It’s amazing that the European Commission envisages land swaps to settle Kosovo-Serbia relations. Neighbourhood Commissioner Johannes Hahn said it’s a bilateral solution which should not serve as a blueprint for other issues. But not everyone is convinced.
Not changing borders in Europe has been the mother of all rules after World War II. This fundamental principle was contravened once, when Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, with the support of the US, led by a trigger-happy George W. Bush.
Croatia and Slovenia had quit the Yugoslav federation in 1991 but opponents of Kosovo’s independence said the two who had been republics in Yugoslavia, with the right to “self-determination”, while Kosovo was merely an autonomous region of Serbia.
The border created in 2008 left some 120,000 Serbs stranded as a minority among Kosovo’s 1.8 million people, with about 50,000 ethnic Albanians on the other side of the new frontier, in the so-called Preševo Valley in southern Serbia. The idea now is to swap those territories – and populations – before the end of this Commission’s mandate next year.
But is it a good excuse to transgress fundamental rules, to repair the injury of a bigger violation? Would this political homeopathy work? And what does the Commission want to achieve? Ethnically clean countries, such a dangerous utopia?
The diplomatic fig leaf appears to seek to dissimulate the incapacity, both of local leaders and of the international community, to achieve a reasonable degree of reconciliation after the 1999 Kosovo war.
But does the Commission realise that, just like before World War I, the Balkans are still the powder keg of Europe?
Moreover, the developments are unfolding at a time when nationalism takes precedence globally and when there is a huge deficit of international leadership for conflict resolution.
A precedent with a border change is likely to open a Pandora’s Box, possibly first in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Republika Srpska cannot wait to secede.
Next could be Macedonia, a country after which a fruit salad is called, because it represents a mix. This could boost the appetites for a Greater Albania, and then we will see the perfect storm.
By pushing towards border changes between Kosovo and Serbia, Hahn thinks he is making history. In a way he is right, because the historic mistake may result in a full-fledged war.
Five EU members still do not recognise Kosovo. Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania fear the precedent that border changes created by the Kosovo case might set.
But possibly many more than five EU members could oppose actually changing borders. It’s high time that they say something.