A Kosovo-Serbia land swap would be peaceful ethnic cleansing. But at least it would bring peace.

By Charles A. Kupchan Sept. 13, 2018


The Balkans remains in strategic limbo. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia 10 years ago, but Serbia has yet to come to terms with its loss — refusing to recognize Kosovo and stirring trouble between the country’s ethnic Serbs and the ethnic Albanian majority. Almost two decades after the NATO bombing campaign to drive Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, some 4,000 NATO troops remain there to keep the peace.

A breakthrough may now be in the making. It is a morally offensive one, but nonetheless the United States and the European Union should get behind it.

President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia and President Hashim Thaci of Kosovo are apparently working on a proposal to engage in a land swap that could bring the simmering conflict to an end. Northern Kosovo, which is populated mainly by ethnic Serbs and borders Serbia, would be transferred to Serbia. In return, a to-be-determined chunk of Serbia’s Presevo Valley, which is heavily populated by ethnic Albanians and borders Kosovo, would become part of Kosovo.

This swap is effectively a peaceful form of ethnic cleansing. Still, it is the right thing to do. Pragmatism needs to trump principle in this case to secure a deal that promises to bring a close to the years of bloodshed and border changes that have resulted from the collapse of Yugoslavia.

The proposed land swap has been lurking in the background since the early days of Kosovo’s independence. But it has gone nowhere in part because the United States and the European Union have adamantly opposed it. True to form, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany recently said that “the territorial integrity of the states of the Western Balkans has been established and is inviolable.” Backing up Ms. Merkel, dozens of prominent scholars and policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have signed an open letter condemning the proposal and imploring the United States and the European Union to oppose “a return to ethnification of polities and frontiers.”

But there are signs that some Western officials are warming up to the idea. John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, hinted as much last month: “Our policy, 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,” he said. Mr. Bolton is thinking clearly, at least on this front. As long as both the Serbian and Kosovar governments agree to the deal — and can secure sufficient political backing among their publics and legislatures — the United States and the European Union should support it.

Of Kosovo’s population of almost two million, roughly 90 percent are ethnic Albanian and some 6 percent are estimated to be ethnic Serb. Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but around half of Kosovo’s Serbs — high estimates reach 70,000 — live in northern Kosovo, where they make up some 90 percent of the population. Because of its Serb majority, northern Kosovo (about 10 percent of the country’s territory) has been part of the country in name only since independence. Serbia has continued to hold political and economic sway there, leaving Kosovars with a sizable chunk of their country that has no interest in belonging to an independent Kosovo.

Serbia’s Presevo Valley is reportedly home to some 60,000 ethnic Albanians and is comparable in size to northern Kosovo. How much of this area Serbia might transfer to Kosovo is unclear. Nonetheless, trading northern Kosovo for at least some portion of the Presevo Valley would broadly preserve Serbia’s and Kosovo’s current territorial size and population.

The Serbian government will have a hard time granting formal recognition to an independent Kosovo no matter what; the land is of historical and cultural importance to Serbs, and Serbian religious sites dot Kosovo. But if the proposed swap offers a face-saving way for Serbia to normalize relations with Kosovo and let the Balkans move forward, Kosovars and their international supporters should jump at it.

Admittedly, the Serbs that stay in Kosovo proper would be an even smaller minority if the north joins Serbia. Indeed, some Serbs will surely leave. Unsavory population transfers would also be likely in the Presevo Valley as ethnic Albanians move to areas destined to become part of Kosovo and ethnic Serbs leave them. But the establishment of formal relations between Kosovo and Serbia would bring a sense of normality and stability to Kosovo, encouraging those Serbs who remain there to become more invested in the country’s future. And Kosovo thus far has done a respectable job of protecting the rights of minorities.

Critics of the swap claim that it would set a dangerous precedent at a time when ethnic nationalism is already surging in Europe and beyond. In particular, the swap could fuel calls in other parts of the Balkans for borders to be redrawn along ethnic lines. Fair enough. Separatist sentiment among ethnic Serbs in Bosnia, ethnic Albanians in Macedonia or minorities elsewhere could strengthen.

But nowhere else in the Balkans is a consensual adjustment of borders on the table. If the proposed swap materializes, the international community should stress that it supports it as an extraordinary exception.

Rather than causing a contagion of ethnic separation, normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo may well do the opposite. Serbia is the region’s dominant player. If it settles its impasse with Kosovo, it may well transition from being an aggrieved troublemaker to a satisfied stakeholder. Serbia’s help would be particularly welcome in discouraging Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated region of Bosnia left behind by the war there in the 1990s, from seeking to break away. The positive effects of reconciliation between Serbia and Kosovo further justify a one-off sacrifice of pluralist principles.

Finally, the European Union has made clear that Serbia and Kosovo need to normalize relations if they are to join the union — a step that would immeasurably advance Balkan stability and prosperity. The envisaged land swap brings closer that better future.

The Serb and Kosovar presidents have tough negotiations ahead of them. But if Mr. Vucic and Mr. Thaci can pull this off, the United States and the European Union should embrace the deal. By offering a tentative green light now, Washington and Brussels can provide crucial encouragement and help build public support for an agreement in both Serbia and Kosovo.

Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served on the National Security Council from 2014 to 2017. He worked on European affairs on the National Security Council in the Obama administration.