Gëzim Krasniqi BIRN, 17 Sep 18

2018-09-17 16:10:49


The contradictory reactions to proposals to resolve the Kosovo issue through border changes has exposed the international community’s confusion over what its priorities are.

Recent announcements by the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo, that they are considering border changes to reach a historic peace settlement, have sent shockwaves across the region.

Speaking at the Alpbach forum in Austria, Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vucic, and Kosovo’s Hashim Thaci emphasized the need to reach a compromise solution that will solve the Kosovo issue through some sort of border adjustment or demarcation, and called on the European Union to support these efforts.

Although little detail was provided, the plan would involve the northern Kosovo municipalities of Leposavic, Zvecan and parts of Zubin Potok [minus Gazivoda lake, a crucial water resource for Kosovo] being allocated to Serbia. In return, parts of Presevo and Bujanovac in Serbia, [west of the crucial pan-European Corridor 10] would become part of Kosovo.

With no details officially outlined, the initiative has fueled speculation locally and internationally about the intentions and potential impact of such a plan – and has raised fears about renewed efforts to change borders along ethnic lines in the wider region.

It has divided local, regional and international actors and commentators alike. While senior EU officials, including EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Johannes Hahn, did not rule out a consensual solution that guarantees regional stability, Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has rejected any changes to borders.

Crucially, the United States, a key actor in the region and a staunch supporter of Kosovo’s independence, according to US National Security Adviser John Bolton, is open to an exchange of territory between Kosovo and Serbia as part of a deal.

Kosovo’s political scene remains deeply divided on the issue as well, with the opposition parties as well as two of the three coalition partners [including Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj’s party] opposing discussion of the border issue. The opposition parties, who contest Thaci’s mandate to represent Kosovo in negotiations with Serbia, have even initiated a resolution aimed at protecting the country’s territorial integrity.

Likewise, in Serbia, Vucic’s idea of a border “delineation” has opened up a new rift between the government and the Serbian Orthodox Church, which opposes any division of Kosovo that would legitimize the former province’s independence.

Numerous local and international commentators and scholars have expressed concerns that this might produce a chain effect in the region and lead to renewed conflicts. More than 50 organizations and experts on the Balkans have signed an open letter, urging Europe and the US to oppose any territorial swaps.

While it is premature, and futile, to discuss the merits of the initiative and its implications without concrete plans being made public, the very flagging-up of the idea and the debate surrounding it raises crucial points.

First, it is obvious that 20 years after the end of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia the specter of conflict still hangs over the region.

Although the presidents’ initiative proposes border adjustment/demarcation as a mutual agreement that could see Serbia finally recognize Kosovo’s independence, and pave the way for both countries to join the EU, many fear the move would create a precedent that could be used elsewhere – in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the first instance.

While these fears are not unfounded, given the history of the region and its outstanding political conundrums, the applicability of the precedent principle is limited.

Serbia, and the leadership of the Bosnian Serbs have from the outset maintained that Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 creates a dangerous precedent.

Yet, Bosnian’s mainly Serbian entity, Republika Srpska, did not secede in 2008, or later on.

Similarly, claims that Russia or others would use an eventual change of borders between Kosovo and Serbia as a precedent are far-fetched.

Russia has indeed recalled the “Kosovo precedent” to justify its own annexation of Crimea. In reality, however, it annexed Crimea and recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 in response to regime change in Kiev and to Georgia’s attempt to forcefully retake its breakaway provinces.

In fact, Kosovo has been used as a justification post festum. Russia’s actions continue to be driven by its emboldened geostrategic ambitions and by a weakened and disunited West, not by the “Kosovo precedent”.

As for Bosnia, it is clear that its problems derive from the 1995 Dayton framework and from its internal political dynamics. Any Kosovo-Serbia agreement can and has to clearly leave out Bosnia, just as the Dayton process in 1995 left out the Kosovo issue.

The two have always been dealt with separately.

The fundamental problem in Bosnia is that if Dayton and its signatories do not offer sufficient guaranties for its functioning, there is no way a Kosovo left in limbo will guarantee its survival in the longer run either.

A peaceful and mutually agreed border adjustment between Kosovo and Serbia would actually strengthen the argument against Republika Srpska’s secession without the consent of all the parties.

Second, the very floating of the idea of border adjustment/demarcation in public, and the implicit support of EU leaders, attest to the fact that, despite the mantra of “normalization of relations” and the assumed power of conditionality, the EU has no clear vision of how to make Serbia come to terms with an independent, multiethnic Kosovo.

The EU-facilitated dialogue that begun in 2011 despite its biggest achievement – normalizing dialogue – has produced few other tangible results.

For a long time, the dialogue has become an aim in itself and a marketing tool for EU officials to display their putative success in using EU conditionality to solve bilateral issues in the region.

Clearly, EU accession is not credible enough to get Serbia to accept Kosovo within its existing borders.

The crucial mistake that the EU made in the dialogue is its approach of investing in strong leaders, who also happen to be authoritarian figures, instead of promoting the local agency of Kosovo Serbs and societal dialogue in Kosovo.

From the outset, the main preoccupation has been to please the ruling elites in Belgrade rather than address the needs of local Serbs in Kosovo.

The EU seems to have appropriated the idea that Serbia’s leadership needs a “face saving” solution.

Unfortunately, saving the faces of President Vucic and Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, close aides of and heirs to Vojislav Seselj and Slobodan Milosevic, respectively, has taken precedence over the needs and agency of local Serbs in Kosovo.

Despite posing as pro-EU reformists, both Vucic and Dacic hail Milosevic publicly, considering him a “great Serbian leader”.

Third, having been emboldened by widespread acceptance internationally, Vucic and Dacic have successfully revived a disastrous political idea – redrawing administrative borders along ethnic lines – 30 years after Milosevic’s rise to power in Serbia.

Yet, while it is obvious that Serbia’s main strategy has been to undermine the internationally imposed concept of civic and multiethnic states in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, the current proposal for border adjustment/delineation follows that logic but is not fully in line with it.

Border changes would leave the absolute majority of Serbs and the key monuments of Serbian religious and cultural heritage inside Kosovo. They would also rid Serbia of the majority of Albanians in south Serbia.

While such a proposal sounds absurd from any realist political perspective, given that Serbia effectively controls both regions, it is symptomatic of three key fallacies in the Serbian nationalist ideology. First, it shows that Kosovo has become a “floating signifier” in the Serbian nationalist discourse with no clear meaning and borders. While for a long time key religious sites in Decan and Gracanica used to signify a “Serbian Kosovo”, today it is a mountain range in Leposavic and Zubin Potok that Serbia is after.

Second, for most of the 20th century, Serbian leaders have treated Kosovo as an issue of territory and not of people.

In the 1990s, Serbia ignored and then oppressed and finally deported the majority Albanian population in an attempt to solve the “Kosovo issue” by force. Today, Serbia is proposing solutions that completely disregard the Kosovo Serb population as well.

Last but not least, Serbia’s willingness to cede Albanian-inhabited territories in Presevo and Bujanovac to Kosovo demonstrates its unwillingness to consider ethnic Albanians as equal citizens of Serbia and fully integrate them into the society and politics.

Fourth, despite many founded and unfounded fears and reserves, from Kosovo’s perspective, the current proposal for border adjustment might present the best opportunity in the given situation to close its status issue.

Despite having gone to considerable lengths to implement the Ahtisaari Proposal and then engage in additional dialogue in Brussels since 2011 to accommodate the needs of local Serbs, there is a growing sense in Kosovo that EU talk of “normalization of relations” is an empty promise that will not guarantee the integration of the northern municipalities into Kosovo, or win Kosovo full international recognition, and UN membership.

Therefore, the specter of a Kosovo stuck in a limbo internationally, and with an autonomous Serbian region akin to Republika Srpska inside it, seems to have pushed Kosovo’s leaders – Thaci primarily – to consider alternatives to the ongoing process, while effectively yielding to the Serbian position that Kosovo’s status is still unresolved.

Although the integration of Presevo and Bujanovac in Serbia into Kosovo has never really been a strategic goal of Kosovo’s leadership, the prospect may be used to diffuse opposition to the eventual loss of territory in the north.

However, the proposal raises a number of till-now unanswered questions about the very possibility and/or legality of reaching such an agreement, given that Serbia does not recognize Kosovo, as well as about the fate of existing minority rights and protections stemming from the Ahtisaari Proposal, the Brussels Agreements and the very future of the Kosovar state.

Many proponents of this solution argue that such an arrangement would not necessarily lead to abrogation of the self-governing rights and protections of communities in Kosovo, or make Kosovo less multi-ethnic than it now is.

Crucially, having sensed a change in the political and diplomatic winds of some of its key supporters, and frustrated by the lack of progress in normalization of relations with Serbia, supporters of border adjustment in Kosovo seem unperturbed by potential regional implications or Serbia’s intentions beyond Kosovo.

To make a historical parallel, while in 1989 the leaders of the republics in Socialist Yugoslavia turned a deaf ear to Kosovo’s protests over the revocation of its autonomy and its political submission to Milosevic’s Serbia, this time it is Kosovo’s leadership that is refusing to think beyond its own calculations and interests.

In conclusion, the current situation exposes a number of political absurdities and paradoxes; a) while the proposal is potentially dangerous, it comes as a consensual proposal by local actors and not as an external imposition; b) although it exposes the failure of EU conditionality to get Serbia to accept Kosovo within its existing borders, key EU leaders have heralded it as an agreement that paves the path for the EU membership of both countries; c) it is opposed on the grounds that it promotes ethnic borders, yet it leaves Kosovo’s ethnic composition relatively intact; d) although it is supposed to address long-enduring Kosovo Serb grievances, it risks leaving most of them “out in the cold”.

Most importantly, regardless of its eventual merits and utility to solve the Kosovo-Serbia conundrum, the presidents’ proposal and reactions to it expose a deep sense of suspicion and mistrust about any political solution that involves borders in a region still haunted by the specter of war.

Although it has been floated as a local initiative, which has disturbed local, regional and international political waters, the fate of the proposal ultimately depends on a consensus of great powers and not on the two presidents or the people affected by it.

Thus, it is up to the key relevant international actors to choose to “save the face” of the Serbian leadership, or save the existing borders in the region and push for full normalization of relations, including Kosovo’s full recognition.

The author is Programme Co-Director of the MSc in Nationalism Studies at the University of Edinburgh, UK.