Perspectives | Dialogue

Balkan border changes risk a return to open conflicts

By - 05.09.2018

Redrawing borders would undermine decades-long international principles.

In 2014, Denis Bećirević, currently a candidate for the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, handed an initiative to the Bosnian Parliament proposing a change to the borders with neighboring Montenegro. He wanted Sutorina, a tiny village close to the border between Montenegro and Croatia that had belonged to the medieval Bosnian kingdom, to be ceded to the contemporary state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The principle he proposed to introduce was historical but extremely weak, as according to international relations theories Bosnia did not exist as a modern state prior to the 1990s, it was against the views of the Badinter Commission, in opposition to the Helsinki Accords, undermined the Dayton Peace Agreement and was against the geopolitical order and interests of the major global powers.

This idea came in an era that some analysts have described as the Second Cold War or ‘the continuation of the original Cold War.’ Whatever the case, Montenegro and Croatia are now both NATO countries. The only coastal territory in southern Europe between Syria and the Atlantic Ocean that is not now part of NATO is 24 kilometers of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s coastline around Neum. Could any sane person imagine a NATO state ceding part of its territory, however small, to a country that is not part of the alliance and that has a complex internal order that would bring Sutorina under the rule of Bosnian Serb political forces that jump at the hint of a wink from Moscow?

It is perhaps more plausible to imagine potential border changes between Serbia and Kosovo exactly because it could be seen to be in the interests of the two dominant powers of the Cold War.

It is perhaps more plausible to imagine potential border changes between Serbia and Kosovo exactly because it could be seen to be in the interests of the two dominant powers of the Cold War — the USA and Russia, as a successor state to the Soviet Union. After all, the original border agreement of the Cold War was a result of their lengthy negotiations.

The Helsinki Final Act (also known as the Helsinki Accords), signed at the culmination of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe process in 1975, which announced the establishment of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, provided for the inviolability of frontiers in Europe. With the exception of Albania and Andorra, the Act was signed by all European countries as well as by the U.S. and Canada.

It reflected the geopolitics of the Cold War, which in turn enabled prolonged peace in Europe, if not in the rest of the world, where a series of proxy wars were initiated by the great powers. The stability of Europe’s borders, albeit signed on paper, was not legally binding because the Accord allowed for peaceful changes with internal agreement.

This kind of loose application was intentional because Americans disliked the whole process. Henry Kissinger understood it as giving in to lefties in the West who were concerned with human rights issues, while Leonid Brezhnev saw it as confirmation of the post-WWII Soviet conquest in Eastern and Central Europe, but had no love for certain elements such as those related to human rights and the rule of law. Neither side would have been satisfied if the Act had been more precise. Leaving it like this enabled all the leaders to claim victory in the lengthy process.

Unification of Germany was to follow 15 years later and was seen by some analysts as the first breach of the Accord, or at least a change in approach. However, it was agreed both internally — within two German states — and externally with the USA, the remaining superpower, and, by 1990 already a former superpower, the Soviet Union. The last Yugoslav foreign minister, Budimir Lončar, explained in his memoirs how he was asked by various German politicians whether they should wait or proceed with the unification. Even the all-powerful West German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, was of the opinion that they should wait due to geopolitics.

This was the first border change in Europe that, according to Dejan Jović, professor at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Zagreb, created the precedent and possibility of different interpretations of the Helsinki Final Act. Nationalists in the Soviet Union, and especially Yugoslavia, saw German unification as a sign of opportunity. This was taken relatively peacefully in the former superpower, while Yugoslavs of all kinds took up arms in their determination to make changes to internal state borders.

Of all the post-World War II federations in Europe, three were communist ruled. Czechoslovakia dissolved at midnight on December 31, 1992 with glasses of champagne in the hands of many Czechs and Slovaks. The Soviet Union’s dissolution was characterized by a few restricted wars, while the series of post-Yugoslav wars marked the end of the Yugoslav federation. Whatever the level of violence, one principle was respected in all cases: the inviolability of internal borders in former federations. In this way, republics have become states and former internal borders have become internationally recognized frontiers.

The international commission established in 1991 by the European (then Economic) Community with the aim of intervening in the process of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and often referred to by the name of its chairperson, Robert Badinter, provided legal opinions on the dissolution of Yugoslavia including border issues. The legal principle uti possidetis juris — which considered that newly formed states should have the same borders as their territory did before independence — was applied to inter-republic borders, which became international frontiers.

An international commission ruled that the intervention had been illegal but legitimate. This has remained a problem to this day.

It was important to understand that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, consisting of Serbia and Montenegro, was not recognized as the sole successor to the socialist federation. Thus, the legal principles that were applied to other post-Yugoslav states with regard to recognition — that only republics had the right to secede — should, from a strictly legal perspective, also have applied to the remaining Federal Republic itself. This might become a problem, when considering 1999 and the NATO intervention over Kosovo.

Mass violations of human rights by the Belgrade regime brought about the NATO action that resulted in the withdrawal of Serbian authorities from Kosovo and the establishment of Kosovo as an international protectorate. An international commission, set up by the government of Sweden in the aftermath of the intervention, and co-chaired by the first chief prosecutor of the ICTY, Richard Goldstone, ruled that the intervention had been illegal but legitimate. This has remained a problem to this day.

Could an illegal act lead to the recognition of independence of a new state? The Badinter Commission had ruled that Slovenia’s declaration of independence was acceptable while other post-Yugoslav countries had to overcome some obstacles: Croatia had to offer protection to its Serb minority, Bosnia and Herzegovina had to organize a referendum on its independence, while Macedonia had to overcome resistance from Greece.

Whatever the issue, one concept was repeatedly reconfirmed: the inviolability of former internal borders. The opposite concept, which was firmly refused by the international community, was an ethnic principle for the creation of new states in the territory of the former federation. In the Yugoslav case it was translated by Slobodan Milošević’s regime as “all Serbs in one state.”

However, this was not a unique attempt at redrawing borders. It was the Croatian president, Franjo Tuđman, who scrawled borders of a Greater Croatia on a napkin during dinner and showed it to Paddy Ashdown, the former British politician and diplomat who was a strong supporter of military intervention back in the ’90s.

Instead of a major redrawing of borders that would keep overwhelming majorities of ethnic groups in a single state, the principle of human rights protection, minority protection and institution and state building processes were introduced and accepted by the dominant powers in the 1990s. While Kosovo’s self-declared independence in 2008 received recognition by the majority of Western countries, Russia, China, India and close to half of the worldwide community do not recognize it, and even five EU members are against its recognition. Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece and Cyprus have their own internal reasons for non-recognition — their own minorities with potential ambitions for secession — so even if Serbia and Kosovo agree on border changes it is difficult to see changes in these five countries’ attitudes.

An exchange of territories between Serbia and Kosovo would directly lead to increasingly homogeneous nation states formed contrary to the principles of human rights and minority protection.

The concept of self-determination, along with a strong anti-corruption stance, is at the core of Vetëvendosje — which means precisely ‘Self Determination’ — the major Kosovo opposition political party that firmly opposes negotiations with Serbia. They want the whole of Kosovo, but the question is, what would happen if people in Albania, western Macedonia, Kosovo and southern parts of Montenegro were asked in which state they would like to live.  

Recent splits within Vetëvendosje might make this view less influential but the concept can easily be found elsewhere in the Balkans. Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, is repeatedly challenging international community and state authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina with statements about a referendum on secession and unification with Serbia. The idea of a homogeneous nation state of Albanians has long been popular — a 2010 opinion poll found 81 percent of Kosovar Albanians surveyed, 62 percent of Albanians and 51 percent of Albanians in Macedonia supported a Greater Albania — while there is anecdotal support among Serbs for an equivalent state.

The problem is that there are many more ethnic groups who would be affected by these processes, historical foundations of statehood would be challenged, standards of protecting ethnic minorities and human rights would become meaningless and the message to the world — in the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East — would be that of undermining peace and security.

Just two decades ago, the world intervened against the creation of a ‘Greater Serbia.’ Each historical era brings its own rules and norms, but has the world changed enough in just 25 years to allow the creation of almost ethnically pure and enlarged nation states? We are approaching a century since the Greco-Turkish population exchange. Has it solved the problem?

An exchange of territories between Serbia (in the case of the Preševo Valley) and Kosovo (some northern parts) would directly lead to increasingly homogeneous nation states formed contrary to the principles of human rights and minority protection. It would also undermine the sovereignty of other post-Yugoslav states. While EU members Slovenia and Croatia do not have significant minorities populating large parts of country, Bosnia and Herzegovina comes immediately under the scrutiny of nationalist agendas.

Why, if border changes are OK, would Serbs in Mitrovica be allowed to join a ‘neighboring state’ and those in Banja Luka refused?

The only answer to this question would be if a Kosovo-Serbia border change would keep the peace and provide the end of a long-standing issue. The problem would be how to explain to others in the Balkans that they were not allowed this in the past and that they would not be allowed it in future.

Could border changes in one place bring stability and peace, while just a few hundred kilometers to the north west it would do exactly the opposite?

The answer would be positive if institution and state-building processes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro had been finished. However, any border changes anywhere in the Balkans would more likely bring a rise of instability and a potential return in the area to a state of open conflicts. The second round of post-Yugoslav wars could well follow the tradition of Balkan Wars from the beginning of the 20th century when there were also two rounds.

The way to avoid conflicts and a need for border changes might well be in a concept offered by a 2005 commission led by former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, and popularized by British historian Timothy Garton Ash. The proposal at that time would have seen Kosovo and Serbia becoming the 33rd and 34th member states of the EU, acceding to the Union together with other Balkan non-member states in a ceremony held in Sarajevo on the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914 that triggered World War I.

Meanwhile, the mood has shifted from optimistic to almost extremely pessimistic. We are four years beyond that anniversary, the Western Balkan states are still far from EU membership, and new ideas — less promising ones — are entering the public discourse.

Feature image: Besnik Bajrami / K2.0.

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