one sometimes has the sense of Westerners hovering over the western Balkans like helicopter parents lest the rambunctious children inadvertently injure themselves. And it is hard to avoid the impression that many people scorn the idea of a land swap because it entails accepting the realities of Balkan ethnic nationalism and doesn’t meet post-modern standards for diversity, tolerance, and multiculturalism.
No, a land swap would not be a cakewalk; there would be losers as well as winners, and there is still much difficult work for the two presidents to do. Nevertheless, their proposal portends a sea change for the better on numerous counts. It promises to resolve the vexing issue of recognition for Kosovo’s independence, both by Serbia and the rest of the international community; to act as a catharsis on the collective Serb psyche, allowing a “letting go” of Kosovo to occur; to establish a mutually agreed border between the Serbian and Albanian worlds; to delete two territories, Northern Kosovo and Preševo, from the entirely too-lengthy list of Balkan flashpoints; to give ownership of the process to the local leaders, allowing the EU and NATO to disengage; and to clear the decks for both Serbia and Kosovo to develop economically and prepare for membership in Euro-Atlantic institutions, as desired. The cherry on the sundae would be the removal of one of Moscow’s choicest spoons for stirring the pot in the Balkans. Any one of these accomplishments ought to prompt discussion of a Nobel Peace Prize. The prospect of realizing all these achievements in one fell swoop, amid the general gloom about the Balkans’ trajectory, anti-globalist populism and the enervation of Europe’s integration project, ought to fire our imagination, not invite our censure.