Kosovo and Serbia: is a land swap a real possibility?

Kosovo and Serbia: is a land swap a real possibility?

Both President Vučić of Serbia and President Thaçi of Kosovo have recently mentioned a land swap as a way of resolving their territories’ long standing dispute. Although their support for the idea has wavered, the fact that both Presidents have raised it suggests that it enjoys some high level political support. So what would a land swap involve, and how likely is it to happen?

Which parts of Kosovo and Serbia would be ‘swapped’?

Serbia would take four northern municipalities of Kosovo, which are overwhelmingly inhabited by Serbs. In exchange Kosovo, which is mostly Albanian, could ask for two majority Albanian municipalities within Serbia, and part of one other municipality that contains a significant Albanian minority.

Why now?

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, so it is fair to ask why its borders are only now being discussed. A land swap has come to the surface for two main reasons.

Firstly, President Trump’s emphasis on national interest over abstract principles kindled hope of a change of policy on Kosovo, particularly in Serbia. These hopes were seemingly confirmed when Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, publicly stated that the current administration will support any solution that is agreed upon by the Kosovar and Serbian governments. This goes against years of American opposition to further border changes in the former Yugoslavia.

Secondly, the EU is keen to close the dialogue that it has mediated between Kosovo and Serbia since 2011 with an all-encompassing legal agreement as soon as possible. Such an agreement would likely involve Serbia recognizing Kosovo, if not formally then at least in practice. Vučić has identified a land swap as a way of getting a domestic ‘win’ out of an otherwise historic capitulation to the international community. Thaçi hopes to secure an agreement that would prevent Serbia’s ally Russia from blocking Kosovo’s membership of the UN, and stop Serbia from vetoing Kosovo’s progress towards the EU, a tactic that has previously been implemented in the region. Both Presidents expect the EU to reward a deal with progress in accession negotiations.

What are the benefits?

A land swap would allow both territories to rid themselves of poorly integrated minorities who have been problematic and even violent in the past. Also, both Presidents could claim a territorial victory, thereby making a deal with the ‘enemy’ easier to sell to domestic audiences. Without a perceived diplomatic triumph, Vučić would be open to accusations of relinquishing ‘the heart of Serbia’ for nothing. Thaçi could face charges of giving in to Serbia, but he stands to gain a great deal of political capital for being the man who finally persuaded Serbia to recognize the country whose independence he fought for in the 1990s. Leveraging these coinciding interests to finally resolve Kosovo and Serbia’s relationship would be a great achievement. It could reset political relations and drive economic development in one of the poorest parts of Europe.

What are the risks?

The exact location of the new borders would be difficult to define. For example, only about 55% of the inhabitants of Bujanovac municipality in Serbia are Albanian; wherever the border is placed, some people will end up in a state dominated by the other ethnicity. Furthermore, allowing the border to be defined by ethnicity opens up the possibility of border areas being purged of minorities, potentially through violence as in the 1990s.

Also, a land swap does not guarantee benefits in of itself. Changing a line on a map cannot ensure workable relations between the Kosovar and Serbian governments. Longstanding issues from the conflict in the 1990s, such as the fate of missing persons and technical disputes like the ownership of state assets need to be resolved. The track record of other former Yugoslav states in settling these issues is not particularly positive.

Who opposes a land swap?

European governments, including Germany and the U.K., are openly opposed to a land swap. They argue that it would undermine years of efforts to create multiethnic regimes in the former Yugoslavia, a policy hitherto regarded by the USA and the EU, as the only way to ensure lasting peace.

Most of the political parties in Kosovo, despite being starkly divided on other issues, are united in their opposition to a border change. Even if a workable agreement was approved between Vučić and Thaçi, it would be extremely difficult to ratify it in Kosovo’s assembly. It took 3 years for Kosovo to ratify a border agreement with Montenegro, a country that recognized Kosovo in 2008. Disagreements over border demarcation caused the government to fall after a major political crisis in which tear gas was repeatedly released in the assembly. Border discussions with Serbia could be far more controversial.

In Serbia, the constitution would have to be changed, which requires a referendum. Kosovo remains a volatile issue in Serbia; public support for a deal might not be forthcoming. The influential Serbian Orthodox Church opposes partition, arguing that it involves abandoning those Serbs who would be left in Kosovo. Indeed, Kosovo has remained a frozen conflict for so long in part because sections of the Serbian public believe that the best option is to postpone any agreement until the appropriate geopolitical circumstances to reclaim Kosovo arise.  

How likely is it to happen?

The EU’s opposition to a land swap is highly significant given that the reward sought by the two Presidents is progress towards EU membership. Combined with the difficulty of winning over domestic audiences, neither Vučić nor Thaçi is likely to take concrete steps towards changing their borders unless the EU changes its stance, American ambivalence notwithstanding. The prospect of a land swap may, however, continue to be raised publicly by politicians in both Kosovo and Serbia for domestic political purposes.

Categories: Europe

About Author

Luke Bacigalupo

Luke Bacigalupo is a political analyst currently based in Belgrade, Serbia. He holds degrees in South Eastern European Studies and Modern History from the University of Belgrade and the University of Oxford, respectively. He has previously worked as a political reporter at the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and at UNDP in Serbia.