Written by: Adam Peterson
The province of Kosovo has been one of Europe’s most hotly contested issues for more than three decades. Roughly half of the international community recognizes Kosovo as an independent nation, while the other half views Kosovo as an integral, historic region of Serbia. The beginning of the contemporary conflict over Kosovo can be traced back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, during the breakup of Yugoslavia. In this period, immediately preceding the First Yugoslav War, also known as the Bosnian Civil War, ethnic tensions increased among many of the Yugoslav communities. This was especially true between the Kosovar Albanians and Serbs living inside Kosovo. Sporadic violence and claims by the Serbs of persecution at the hands of Albanians dominated the narrative surrounding Kosovo inside of Serbia proper. These claims were legitimized by Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic, a Serbian member of Yugoslavia’s Communist Party, rallied to support Kosovar Serbs who claimed ethnic-based persecution. Milosevic successfully played off of Serbian nationalist sentiments and the Serbian historical consciousness to agitate for increased power in the framework of the Yugoslav government.
The rhetoric surrounding the Serbian-Kosovo issue was a major contributing factor to the development of nationalist movements in the former Yugoslavia and precipitated the Yugoslav wars. These Yugoslav wars were often characterized by ethnic cleansings of civilian populations as a way for militia groups and armies to secure more territory for the constituent republic that they swore allegiance to. For example, the Republika Srpska, a state proclaimed in Bosnia, was formed by Bosnian Serbs (Serbs living within the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and pursued unification with Serbia proper. After the end of the wars of secession, a new conflict emerged in the province of Kosovo between Albanian Insurgents and the Yugoslav National Army (JNA). By the time of the war, Yugoslavia no longer existed in its former stature but was instead a federation of Montenegro and Serbia.
The conflict between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians largely has to do with historical claims over the region. Serbs see the region as a core part of their history and national identity. Serbian historical consciousness surrounding Kosovo most commonly associates the region with the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. This battle saw a contingent of Serbian soldiers clash with Ottoman forces in a battle that amounted to heavy losses on both sides. In the view of the Serbs, this battle serves as an example of a ‘last stand’ or sacrificial resistance against the Ottomans who later subjugated Serbia for centuries. Many Serbian politicians played off this critical part of Serbian history and suggested that the loss of Kosovo to the Albanians, who are largely Muslim, would be akin to the Islamic Ottoman conquest of Serbia (and Kosovo) centuries prior.
As previously discussed, the conflict over Kosovo eventually escalated into the Kosovo War in 1999, which saw the ethnic cleansing of both Serbs and Albanians from the region, with hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing to surrounding countries. Serbia (in the personage of Yugoslavia) was bombed by NATO, with Yugoslavia being forced to recall its forces from Kosovo. In 2008, Kosovo officially declared independence from Serbia. In the past decade, the Kosovo conflict has largely remained frozen, with little progress being made towards a peaceful solution.
In this context, the conflict over Kosovo must be understood as existing simultaneously in contemporary and historical terms. Discussions over potential settlements evoke feelings of both historical and recent trauma among the parties involved. The Kosovo issue remains one of the most divisive issues in Europe and the world at large. Even within the European Union, there is still no consensus over the recognition of Kosovo, with (often Christian Orthodox) nations such as Romania, Greece, Cyprus, and Slovakia not recognizing Kosovo’s independence.
The Land Swap Proposal
To mend the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, some have recently suggested that both parties agree to a land swap. Under such a deal, Serbia would surrender its territories along the border with Kosovo that has a majority Albanian population, in exchange for Kosovar reciprocity in transferring the territories with Serbian majorities currently under Kosovar administration to Serbian administration. A common suggestion within the proposed deals is that the Serbian government recognize Kosovo as an independent state. If the Serbia-Kosovo conflict is solved and Kosovo is recognized as a member state of the United Nations, both countries will then be able to successfully apply for EU membership.
This land swap solution, as it has been labeled, has not been met with enthusiasm along all fronts, as the now-former president of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, (who has recently been called by the Hauge for investigation for war crimes) has shown limited support for the proposal. Serbia’s president, however, has reacted positively and has suggested that they would be open to the proposal. Larger tertiary powers have been mostly supportive, or otherwise indifferent to the proposal. The United States, under the Trump Administration, stated their willingness to support a mutually-agreed to the proposal. Powers within the European Union, such as Germany, have rejected the proposal due to its potential to start new conflicts in the Balkans.
Viability of a Land Swap
It is impossible to predict whether such a land swap can peacefully succeed should both parties come to a mutual agreement. While the former Yugoslavia and the surrounding states have been largely stabilized in comparison to the situation less than 30 years ago, the West Balkans remains a location with great potential for new conflicts as well as sporadic violence by non-state actors. Examples of this violence can be seen in the various insurgencies by the Albanian National Liberation Army in North Macedonia in 2001, the Presovo Valley insurgency in Serbia, as well as attacks on Macedonian police forces as recently as 2015. Just as we consider the potential for violence in the event of a poor settlement, we must also recognize the reality that violent outbreaks are possible while maintaining the status quo.
While the critical issue with the Kosovo-Serbia land swap is the potential for another war to break out, a land-swap without violence cannot be interpreted as a solution without potential consequences. A nonviolent land swap, especially in the Balkans, has the potential to legitimize this type of diplomatic solution for the whole of the European community. A successful land swap could have the adverse effect of inciting a wave of politicians that engage in irredentist rhetoric in favor of conducting land swaps across the continent. That is to say that even if the Kosovo-Serbia swap is successful and non-violent, the implications of a bilateral agreement must be considered in the context of the region and the continent at large.
Several European countries have significant populations that share their cultural identity living outside of the borders of the state. Hungary is a clear example of this, with Hungarians residing in concentrated communities in all of the states surrounding Hungary proper. Similarly, large communities of Russians live in the former republics of the Soviet Union along the Russian border. Russia could also use the rhetoric surrounding land swaps and ethnolinguistic union with bordering diaspora populations in many of the former Soviet republics. Estonia stands as the most striking example, with a quarter of the population identifying themselves as ethnically Russian, and almost a third claiming Russian as their first language. Additionally, a large part of this population resides along the eastern border with Russia. While it is unlikely that a country like Estonia, a member of both the European Union and NATO, would face a direct attack from Russia, it is possible for Putin to agitate for the creation of separatist movements in the east, similar to the situation in Eastern Ukraine.
Protection of Minority Rights within Nations
A potential issue that many have raised within discussions of land swaps is the protection of ethnic minorities. In the case of Serbia and Kosovo, a significant number of Serbs would still reside in Kosovo in the aftermath of a land swap. This population would be principally concentrated in the eastern side of the interior and along the southern Kosovo-Macedonia border.
While land swaps might sound like a rather simple resolution on the macro level, the individuals who will be affected by a land swap must also be considered. Demographics are not absolute. While a map may show that an area is majority Albanian, there are likely still Serbs living inside of that region in some capacity. This situation is also assuredly true for the Albanian minority that resides in the northern, Serb majority region of Kosovo.
If Serbia and Kosovo are to go through with a land swap, it should be their responsibility to accommodate these individuals, no matter which state they choose to reside in. Serbia and Kosovo both need to guarantee the individual and cultural rights of minority populations residing under their administration. Additionally, both states must make provisions and provide funds for populations that voluntarily choose to migrate out of these regions that might be ‘left out’ of the land swap.
Claims over the mistreatment of minority communities along border regions can often be used as a casus belli, and this is reflected in the rhetoric and the reality of the Milosevic era. If the Serbia-Kosovo land swap is to succeed, it is vital that the Albanian and Serbian minorities are guaranteed protection irrespective of the state in which they reside.
While the current talks of a land swap may not be successful in the long term, it is beneficial to see that the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo is not escalating. The exploration of solutions, no matter how unorthodox, should not be punished. Regardless of what the parties agree to, it is imperative that the states and populations involved in the land swap be the ones to decide its terms. The mediating bodies, whether the EU, NATO, or the UN, must be cognizant of the potential for a solution like this to set a volatile or potentially dangerous precedent. Finally, the religious and cultural rights of individuals and communities in whatever state they reside in must be protected.