Europe has an intense and understandable fear of changing national boundaries. But discussions about a land swap between Kosovo and Serbia, which have been in a simmering conflict for two decades, deserve careful support.
This means upending years of conventional thinking in Western foreign policy circles. But the tension between Serbia and Kosovo is a major headache for the Continent that needs to be tackled. It feeds instability on the European Union’s southeastern flank and presents a major obstacle to integrating the Western Balkans into the bloc.
Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s 2008 independence declaration and officially regards the territory — whose population is mainly ethnic Albanian — as a rebel province. Five EU member countries don’t recognize Kosovo either. Most of them, like Spain, have separatist fears of their own. Russia and China keep Kosovo out of the U.N. and in international limbo.
While the impasse continues, neither country has a realistic hope of joining the EU. Brussels has made clear to Belgrade that it must settle its dispute with Kosovo before it can become an EU member.
There is no solution to the Kosovo conundrum without an agreement both sides genuinely support, and a land swap is the key to such a deal. Kosovo would trade its Serb-majority northern municipalities for Albanian-majority parts of Serbia’s southwest. Serbia would recognize Kosovo and lift its opposition to U.N. membership; Kosovo would commit to retaining protections for medieval Serbian monasteries and its remaining Serb population.
The main objection is that changing a border anywhere threatens borders everywhere in the region.
Why would Serbia agree to a deal like this? Because it represents an acknowledgement that American and European policy toward them has failed. Kosovo broke away under international supervision and on the assumption Serbia would eventually have to recognize its independence and territorial integrity. A land swap lets Serbia say: “You tried to do this without us and it didn’t work.” Admissions like that are potent, especially when countries grapple with emotionally charged issues like history, identity, and territory.
For its part, Kosovo gets to be a full member of the international community and has a clearer path to EU membership. It could immediately join the Council of Europe, bringing its people the protections of the European Court of Human Rights.
Why, then, is there so much opposition? Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week “there are attempts to perhaps talk about borders and we can’t do that.” Carl Bildt, who has been involved in the region for almost 30 years, called the idea “a recipe for geopolitical instability.” (On the other hand, Wolfgang Petritsch, the EU’s main negotiator at the Kosovo peace talks, backs the idea.)
The main objection is that changing a border anywhere threatens borders everywhere in the region. Macedonia has a large ethnic Albanian minority that dominates a swath of territory extending to the outskirts of the capital, Skopje; a breakaway would mean an awful war. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Serb-dominated region routinely threatens to secede. Surely a land swap would embolden them?
Eight years ago, I went to Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina for the International Crisis Group to research exactly this threat. I and my Albanian and Serb colleagues concluded the risk was real but manageable. Since then, Macedonia has become far more stable, and has a progressive, multiethnic government; NATO membership is possible as early as next year. The country’s Albanian population is pragmatic, and content to live in a state with good prospects of European integration and prosperity.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Serb Republic is another matter. Its leadership and many of its people really do want to secede. Yet they know it is impossible.
Glance at a map. Their region comprises two halves: a poor, small east along the Serbian border and a larger, richer west abutting Croatia. Joining them is the small self-governing district of Brčko. The Serbs could declare independence tomorrow, but two-thirds or more of their people would be cut off in the west, with no land route to friendly territory. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s constitution already gives their region extremely broad autonomy, which would probably be lost in the aftermath of a failed secession.
Many old Balkan hands instinctively recoil from border changes, arguing that they reflect the logic of the horrific ethnic cleansing of the 1990s. Yet those were aggressive acts, and this would be the opposite. Kosovo and Serbia are talking about a mutually beneficial deal, with considerable support among the people who would be most directly affected. It promises to bring some genuine good will, a quality sorely lacking in the region.
Marko Prelec is professor of practice in the School of Public Policy at the Central European University.