Possible Serbia-Kosovo “Border Correction” Deal Stalls Amid Widening Criticism
Prospects for a deal between Kosovo and Serbia to swap territory in a “border correction” are looking increasingly grim as larger numbers of notable individuals and organizations across both countries and beyond have explicitly called for any redrawing of the border between the erstwhile enemies to be rejected.
During the chaotic disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, longstanding interethnic conflict between ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians led to the bloody Kosovo War in 1998 and culminated in a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing campaign; an acute refugee crisis amid reports of war crimes committed by both sides; and United Nations (UN) administration of Kosovo under the peacekeeping force UNMIK from 1999 onwards.
Unsettled questions regarding the “final settlement” of the status of Kosovo produced several rounds of UN-led talks from 2006 onwards; however, the talks failed to produce a solution amenable to Serbia, which rejected any grant of independence for Kosovo. Further negotiations floundered and, as a result, the interim Kosovar legislature in Pristina unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 as the Republic of Kosovo. The International Court of Justice, upon a Serbian-led request for an advisory opinion, affirmed the legality of the independence declaration under international law in 2010.
Currently, Kosovo is recognized by over 100 UN member-states, with remaining member-states either backing Serbia’s position out of historical or traditional ties (as in the case of Russia) or declining to recognize Kosovo over fears of emboldening secessionist movements at home (e.g. Spain, or even China).
Ethnic politics remain a salient issue in the Balkans, with the messy dissolution of Yugoslavia having left pockets of ethnic minorities in each of its former constituent republics. Kosovo has an overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian majority (mostly Muslim) in contrast to the ethnic Serbian majority (mostly Eastern Orthodox) in the Republic of Serbia. A good portion of Serbia’s ethnic Albanian minority is concentrated in the Presevo Valley, which borders Kosovo to the east, while the four municipalities of North Kosovo, currently under Kosovar control, all have ethnic Serb majorities.
In early Aug. 2018, President of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi issued a statement proposing a “correction” of the border as part of a larger deal to normalize relations with Serbia. While no concrete details were offered, President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić welcomed the idea, a sentiment that was hesitantly acknowledged by key officials in the EU and the United States by Aug. 26.
However, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj warned on Aug. 29 that any land swap with Serbia would “re-open the past” and lead to war, thus putting him at odds with President Thaçi. Germany’s Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth also expressed his opposition to any border adjustments while German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in meetings with Croatian, Montenegrin, and Bosnian officials, reiterated the German position that territorial integrity as it stands “has been established and is inviolable.”
Notable Balkan academics, experts, and organizations co-signed an open letter, published on Aug. 31, imploring the EU and US to reject the “ethnification of polities and frontiers.” Serbian lobbying groups, including representatives of Serbian Orthodox congregations and right-wing diaspora organizations, have also penned letters to the US Congress urging rejection of the “proposed territorial partition of Kosovo.”
On the other hand, the Russian ambassador to Serbia announced Russia’s tentative support for the agreement ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s scheduled visit to Serbia in October or November this year while the EU’s foreign policy chief defended the idea as a subject of Serbia-Kosovo normalization talks by declaring that the EU would only accept any such deal if it were in line with international and EU law.
As the next rounds of normalization talks begin, it remains to be seen if a concrete border swap arrangement amenable to Pristina, Belgrade, and the wider international community can be hammered out between the former wartime enemies. Such a deal — if successful in the face of mounting opposition — holds significant implications for other borders in the Balkans and the integration of Serbia and Kosovo into the EU and wider international organizations as well.