Perspectives | Politics

Could Kosovo and Serbia really exchange territory?

By - 14.08.2018

A look into the roots of and reactions to partition.

In recent weeks, public discourse in Kosovo has been dominated by a single topic. ‘Partition’ — that’s how it was called at the beginning. Then ‘territory exchange.’ A little later, the terminology of ‘border correction’ crept in.

In the media, it has been reported that the two neighboring presidents of Kosovo and Serbia — Hashim Thaçi and Aleksandar Vučić — are the biggest flag-bearers of this idea. But why, when and how did this idea arise?

Such ideas are not alien to the Balkan region — the wars in the ’90s in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) stemmed in no small part from Serbia attempting to alter borders to create ethnically homogenous territories.

But an Albanian proverb declares that one should “not mention the rope in the hangman’s house,” and in a region that has no ethnic geographic compactness and where many states’ regions are interspersed with various ethnic groups, many experts warn that any attempt to redefine ethnic boundaries could trigger a dangerous situation that could produce both boomerang and domino effects.

For instance, around 30 percent of BiH’s population is ethnically Serb, and the leader of its Serb-majority entity Republika Srpska regularly beats the drum of separation and independence. Similarly, around 25 percent of Macedonia’s citizens are ethnic Albanians and any hint of redrawing borders could well reaffirm the national question there, which brought about the 2001 conflict.

Thaçi — who upon becoming president unilaterally placed himself in charge of the ‘final phase’ of the dialogue with Serbia — has suggested that any ultimate change of the borders would only occur after Serbia had recognized Kosovo as a separate state, and that consequently, such an agreement would be made by two independent and sovereign states with mutual consent.

This may be a justification for why such an exchange could not happen in other countries of the region. It is difficult to imagine, for instance, any mutual agreement between two states in the cases of Serbia and BiH, Macedonia and Albania, or Montenegro and Kosovo.

In the meantime, civil society organizations from Kosovo and Serbia have also reacted. Through an open letter to the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, they expressed their opposition to the partition of Kosovo or a territorial swap along ethnic lines. Furthermore, through this letter they publicly called upon Federica Mogherini to clearly declare against these scenarios.

Reaction also came from David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University. In an authorial article, among other things he highlights a very sensitive issue: What would happen to the Albanian population living north of the Ibar River and the Serb population living south of it, and what mechanism would be built to manage a potential displacement of the two populations?

A history of partition

The idea of specifically redefining Kosovo’s borders was born in the 1980s among Serbian academic circles and augmented in the 1990s at the insistence of former Yugoslav President Dobrica Ćosić before somehow losing its intensity after the 1999 war. However, in practical terms on the ground, it was to some extent simultaneously concretized in the aftermath of the war, when many non-Serbs were expelled from the northern part of Mitrovica.

Even so, after the notion of making changes to the borders appeared to be dead, its ghost didn’t leave Kosovo. It has been especially reactivated after the election of new U.S. President, Donald Trump, in particular after the letter that U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher sent to former Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić at the end of January 2017. In the letter, Rohrabacher instructed Nikolić to consider the possibility of conducting a “mutually beneficial alteration of the northern border.”

The letter was criticized and forgotten for a while, but the ideas contained within it have again been dominating headlines since the spring. In April of this year, at a conference organized by the Balkan Policy Research Group, Thaçi said that the time has come for a historic agreement with Serbia, which will bring mutual recognition and Kosovo gaining a seat at the UN.

But April was also the exact month when the partition option began to appear in the media, despite Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj saying he was unaware of it as a possible outcome and rejecting it as an option. A month later, during a lecture at Oxford University, Thaçi said that Kosovo is ready for compromise. Later in Prishtina he added that the agreement would be painful, though emphasized that the Assembly would have the final say on the final agreement with Serbia.

The ideas that Thaci has put out in the morning, he has hastened to deny and distance himself from virtually the same afternoon, labelling as “fake news” the variations of partition that he himself has released.

Indeed, his unclarity on the issue seems to have intensified recently, with his behavior reminiscent of a joke told by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan during the Cold War in which a frightened Russian citizen rushed to the KGB to announce that he had lost his parrot. Surprised, the KGB agent tells him that it was not the right place and that these cases were handled by local police. “I know, I know, I just came to tell you that I don’t agree with a word of what my parrot says!”

Similar to the approach favored by a more contemporary U.S. president, the ideas that Thaci has put out in the morning, he has hastened to deny and distance himself from virtually the same afternoon, labelling as “fake news” the variations of partition that he himself has released. More recently, he has found a whole new name for this issue – calling it “border correction” — neither partition nor exchange.

Despite this game of changing attitudes within a day and never rejecting the possibility of partition, the president has not ceased making accusations against the media, labelling the Koha media group as using the same discourse as his Serbian counterpart Vučić. Consequently, Koha decided to suspend any formal communication with the president and his office, leading Thaçi to apologize, saying his intention had not been to insult anyone.

Another topic the president has been vocal on recently is the notion of Albanian national unification. In an interview for the Tirana-based newspaper, “Tema”, he said that national unification is not a taboo subject, and in another interview for Albanian television, “Top Channel” stated that he hopes that Albania will be in favor of the will of citizens of the Presheva Valley.

Thaçi has also posited the idea of putting the notion of territorial exchange to a public referendum. However, Kosovo’s constitution doesn’t currently allow for such an action, meaning constitutional amendments would be required beforehand. Changes to the constitution require a two thirds majority vote in the Assembly, an unlikely scenario considering the widespread opposition to the plan amongst the Kosovar political spectrum.

International positions

Hashim Thaçi, in one way or another, has also implied that the possibility of swapping territories between Kosovo and Serbia has been left open by leading international actors.

“The honest and very responsible statement from the U.S. ambassador must be taken seriously by all, without exception,” said Thaçi, commenting on an interview U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo, Greg Delawie, gave to KTV on July 19, in which he did not rule out the possibility of partition, adding that he “will not speak about the elements of the final agreement.”

The UN has similarly failed to rule out the possibility. Farhan Haq, the UN’s deputy spokesman from New York said: “We support any kind of discussion between Prishtina and Belgrade dealing with the issue of Kosovo’s status and we encourage the parties to discuss this issue.”

Thaçi has also said that Russia supports any agreement reached by the two sides, saying that at the meeting he had in July with Dmitry Medvedev in Ankara during the inauguration of Turkey’s President Erdoğan, the Russian prime minister said that if Kosovo and Serbia agree between themselves, the Russian position will be in accordance with the joint agreement.

Other international actors however, are openly opposed to the idea. The British Embassy has made it clear that the UK believes calls for border changes may be destabilizing, while the German Embassy has also spoken out against the idea, as well as the German chancellor herself.

Political rejection

On the domestic front, in Kosovo almost all political parties have rejected any possibility of partition or territorial swap from the beginning.

Thaçi’s successor as head of PDK, Kadri Veseli, who is also president of the Kosovo Assembly, has stated that “the partition of Kosovo will never be on the negotiating table.” In fact, from PDK ranks, Thaçi’s idea has only been publicly supported by the Minister of Justice, Abelard Tahiri, who, although declaring against partition, has said that Kosovo will support the political will of the Albanians of the Presheva Valley.

Within PDK’s coalition partner party AAK, both Prime Minister Haradinaj and the Vice President of the party, Daut Haradinaj, have declared themselves against the possibility of border correction, warning that it would lead to new wars. Deputy Prime Minister Fatmir Limaj, who heads fellow coalition party the Social Democratic Initiative (formerly NISMA) has also stated that the idea of a territorial swap is unacceptable.

On the other hand, the opposition was somewhat more reserved in judging the recent actions of President Thaçi. The head of LDK’s parliamentary group, Avdullah Hoti, has stated that “it is not time for partition and a swap of territories,” but vice president of the party, Lutfi Haziri, has spoken out in support of the Presheva Valley joining Kosovo, even claiming that he had this idea before Thaçi.

Vetëvendosje, meanwhile, has warned of protests against Thaçi’s idea of border correction, with leader Albin Kurti saying that “the ideas of territorial swap or border correction are in function of a kind of creation of an atmosphere where a special status for northern Kosovo becomes more accessible through a promise for compensation in Presheva, Medvegja and Bujanoc, which will not happen.”

The only party that is unequivocally declared in favor of unification of the Presheva Valley with Kosovo, is the Movement for Unification (LB), which has no elected representatives in the Assembly. The party’s leader, Valon Murati, has said that the right to self-determination for Kosovo’s Serbs and Serbia’s Albanians should be recognized.

Among the rare intellectuals who have supported the idea of the swap is academic Rexhep Qosja, who wrote that Albanians should accept the idea of the territory swap, otherwise Serbia will take both the Presheva Valley and autonomy for North Kosovo.

The view from Belgrade

But how are things flowing in Serbia vis-à-vis this issue? The President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, began preparing the Serbian public for the possibility of recognizing Kosovo’s statehood months ago, but a few days later said: “I’m worried that Thaçi believes that Northern Mitrovica or Leposavić do not belong to Serbia,” implicitly speaking about partition.

When asked about the idea of territorial swap and Kosovo’s claim to the Presheva Valley, he replied with mockery, asking rhetorically if Kosovars “have thought about Vojvodina, Belgrade and Šumadija as well?”

On the other hand, Ivica Dačić, the Serbian Foreign Minister, has said that “Thaçi wants dialogue and tries to compromise, but the others do not support him,” while a few days ago he stated that “we will have no better moment to resolve the issue of Kosovo,” seemingly trying to calm Serbian public opinion. However, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić has subsequently said that partition of Kosovo is simply Dačić’s stance, and that the Serbian government has not yet decided on its official position.

Despite the prime minister’s reassurances, there has been some reaction in Serbia and President Vučić has also spoken to the media about the idea of recognizing Kosovo’s statehood and a potential territorial swap. He said that if Serbs do not agree that the border with Kosovo should be demarcated, then “let’s be prepared to defend Vranje after 40 years.”

Vučić also met with Patriarch Irinej, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, explaining the whole situation created in relation to Kosovo. Earlier, the Abbot of the Dečani monastery, Sava Janjić had warned of a mutually staged incident, which would lead to the partition of Kosovo.

In terms of the opposition, Vuk Jeremić from the Serbian People’s Party, and former Serbian Foreign Minister, has said they will not accept any solution that foresees Kosovo’s accession to the UN. Another Serbian opposition leader, the Liberal Party’s Čedomir Jovanović — who has long been in favor of recognizing Kosovo’s independence — has said that in September an opposition coalition will be created that will come up with a solution to the Kosovo issue.

The people on the ground

But another important element in this regard is the attitude of the two populations — the Albanians of the Presheva Valley and Kosovo Serbs. In the end, is it not they who will live in one or the other state?

For the Albanians of the Presheva Valley, their political representatives have met with all the political leaders of Kosovo in recent days, and Kosovo’s support for the Albanian population was confirmed in each meeting.

As for the possibility of joining Kosovo, all Albanian leaders from the Valley have declared in favor of unification with Kosovo, although the mayor of Bujanoc, Shaip Kamberi, recently said that such a union could only be imagined if the Presheva Valley joins as a whole (i.e. the entire territory of the three Albanian majority municipalities in Serbia) and that any partial unification would have serious consequences.

The requests of the Mayor of Presheva, Shqiprim Arifi, were even greater — he said that the three Albanian majority municipalities of the Presheva Valley should join Kosovo, but Serbia should not take anything from Kosovo.

Former Kosovo Serb MP, Rada Trajković, has said that any partition or correction of the borders would leave most of the Kosovo Serb population south of the Ibar River with a single solution – an exodus

From the side of the Kosovo Serb leaders, the largest Serbian party in Kosovo, Srpska Lista, openly declared in favor of Kosovo’s partition weeks ago, following a meeting held with President Vučić in Belgrade.

However, other Kosovar Serb political leaders have spoken out against partition. Former Kosovo Serb MP, Rada Trajković, has said that any partition or correction of the borders would leave most of the Kosovo Serb population south of the Ibar River with a single solution – an exodus.  Meanwhile, former Srpska Lista leader Aleksandar Jablanović from the Kosovo Serb Party. in an open letter to President Vučić, has said that Kosovo Serbs are not afraid of Albanians but of Belgrade, continuing a long animosity against the Serbian president.

With both societies divided, it seems inevitable that a swap of territory would, in the end, leave behind resentment on both sides and that the potential partition along the Ibar river would not guarantee long-term stability in relations between the two states.

Will the two presidents try to delineate the border on these demographic and geopolitical prerequisites? It remains to be seen. What is certain is that both presidents, both Thaçi and Vučić, seem alone in this current attempt, for the time being.

In Kosovo, all the main political parties both in government and opposition are against the possibility of a swap of territories and the majority of the civil society has opposed it, too. While not everyone opposes this proposal based on the same motives, it will be very difficult for such a proposal to be accepted by Kosovo public opinion.

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.