The Authoritarian Push For Territorial Exchange In Balkans Is Dangerous And Irresponsible

Image by Gertjan R.
Kosovo is Serbia” shirt

The latest proposal to solve the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia through the exchange of territories along ethnic lines has been like a sword of Democles hanging over the head of Kosovo. This is a decades-long idea that has been kept in the margins of public discourse in both countries, through cheap undertone rhetoric, as an option which supporters have claimed time would bring to the table sooner or later. At the same time, in the mainstream public discourse such an option has been vehemently contested by the political leaders in both countries and by the main international actors involved.

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Since Kosovo declared independence in 2008, the EU and the US have gradually pushed for a dialogue for the normalization of relations between the two countries. The dialogue has been taking place in Brussels, lately with the mediation of the EU’s foreign service chief, Federica Mogherini. Despite several agreements on relatively marginal issues being signed, the 6-year Dialogue has produced very little, if any, tangible progress on the ground. The most sensitive agreement signed concerns the establishment in Kosovo of an Association of Serb-majority municipalities with executive powers, which President Thaçi has not been able to implement, because of the fierce opposition by political parties (mainly by Vetëvendosje) and citizens. The Association is widely regarded as a precursor to the “bosniazation” of Kosovo, i.e. to the debilitating of the state. On the other hand, Serbia has been continuously and actively invested in influencing countries to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo, and in impeding Kosovo’s membership in international organizations. Most importantly, the elephant in the room – Kosovo’s statehood recognition by Serbia – has not been part of the Dialogue’s agenda.

Kosovo and Serbia both strive to join the European Union. While Kosovo is far behind in the process, Serbia has advanced. Now it has come to face what seems to be the most politically sensitive obstacle for a successful EU membership in 2025 – the dispute settlement with and recognition of Kosovo. This is a conditio sine qua non for joining the EU. The previously firm position of European mediators against border changes seems to be waning recently. Their focus has shifted towards the emergence in the public discourse of a concrete plan, albeit unknown to the public, by the presidents of both countries. They promise to once and forever settle the dispute through territorial exchanges along ethnic lines. Such an agreement could have virtually a direct effect on Serbia’s integration into EU in few years, if successfully implemented.

In the blink of an eye, an undertone marginal idea, contested by all relevant actors, has popped into the forefront of international relations in the Balkans. It might be worth reminding readers that territorial disputes in the region left hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced in a ten-year period (1991-2001). Memories are fresh, wounds still healing and now premonition is also haunting.

The origin of the “fresh” proposal is not easy to ascertain, but its ramifications could be serious. Since July Thaçi has been sticking to his utterly nonsensical or otherwise extremely dangerous rhetoric; he would never accept swap of territories, but he will correct borders by integrating into Kosovo territories where Albanians live in southern Serbia. Although it was Thaçi to first express the idea in public, quickly to be picked by the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić, hardly anyone would think that Thaçi’s ingenuity might have unexpectedly taken off from the ground.

Thaçi has been facing a harsh backlash in his country since his proposal to include “border correction” in the final phase of the dialogue with Serbia. All parliamentary parties, including [Thaçi’s] DPK’s allies in government, were fervently opposed. In early September a resolution by the opposition, banning the president to discuss lands swap, was up for voting. Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj and Deputy Prime Minister Fatmir Limaj gave in to Thaçi’s and his DPK’s pressure to block the parliamentary resolution. Nevertheless, to this day they haven’t stepped back from opposing the territorial exchange. Likewise, all parliamentary parties in Albania oppose the idea, with a noticeable exception – Prime Minister Edi Rama – who takes pride in his eccentric way of doing politics in an artist’s boots; especially international politics.

Thaçi is mercilessly using his spin doctors and the media, the majority of which he controls, in an attempt to present this as a historical chance that Kosovo should not waste, a painful decision requiring real leadership, a paradigm shift in US policy in the region, a ticket to the EU, and NATO membership, etc. However, spinning the issue seems to have grasped neither the hearts nor the minds of the Kosovo people. Kosova Democratic Institute’s latest poll in mid-September showed that more than 75% of pollsters were (very) unsatisfied with the Dialogue lead by President Thaçi. Furthermore, 77.6% would not accept the exchange of the territory as part of a normalization agreement; only 11.3% would. If the final agreement would foresee two possible alternatives – the Association and the Changing of borders – 83% would accept neither of the two. In the face of a fait accompli agreement on territorial exchange by the duo Thaçi- Vučić, 72% would either protest against (51.5%) or request e referendum (20.4%); only 8.9% would agree. As polls confirm, the Association and the territorial exchange seem to be perceived as existential threats by the people of Kosovo. His own people do not consider Thaçi as an ally, let alone a leader, in keeping the country safe from such threats.

Increasingly negative polls on the issue haven’t made Thaçi abandon or adjust his position. His insistence seems to enjoy the backing of Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn, the EU foreign affairs chiefs. They seem motivated to find a quick, drastic solution to an old dispute, before their mandates come to an end next year. Their (lack of) vision shows their remarkable lack of touch with reality on the ground, which could result in very serious, even dangerous consequences. Dismissing people’s wants and needs, their prospect for the future and fears from the past, while pushing forward for an irresponsible plan to redraw borders, could lead to social unrest in Kosovo. In the best case scenario the result will be the removal from power of President Thaçi and PM Haradinaj’s government.

Video: Thousands Protest In Pristina Over Possible Land Swap Between Serbia And Kosovo

The gulf separating the people and those taking decisions on the people’s behalf without the people’s consent was well-reflected in the main motto of the protest against territorial exchange on September 29 in Pristina – “A people won’t succumb to a person”. The protest was organized by the main opposition party Vetëvendosje. Tens of thousands of people protested against a land swap with Serbia and against Thaçi’s authoritarian-style unresponsiveness, peacefully, for the time being.

Furthermore, the last referendum in Macedonia showed that full and active international support is not enough even when directed towards the people and not just the leaders, even when the benefits are tangible (i.e. a clear perspective to join EU and NATO). The Prespa Agreeement remains in limbo for now. It will need to pass many obstacles, starting with the Macedonian parliament. It might be worth reminding readers once more that Macedonians and Greeks didn’t come out of the latest war in the region, and that their agreement didn’t even mention redrawing of borders. Compared to the top-down Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue and the recent lands swap proposal, the Prespa Agreement went through a much more open process, predicted clear reciprocal gains and yet it didn’t get clear support by the people.

The international community involved in the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue, first and foremost Mogherini and Hahn but also the European Commission as a whole, are still treating the issue through their unilateral top-down approach. They choose to remain blind to the reality on the ground and dismiss people’s perspectives on such vital issues. No agreement would be feasible with the overwhelming majority of people opposing it. Any attempt to impose plans top-down through puppet-like leaders and against people’s wish will be futile and doomed to failure. Supporting strongmen vested with power in order to impose agreements will inevitably lead to unfeasible political proposals and ultimately to a cul-de-sac. Consequences of the unavoidable social and political implosion in Kosovo might be hard to predict.

This political blindness and ignoring of reality in Kosovo is going to have the opposite effect of what non-democratic mediators and negotiators proclaim, and it will further harm the stability of Kosovo and potentially of the wider region.

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