Kurt Bassuener and Toby Vogel BIRN

March 13, 2019


As the US and the EU foreign policy chief up their pressure on Kosovo to change its borders with Serbia, Germany must stand up for the principle that redrawing borders on ethnic lines is wrong.

For two decades, European countries have worked closely with the United States to implement and safeguard a fragile peace in the Balkans. Both sides have invested billions of euros to rebuild and stabilize Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, devastated by Serbian aggression, and both sent thousands of troops to the region as a peacekeeping force.

The US and the EU, with Germany and – until now – the UK at its core, have a combined leverage for potential progress and durable stability in the Western Balkans that is unmatched in any region on the planet.

A gross strategic blunder, however, is now unfolding on both sides of the Atlantic where Donald Trump’s administration has decided to upend the status quo and jettison this legacy for short-term expediency.

Washington is siding with Serbia as it pursues a still opaque “land swap” with Kosovo that would bring Serb-inhabited areas of Kosovo back under Serbian control in exchange for Belgrade recognizing Kosovo – its former province – as an independent country.

The US is applying massive pressure on Kosovo to accept such a deal – even though its main proponent on the Kosovo side, President Hashim Thaci, has been almost completely isolated domestically on the question.

Trump has undoubtedly pursued America’s most anti-European policy in the postwar era. But he is only following a trail blazed by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and applying US muscle behind it.

Mogherini is collaborating with Trump’s National Security Council, NSC, in advancing the long-standing Serbian agenda to redraw international borders along ethnic lines, an agenda driven by Serbian President and ostensible EU ally Aleksandar Vucic. Mogherini and the Americans have kept EU member states and NATO allies in the dark about these efforts.

This is a dramatic departure not just from a quarter-century of transatlantic cooperation in the Balkans but from a core principle of the current international order – that redrawing borders along ethnic lines is dangerous and will lead to destabilization and bloodshed.

There are good reasons why Russia’s annexation of Crimea has met condemnation and the imposition of crippling sanctions; this has been a post-Cold War standard.

All pressure is currently being applied on the Kosovars; the US and the European External Action Service are openly siding with Belgrade, which – like Russia, China, and five EU member states – still view Kosovo as a breakaway province.

The Trump administration has dangerously escalated its aggressive stance on the matter: NSC officials have threatened to withdraw US forces from the KFOR peacekeeping force – some 25 per cent of the force, and the one that reassures the Kosovars the most.

While the long-term damage will be severe, the rationale is personal and short-term. The Trump-Mogherini push seems aimed at achieving, or at least declaring, a fait accompli that can be quickly proclaimed a diplomatic “win”, with a deal to be initialed in Brussels and signed in the White House Rose Garden before Mogherini’s term ends later this year.

Mogherini and her predecessor, Catherine Ashton, have been brokering talks between Serbia and Kosovo for many years; Ashton also reached a partial deal, just months before her term ended.

It proved impossible to implement under the political conditions. The same will be true for a land swap deal – except that the stakes are infinitely higher.

Kosovo’s exclusion from the UN and numerous other forums, as well as its lack of recognition from Serbia, is a real problem that demands a solution. Yet the rush to articulate a deal seems driven more by external timetables and by those of the two leaders than by objective circumstances.

The EU collectively has been unable to articulate the unstated policy of most of its member states – that Serbia cannot joint the EU without recognizing Kosovo in its current borders.

Through their parliaments, the member states now need to make this explicit. The fact that the US and the EU have clearly aligned with the stronger party demonstrates which side will benefit from a deal that would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement.

EU member states’ acceptance of the Trump-Mogherini fait accompli would mean the abandonment of what has been a transatlantic taboo for a quarter century – the pursuit of ethnic borders – and therefore of population transfers.

Such a deal, if agreed, would encourage unfulfilled nationalist agendas from the 1990s across the region, already increasingly on shameless display. There is a reason why Vucic and his underlings try to present this as an accommodation between “Serbs and Albanians,” rather than Serbia and Kosovo.

Such a deal would just be the first piece in rearranging the maps – political and demographic – in the Balkans. Such change would inevitably be violent and entail population movements, including into the EU.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a far greater prize for Belgrade; Serbia has an enthusiastic cheerleader in the country’s state presidency in the figure of de facto Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik. North Macedonia is the region’s only real (but incomplete and fragile) good news story of recent times, but it, too, remains vulnerable.

For years, the EU policy establishment has been claiming that the foreign policy chief can act only when the bloc’s 28 member states back her. It is especially grating that Mogherini has broken loose from this constraint, not in pursuit of EU values but to advance a deal that flies in the face of these values and of established policy.

Supporters of the territorial and population exchange purport it to be a done deal, never mind that most of Kosovo’s political class and public are against it. The only force that now appears capable of stopping it is Germany.

Unlike the Trump administration, Chancellor Angela Merkel has a direct stake in the future of Kosovo, and in upholding the established principles of international order. She facilitated the launch of Belgrade-Prishtina Dialogue in the first place.

Germany’s role has been essential throughout the process, working most closely with the US and Britain.

Merkel again led the EU in declaring last autumn that Vucic and Thaci’s partition idea would be inherently destabilizing. Many EU member states, including non-recognizers Spain and Slovakia, also registered deep misgivings about Kosovo’s partition.

But, with the exception of the UK and Luxembourg, none was vocal in public. This has given Mogherini room to pursue a partition deal.

Legislators in Kosovo have been sidelined by Thaci; in Serbia, the parliament is suborned to Vucic’s will. Germany’s postwar tradition and procedures empower legislators to prevent end-runs on democratic practice.

The Bundestag can and must torpedo the EU effort by voting on a cross-party resolution that Serbia can only enter the EU in its current recognized borders.

Berlin must simultaneously rally fellow member states to also resist any territorial exchange between Kosovo and Serbia – and in the Western Balkans more broadly, since they would inevitably lead to population movements.

This means nothing less than leading member states pulling the emergency brake on a rogue bureaucrat – and reasserting member states’ supremacy over the EU’s institutions.

Failing to do so would be an abdication of responsibility and undermine efforts to support the construction of liberal, democratic, multiethnic states under rule of law for all in the Western Balkans.

It is obvious which forces would benefit from such an abdication, both within the EU and further afield.

Germany must take the lead now, to preserve Europe’s post-Cold War legacy and the foundational values of the EU and of the Atlantic Alliance – and to protect the people that would suffer most directly from a land swap.

The authors are co-founders and senior associates of the Berlin-based Democratization Policy Council.