Perspectives | Dialogue

‘Border Correction’ with Serbia: Compromise or Appeasement?

By - 02.10.2018

Or, why Kosovo needs Lions and not Lambs.

Charles Kupchan’s support for an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia to partition Kosovo along ethnic lines attracted much public attention, especially after he endorsed it as a “peaceful form of ethnic cleansing.”

According to Kupchan, pragmatism would have to trump principle, even when the result would be morally offensive. This sounds like the advice of a true political realist, who prefers to look at power relations and political consequences rather than legal or moral principles as criteria for foreign policy decisions.

Kupchan also made another point in support of partition along ethnic lines, which received fairly little attention. He made the argument that if Serbia was given a part of Kosovo, it could transform Serbia from an “aggrieved troublemaker to a satisfied stakeholder” in the region. Kupchan’s theory was that after being satisfied, Serbia may then discourage the predominantly Bosnian Serb populated entity Republika Srpska from seeking secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The idea is fairly simple: make Serbia happy by giving it a part of Kosovo, and Serbia will give up its nationalist claims on the Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Satisfy Serbia by sacrificing the territorial integrity of Kosovo for the greater good of peace and stability in the Balkans.

As Kupchan puts it, “the positive effects of reconciliation between Serbia and Kosovo further justify a one-off sacrifice of pluralist principles.” However, this would be fatally wrong, not just because it would sacrifice fundamental principles, but because it does not stand a political realist’s test.

Political realism teaches that a country must be careful when it wants to make compromises with another country which is not happy with the status quo.

Kupchan seems to propose a policy of appeasement towards Serbia; i.e. trying to satisfy the demands of a state which wants to reverse the existing political order. This tactic is usually associated with foreign policy which culminated in the Munich Conference of 1938.

At that time, Hitler was eager to reverse the political order created by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, under which Germany was suffering the most. He violated the Treaty of Versailles in respect to the arms restrictions imposed on Germany and, in 1936, he even reoccupied the Rhineland. France and the United Kingdom did not really oppose these moves because they, and the U.K. in particular, viewed the restrictions imposed by Versailles on Germany as unfair.

In 1938, Hitler justified the annexation of Austria by referring to the principle of self-determination — to bring all Germans ‘back into the Reich.’ In the same year, he claimed the German populated parts of Czechoslovakia.

At the Munich Conference in 1938, France and the U.K. agreed to the partitioning of Czechoslovakia along ethnic lines. Hitler claimed that Germany would have no further territorial claims and that by incorporating the German parts of Czechoslovakia Germany would be ‘satisfied.’ Less than six months after the Munich Conference, Hitler occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, then he attacked Poland, and then it was World War II.

Unwilling to engage militarily in ‘distant lands’, a feeling of guilt about the restrictions imposed by Versailles on Germany, and an erroneous assessment of Hitler’s foreign policy goals motivated the French and the British to make concessions where no concessions should have been made. The consequences were disastrous.

Political realism teaches that a country must be careful when it wants to make compromises with another country which is not happy with the status quo. Policies of compromise, give and take, and adjustment are reasonable when both countries accept the political status quo, i.e. the existing distribution of power, and provided the compromise does not change the status quo. Policies of compromise do not work when one of the countries is a ‘revisionist’ country, which intends to overthrow the status quo and change the balance of power to its own advantage.

Hitler’s Germany was such a revisionist country, while France and the U.K. believed it to be a ‘status-quo’ country. Applying policies of compromise (appeasement), which work between ‘status quo’ countries, to a revisionist country is the wrong policy. In this case, containment, i.e. the defense of the existing status quo, is the right policy.

Serbia remains opposed to the status quo and its official policy is to reverse this new political order.

Serbia is such a revisionist state. NATO’s military intervention in 1999 brought about a change in the distribution of power when it carved out Kosovo from Serbia. This not only led to Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 but it also weakened Serbia’s relative power in the Western Balkans. NATO thus created a new political status quo based on a military victory over Serbia which was formalized in the Military-Technical Agreement of 1999.

Serbia remains opposed to this status quo and its official policy is to reverse this new political order. Serbia does not accept Kosovo’s independence and it continues to consider it part of Serbia. Its foreign policy is very aggressive in preventing Kosovo from acquiring new bilateral recognitions and achieving membership in international organizations, i.e. to be internationally recognized as a state. Serbia’s minister of foreign affairs just recently stated that Serbia would recognize Kosovo ‘when pigs fly’.

Despite Serbia’s lip-service to the non-use of force, it is just the NATO military presence in Kosovo which prevents Serbia from seeking a military reversal of the status quo. Putting Serbia’s army on high alert every time Kosovo’s Special Police shows up in Kosovo’s northern municipalities indicates how ‘trigger-happy’ Serbia’s leadership is.

Serbia President Vučić’s public praise for Slobodan Milošević as a ‘great Serbian leader whose intentions were certainly for the best’ indicate support for the political ambitions to create a ‘Greater Serbia’ which, according to Vučić, have failed because the wrong methods were applied, while the goal remains legitimate.

Although Vučić is careful not to publicly indicate any hostility towards the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he is eager to strengthen ties between Serbia and Republika Srpska. With the support of Serbia and Russia, Republika Srpska is not only arming its citizens and questioning the sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is also just ‘waiting for the proper historical circumstances’ to unite with Serbia. Serbia would certainly be the last one to object to a Crimea-style unification of Republika Srpska with Serbia.

Kosovo should defend the status quo and make no territorial concessions to Serbia, and no concessions which substantially alter the nature of the Ahtisaari Plan.

Kosovo would therefore make a mistake to concede to Serbia a partition of Kosovo along ethnic lines. Kosovo would not gain much from incorporating the economically weak Presheva Valley, while Serbia would gain vital resources located in northern Kosovo.

Would Serbia stop there? Once the underlying principles of the political order in the Western Balkans change and a ‘politics of ethnic lines’ is legitimized, Serbia can use the same principle to make additional demands for the Serbs in the southern parts of Kosovo.

Where will that lead to? Territorial autonomy for Serb municipalities in the remaining parts of Kosovo? The Serb Orthodox Church in Kosovo will also need additional protection and related concessions. If a ‘politics of ethnic lines’ works in Kosovo, why should it not work in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and perhaps also in Macedonia?

Will Serbia recognize Kosovo if it gets a part of Kosovo? Most likely not. Will Kosovo join the EU and the UN, just because it satisfied Serbia’s demands? Most likely not, because Kosovo is still far away from meeting even the basic criteria for EU membership and accession to the UN can still fail due to Russia’s and China’s veto.

The key point is that Serbia would succeed with its policy to reverse the status quo created by NATO’s intervention. This change would be at the expense of Kosovo and yet Serbia would achieve it, strangely enough, with the support of Kosovo.

Kosovo should defend the status quo and make no territorial concessions to Serbia, and no concessions which substantially alter the nature of the Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement (Ahtisaari Plan). Kosovo has leverage over Serbia and should use it. Serbia will not be able to join the EU, even if it meets all other criteria, unless it reaches a legally binding agreement with Kosovo.

Serbia’s social and economic costs for not joining the EU are much higher than Kosovo’s. Kosovo has sufficient financial support from the EU through IPA funds and bilateral donor assistance, more than it actually can absorb. It still has to undertake significant economic, administrative and legal reforms before it can even start thinking about accession to the EU.

While it is desirable for Kosovo to reach an agreement with Serbia as soon as possible, this should not be at any cost. Kosovo can sustain long negotiations with Serbia without significant losses. Serbia cannot afford long negotiations because its relative opportunity costs will increase the more time it spends negotiating an agreement with Kosovo.

Concerns about Serbia getting even closer to Russia as a result of Kosovo blocking its accession to the EU might explain the recent U.S. and EU support for partitioning Kosovo along ethnic lines. They might see a quick fix to appease Serbia at the expense of Kosovo as just the right way to keep Serbia away from Russia.

Kosovo does not need ‘lambs’, it needs ‘lions’ who are willing to protect Kosovo’s interests and who are willing to pay the costs needed to preserve Kosovo against a revisionist Serbia.

Should Kosovo therefore give in? The answer is no. Kosovo should use its leverage over Serbia by inflicting costs on Serbia the longer it refuses an agreement which recognizes Kosovo as an independent state within its existing borders.

Kosovo should engage in constructive negotiations by offering minority rights and protection, based on principles of multi-ethnicity and citizenship, and not on ethnicity and nationalism. It should negotiate and defend the status quo based on European Union values and principles and demonstrate that it is a responsible partner for peace and security in the Western Balkans.

Driving such a line will eventually bring Serbia to breaking-point and, as Vučić already indicated, Serbia would get “nothing substantial from the negotiations with Kosovo” and would still have to recognize it.

For this to work, Kosovo’s political leadership must be lions and not lambs. This metaphor refers to political scientist Randall Schweller’s distinction between states, which are willing to pay high costs to protect what they possess (‘lions’) and those which are willing to pay only low costs to defend their values (‘lambs’).

As Schweller explains, lambs are weak states characterized by relatively few capabilities, a lack of institutional legitimacy, internal divisions and torn identities. Being a ‘lamb’ is also a mindset carried forward by a country’s political leadership which assumes this role because it suits the personal interests of the political elites or because it is simply not self-conscious and self-confident enough to be a ‘lion’.

The readiness to agree to partition reflects a ‘lamb’ mentality. But Kosovo does not need ‘lambs’, it needs ‘lions’ who are willing to protect Kosovo’s interests and who are willing to pay the costs needed to preserve Kosovo against a revisionist Serbia. Getting ‘lions’ to govern Kosovo and to lead the negotiations, and to get rid of the ‘lambs’, is the real challenge for Kosovo.

Feature image: Besnik Bajrami / K2.0.

  • 07 Oct 2018 - 16:18 | Russ Gold:

    A jambalaya kind of an article where you borrow ideas from different authors an try to make a dish of your own. But the result of such an approach is filled with paradoxes and irrationality. An analysis requires to do netting of pluses and minuses. Muharremi is forgetting that Kosovo is a dysfunctional state because of the blockage of the Serbian minority (2/3s of them required for Kosovo to make any meaningful decision for example) and Serbia is not. Ahtisaari Plan is a cancer injected in the body of the state and without cutting it out there is no chance for Kosovo to ever become a functional state. Hence, Kosovo must consider a deal with Serbia. Indeed not any deal, but a deal that is guaranteed by big powers such as the US, EU and Russia and a deal where the two peoples, Serbs and Albanians, reach the point from where on they will focus on their matters more than on the conflict with one another. To be against a deal of this nature means to be against Kosovo.

  • 03 Oct 2018 - 04:33 | David Odartey Lamptey:

    The writer settled on one side off the coin. Forgetting about the greater picture where Kosovo and Serbia can both join international bodies EU and UN and recognized as individual states benefitting the entire Balkan community. For how long will Kosovo not be recognized as a state.