Conferences, meetings and summits are usually forgettable. If GPF covered the comings and goings of every leader at every European get-together, we wouldn’t have time to write about much else. But some are due a certain amount of respect. What if, say, two enemies-turned-statesmen actually agreed with each other in potentially redrawing their countries’ boundaries? Such was the case last weekend, when the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo spoke at the European Forum Alpbach 2018 in Austria. Whispers of partition have been audible for a few months now, but this marks the first public utterings of the possibility on both sides – and it happened before EU-mediated talks resume Sept. 7.
It’s not especially surprising that Serbia and Kosovo would consider partition. There are pockets of ethnic Albanians in Serbia, and pockets of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, and any serious deal to end their dispute, the most current iteration of which dates back to the early 1990s, needs to take that into account. These pockets of political opposition may well keep a deal from getting off the ground, but the presidents are nonetheless pushing forward with what is, so far, the most serious attempt yet to resolve this long-running conflict.
What is surprising is how well received partition has been. Last Sunday, an official at the European Commission said it was the commission’s job to support whatever solution is agreed to by the two sides. The official made clear this should not be considered a “blueprint for other issues” – EU institutions are terrified that land-swaps between Kosovo and Serbia will set a precedent for border issues across Europe – but in principle agreed to support partition. The United States, meanwhile, said at the end of last week that it would not stand in the way of the measure.
Interestingly, this newfound position of the European Union and the U.S. is the same position Russia has had for years. Russia has not come out in support of border changes, but its official stance has always been to support fulfillment of whatever agreements are reached between Belgrade and Pristina, within the EU-mediated negotiation process. If Serbia, one of Moscow’s friendliest European allies, decides it is in its best interest to make a deal with Kosovo, it’s unlikely Russia will stand in the way. In fact, whatever Serbia is doing, it is likely doing it with Russia’s tacit approval. Perhaps Russia hopes to engender some goodwill in the EU that its members will keep it in mind when Russian sanctions come to a vote again.
The only country still holding the line now is Germany – breaking with the European Union, for a change. For Germany, border change in the Balkans is anathema to the “territorial inviolability” of the Western Balkans. In German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own words, the impossibility of border changes “has to be said again and again because again and again there are attempts to perhaps talk about borders and we can’t do that.” Germany, for which maintaining the coherence of the EU is second to none, has the most to lose if a Kosovo-Serbia arrangement encourages Catalan separatists in Spain, or Hungarian separatists in Romania, or perhaps even inside Germany itself, to follow suit later on.
Such heady consequences, though important, are indeed far-off. The more immediate issue here is that the West is attempting to gain something of a foothold in this part of the world. Macedonia and Greece may soon vote on a name agreement that would pave the way to Macedonia’s accession to NATO and the EU. (Germany is the most important supporter of Macedonia’s EU accession.) Montenegro has already been inducted into NATO, and while Greece may be paying debts for the next 40 years, it’s still in the EU, and it’s stable for now. Bosnia-Herzegovina is still a basket-case, but then, not all problems can be solved at once. An internationally recognized agreement on Kosovo that could enable Belgrade to tilt to the West would be a boon to this broader strategy.
This is not to say that a Kosovo-Serbia deal would by itself unify the Balkans or cement the West’s influence there. After all, Kosovo is ethnic Albanian – and Serbia has always feared that making a deal with Kosovo could encourage separatist movements inside Serbia, or worse, create an opening for a pursuit of a “Greater Albania” by Tirana. And if negotiations collapse out of mutual distrust – a distinct possibility – it could also lead to violence. (The Israel-Palestine conflict comes to mind. Camp David II included provisions for land swaps, and when it failed to materialize, violence erupted.) Sometimes negotiations lead to the very problems they are meant to prevent because they are too intractable to be solved.
Germany’s position is not unreasonable – once one border can be changed, other separatist-minded groups in Europe will take notice and perhaps take action, no matter what a European Commission official says. Yet insisting that nothing can change isn’t especially practical. Like it or not, Kosovo and Serbia are considering land swaps to make peace, however risky it may be. More important is that Serbia, Kosovo, the EU, the U.S. and Russia all seem willing to support the decision – which means they all see a benefit for doing so.