To the surprise of most observers of Balkan politics, the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo have recently floated the idea of a territory exchange. While the details are not yet clear, the idea appears to be to “swap” Albanian-majority areas in Serbia for Serb-majority areas in Kosovo.
Given the many current crises in international politics, two states “consenting” to redraw their borders in a small corner of Eastern Europe may seem like minor news. In fact, the move could have profoundly negative implications for regional security, but more definitively, it would undermine perceptions of the “Western” power, its willingness to abide by its stated principles, and the effectiveness of “humanitarian intervention”.
The violent dissolution of Yugoslavia was marked by efforts to force state borders to cohere with ethnicity. In the case of Slovenia this was largely unproblematic as the overwhelming majority of people there identified as Slovene. In Bosnia, Croatia and later Kosovo, however, the demographics were more complicated, resulting in various cases of ethnic cleansing.
Despite the relative peace that has reigned since 2000, a number of disgruntled minorities remain; should territorial exchanges be legitimised, many have warned that groups such as the Serbs in Bosnia and the Albanians in Macedonia, will call for similar “readjustments” thereby sparking fresh conflict.
The prospects, however, of anything close to the violence of the 1990s recurring is slim. Firstly, unlike the Milosevic era, the current Serbian government is not trying to forge a “Greater Serbia”; its efforts to join the EU and NATO would be severely undermined should it become embroiled in any attempt to absorb Republika Srpska, the Serb-majority federal unit within Bosnia.
Likewise, while there are concentrations of Albanians in Montenegro, Greece and most notably Macedonia, there is little support in Kosovo or Albania—itself a member of NATO and an EU applicant—or such secessionism. Additionally, the dissolution of Yugoslavia took place during a severe economic crisis, which is not the case today.
Nonetheless, any border readjustment would certainly raise tensions in a number of areas. Additionally, it is difficult to imagine how such a move would not lead to societal unrest within Kosovo itself.
Having been assured that their Western patrons would guarantee their state’s territorial integrity, Kosovo’s Albanian majority have unsurprisingly reacted angrily to the recent change in policy. Indeed, it is the broader implications of supporting changes to Kosovo’s borders to facilitate ethnic segregation that is arguably the most important aspect of the proposed deal.
Kosovo and the West
When NATO’s intervention ended, Kosovo essentially became a Western protectorate. In 2008, despite opposition from Serbia and without the support of the UN Security Council, Kosovo’s parliament was encouraged by its Western backers to declare independence, though its status has been contested ever since, mainly by Serbia.
Throughout this period, Kosovo has been heralded by Western powers as an example of their capacity to spread democracy and liberal values. This determination to mould Kosovo into a shining archetype—an example to “the planet”—led to invasive external micro-management, including writing Kosovo’s constitution, designing its flag, choosing its anthem, and exercising formal control through bodies such as the ICO, EULEX and UNMIK.
Informal control manifesting as “advice” and “warnings” issued by foreign embassies in Pristina has arguably been just as invasive; without constitutional authority or popular support, foreign powers have chosen Kosovo’s President, demanded that Kosovo establish a new special court, and forced through a border demarcation deal with Montenegro.
This determination to create an image of a democratic, peaceful and multi-ethnic Kosovo has been driven less by a particular interest in Kosovo, and more by the need to use Kosovo as evidence that western-led “humanitarian intervention” and post-conflict state building works.
The importance of Kosovo in this respect has increased as the record of intervention and state building since 1999 has degenerated; given the failures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, Kosovo has increasingly been touted as the one counter to the “intervention doesn’t work” critique.
Myth and reality
Many who closely observed the country’s progress since 1999 have long disputed the claim that Kosovo “proves” intervention and state building can work. While Kosovo’s constitution is replete with references to its “multi-ethnic” character, Kosovo has remained ethnically divided, between its majority 96 percent ethnic Albanian population and minority Serb population—though hostilities between the Albanian and Serb communities have reduced significantly.
Additionally, with the tacit support of key western states, after 1999 a criminal elite captured Kosovo’s state institutions; their pervasive corruption, nepotism and at times violent intimidation, has led to poor education and healthcare, high unemployment, widespread criminality, and consequently, mass emigration. Thus, the idea of Kosovo as an exemplar has always been a myth, especially for those who actually live there.
Support for the proposed territory swap will, however, more obviously explode the myth that Kosovo is evidence of the West’s power and benevolence. Firstly, because it would amount to an admission that despite the prolonged and invasive micro-management of Kosovo, external powers were unable to create a genuinely pluralist—or “multi-ethnic”—society.
Clearly, carving up states to accommodate antagonistic ethnic demographics undermines the idea that Western-led intervention and state building can foster reconciliation, and casts doubt on the idea that democracy—especially that imposed from outside—can serve as a panacea.
Secondly, because support for border changes—in the face of popular opposition within Kosovo from both Albanians and Serbs—exposes the true nature of the relationship between the west and Kosovo.
Rather than steadfastly affirm its territorial integrity, many of Kosovo’s erstwhile friends now appear willing to sanction its reconfiguration for reasons of expediency; the US’s commitment to the region has clearly waned under Trump, and while Serbia wants to join the EU, the EU also wants Serbia so as to demonstrate that even post-Brexit, and with Russia on the rise, it can continue to expand. In so doing, however, it is evidently willing to sacrifice Kosovo, along with principles relating to pluralism, popular sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Many, of course, would dispute the idea that Western intervention and state building was ever driven by progressive principles; supporting border changes in Kosovo would, however, definitively prove that the West’s rhetoric has indeed been empty.
The failure to maintain Kosovo’s territorial integrity would cast even more doubt over the effectiveness of “humanitarian intervention”—particularly Western-led intervention—at a time when the world is beset by a terrible array of intra-state tragedies.
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