Twenty-First Century Transatlantic Sleepwalkers
October 26, 2018
History holds many great ironies. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, set off an unanticipated chain of events that ended empires, redrew borders, and created newly independent countries. As we prepare to celebrate the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War in November, it is ironic that we are again presented with a potentially impactful event in the Western Balkans—an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo to exchange land along ethnic lines—that could unleash unanticipated instability across the Western Balkans. And like in 1914, the United States and the European Union are sleepwalking right into it. It is time to awaken the transatlantic community to the dangers of a destabilizing Western Balkans land swap before it is too late.
A Brief History
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) militarily intervened to end the killing of Kosovar Albanian civilians by Serb forces during a two- year insurgency. Today, Kosovo is recognized as an independent state by 111 of 193 UN member states. But Russia, China, and Serbia do not recognize Kosovo’s independence, and neither do five EU countries— Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain.
The United States has invested considerable diplomatic, economic, and security resources in Kosovo as has NATO and the European Union. The United States has provided approximately $510 million of development assistance funds. NATO currently maintains 3,865 lightly-armed soldiers in Kosovo (KFOR) of which KFOR’s Multi-National Battle Group—East is led by the U.S. Army National Guard as part of 655 military personnel. Despite these investments by the transatlantic community, the multiethnic integration of Kosovo has not been effective.
In 2011, Belgrade and Pristina began to negotiate a comprehensive normalization agreement between the two countries as part of an EU-facilitated dialogue. Both countries agreed to the First Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalization of Relations in 2013 to resolve all pending issues. Following this agreement, the European Union recommended that Kosovo begin negotiations to conclude a Stabilization and Association Agreement and that the European Union begin accessions negotiations with Serbia. Over the past five years, some limited progress has been made by both Serbia and Kosovo but not enough to diminish nationalistic sentiment in both countries as Serbians and Kosovars confront very difficult economic circumstances, endemic corruption, and criminality (particularly in border areas) and ever- present malign Russian influence.
How to Help a Relationship That Won’t Normalize
Serbia and Kosovo have been at a diplomatic impasse for the past five years. Kosovo cannot achieve international recognition in the United Nations and Serbia, cannot achieve membership in the European Union unless they normalize their bilateral relationship. On August 9, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić floated a bold idea to “unstick” this long-standing impasse by stating a desire to partition Kosovo, which would separate Serb-inhabited North Kosovo (around Mitrovica) and incorporate it with Serbia while providing Albanian enclaves in the south (Presevo Valley) and incorporating those with Kosovo. Initially supported by Kosovo’s president Hashim Thaçi, the partition is not designed to separate all ethnic Serbs and Kosovar Albanians; 60 percent of ethnic Serbs will remain in Kosovo.
However, the idea was designed to be symbolic enough to assuage nationalists in both countries in order to pave the way for Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence (which gives Kosovo full international recognition it seeks) and to allow Serbia to move forward with its potential EU membership (which is President Vucic’s desired goal).
Walking Away from a Multiethnic, Integrated Western Balkans
Perhaps most surprising was the diplomatic receptivity of such a land swap by the U.S. government and the European Union in the hope that it would “unstick” the normalization talks. The United States and the European Union had always previously rejected the idea of partition, prioritizing the region’s stability, and rejecting land concessions based on ethnic identities. The transatlantic community’s military intervention in Kosovo exemplifies U.S. and European commitment to the protection of ethnic minorities and promotion of plural societies. It seems extraordinary that after 20 years plus of substantial engagement and investment in Kosovo’s ethnic integration, the United States would so dramatically change its position by declaring that it did not have a view on an issue, which could potentially dissolve the region into violence and affect the 655 U.S. forces in Kosovo. U.S. national security advisor John Bolton stated, “The
U.S. policy is that if the two parties can work it out between themselves and reach agreement, we don’t exclude territorial adjustments. It’s really not for us to say.” He also stated, “We would not stand in the way, and I don’t think anybody in Europe would stand in the way if the two parties to the dispute reach a mutually satisfactory settlement.”
A historical reminder to Ambassador Bolton: The last time the two parties attempted to “work it out” themselves, 3,000 Kosovar Albanians were killed, and 600,000 people (the majority of them ethnic Albanian) migrated to Western Europe. The conflict ended with NATO military intervention.
Equally surprising, the European Union shared a similar, laissez-faire perspective to that of Ambassador Bolton. Johannes Hahn, the EU enlargement commissioner, has stated, “Whatever the solution finally is, and we should not exclude anything . . . [it] should respect that the overarching goal is stability in the region.” He continued, “We should leave it to them . . . finding a solution will be supported by us if the overall setting is OK.”
Typically, the EU member that is the first to underscore the paramount importance of stability is Germany. But in this case, Germany is the only (at least vocally) EU member to oppose the land swap arrangement. Chancellor Merkel has stated that the territorial integrity of the Western Balkan states was “sacrosanct;” German foreign minister Heiko Maas has stated, “We believe that this can tear open too many old wounds in the population and so we are very skeptical.” But lack of German support for a land swap arrangement notwithstanding, the European Union is unable to assert a unified position on this issue so long as five EU members do not recognize Kosovo’s independence. Unfortunately, there have been no concerted efforts to get these five EU members to recognize Kosovo’s independence, and it seems highly unlikely that they will do so which is why a continued U.S. role in the normalization process remains important.
‘Restless Spirits’ in the Region
While Presidents Vučić and Thaci were initially enthusiastic about the land swap concept, both encountered strong domestic resistance to partition. A scheduled face-to-face leaders meeting, which was intended to further normalization talks, on September 7 with EU High Representative Frederica Mogherini did not occur, and, as acrimony grew between the two parties, the high representative was forced to undertake shuttle diplomacy between the two leaders. Both Vučić and Thaci made unannounced visits to northern Kosovo (Lake Gazivode) in recent weeks, which drew local protests and there have been public demonstrations against partition in their respective capitals. President Vučić is in a much stronger political position to withstand such public protests, but President Thaci is in a weaker political position as he attempts to secure his political legacy and continued relevance against the growing strength of his political rival, Prime Minister Ramesh Haradinaj, who strongly opposes partition. There is no consensus among either Serbs or Kosovar Albanians for the land swap idea; the only place where there is consensus is in Washington and Brussels.
For the moment, the land swap idea is no longer being actively pursued. However, efforts to normalize Serbia and Kosovo’s relationship, Pristina’s quest for international recognition, and Belgrade’s drive for EU European integration all remain “stuck,” which means this idea could be revitalized in the future, potentially with quiet encouragement by the United States and the European Union—both of which could use an infusion of new ideas and policy innovation to push for greater integration and successful multi- ethnic cohabitation rather than partition.
The impact of U.S. and European support of the land swap concept has ripple effects far beyond Serbia and Kosovo, however. During his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. ambassador-designate to Bosnia, Eric George Nelson, asserted in response to a question related to the land-swap arrangement in Kosovo, “It is important to make clear there is no parallel in Bosnia.” But unfortunately, there is. In the aftermath of extremely complex elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina on October 7, imagine if Serb and Croat dominated municipalities in Bosnia-Herzegovina—pointing to the land precedent in Kosovo—and seeking to break the constitutional impasse of the Dayton Accords, proposed a land swap? What if Milorad Dodik, former leader of Republika Srpska and now newly elected to the Serbian seat on Bosnia’s tripartite state presidency, seeks a land swap arrangement that would lead to a newly independent Republika Srpska? And imagine if ethnic Albanians were to seek further ethnically homogeneous territory in both Kosovo and Macedonia, creating a “Greater Albania” because the two parties were “able to work it out.” Perhaps land swaps can then be formally annexed, making the redrawing of borders a more regular occurrence in Europe (Mr. Dodik has already opined that Bosnia should recognize Crimea’s annexation by Russia). In such a fragile and ethnically diverse region, such a splintering and fragmentation would be highly destabilizing.
And where there is deep societal division, one typically finds overt and covert malign Russian influence to help deepen these divisions and to push the Western Balkans away from the West. Serbia is a long-time ally of Russia and bilateral relations continue to deepen even as Serbia seeks EU membership. President Vučić has actively sought Russian President Putin’s counsel and support, and he has stated that any deal would not be possible without Russian support. We know there has been extensive Russian malign influence in the Western Balkans stretching from the recent referendum on Macedonia’s name change and prior to Montenegro’s NATO membership.
In the end, perhaps the only positive dynamic to come from Serbia and Kosovo’s land swap idea was to awaken the transatlantic community from their strategic slumber so that it can re-prioritize and re- energize multi-ethnic regional integration in the Western Balkans.
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Matthew Melino is a research associate with the CSIS Europe Program.
This report is made possible by support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
This report is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax- exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.