Serbia, a small Balkan state, has long had its eye on accession to the European Union. One of the foremost candidates for accession, Serbia is in the process of negotiating the conditions of membership. Many of these specifications have been detailed in the Commission strategy titled ‘A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans’ which tentatively proposes an accession date of 2025 (European Commission, 2018). Most of the target areas require Serbia to continue making progress along the lines of the Copenhagen Criteria (European Newsroom, 2015). Yet, among all the standard criteria is one condition that stands out. The European Union requires Serbia to further normalize its relations with its southern neighbor, Kosovo, before it is eligible for EU accession.
Kosovo, a former Serbian province composed mostly of ethnic Albanians, declared independence from Serbia in 2008 after decades of bloody conflict and political suppression (BBC, 2018). Yet, Serbia still refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence and much of Kosovo’s north is populated by ethnic Serb enclaves which also largely refuse to recognize Pristina’s legitimacy (BBC, 2018). Against this historical backdrop of regional instability and strained relations, the European Union intervened. In the interest of promoting both democratic legitimacy and regional stability, the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia has become a cornerstone of Serbia’s EU accession proceedings. Though EU representatives have kept what they mean by normalization deliberately vague, the head of the EU Delegation in Serbia, Sem Fabrizi, has stated that “Kosovo is the key element” and that a fully legally binding treaty normalizing relations between the two states is essential to Serbian accession (Lukovic, 2018).
It is within this context that a risky new proposal has come to the fore. Born out of negotiations mediated by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini between Kosovo president Hashim Thaci and Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic in 2018, the proposed land-swap deal would redraw the border between the two countries along ethnic lines (Chazan, 2018). The Presevo Valley, a majority ethnically Albanian area in southern Serbia would become part of Kosovo while the largely ethnically Serbian area in the north of Kosovo would become part of Serbia (Delauney, 2018). Proponents of this deal, including the EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn, argue that it is necessary to regional stability and to fully normalize relations, thus securing Serbia’s path to EU accession (Rettman, 2018). It is touted as a pragmatic solution to the instability that has plagued the region, the tensions between the ethnic communities, and the illegitimacy of the Kosovar government amongst the northern Serb enclaves (Bajrami, 2018). Furthermore, it would open the way for mutual recognition, compromise, and clean borders, thus allowing for full normalization (McLaughlin, 2018).
However, not only does the land-swap proposal not guarantee the normalization of relations, but it could actively destabilize the region through reigniting ethnic tensions, divisions, and violence. To this end, it has been met with concerted opposition amongst both Serbs and Albanians as well as from actors within the EU (Haxhiaj, 2019). Within Kosovo, the land-swap deal is seen as a violation of territorial integrity and threatens to cause ethnic rifts in regions still healing from conflict. Along the border, many mixed-population towns and regions have lived in cautious peace since the 2008 independence. That stability is directly threatened by a land-swap deal. Some villagers from Serb-majority towns within Kosovo such as Çabër/Čabra have even said that they would rather flee their hometowns than return to being controlled by a state which brutally invaded them (Rose, 2018). Even prominent ethnic Serbs within Kosovo such as Sava Janjic, an abbot for the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, have argued that “if we reopen borders here it is not going to stop between Kosovo and Serbia and it is not going to stop in the western Balkans.” (McLaughlin, 2018). On the political level, a majority of Kosovo’s parliamentary parties, including the ruling majority, have stated that they do not support the deal and would not ratify it if it came to the parliament as they fear a return to the violence of the 1990s and 2000s (Bajrami, 2018). Rather than normalizing relations between the two states, a land-swap deal is far more likely to disrupt towns, cause large flows of refugees and internally displaced persons, reignite ethnic conflict and strife, and cause political tension.
This point of view is further supported by major EU powers including Germany. In an interview, Chancellor Angela Merkel directly stated that “the territorial integrity of the states of the Western Balkans has been established and is inviolable” (Rettman, 2018). Fearing a return to the violence and instability of a few decades ago, Germany has made it clear that although they are in favor of the normalization of relations as a part of Serbia’s EU accession package, they cannot support the land-swap deal itself. The German point of view was further supported by British, Luxembourgish, and Finnish officials who also expressed concerns over the possibilities of the land-swap deal reviving hostilities and risking a new eruption of the old conflict (Emmott, 2018). Even High Representative Mogherini claimed that in their negotiations, the aim should not be to create ethnically homogeneous states and ethnic divisions between states (Emmott, 2018). Yet, that is exactly what the land-swap deal is attempting to do. The deal is trading the fragile peace and stability of the region for an attempt at creating mono-ethnic states in the false hope that doing so will ensure normalization of relations and peace between the two countries.
Ultimately, although normalization of Serbia-Kosovo relations is key to Serbian accession, this normalization should not be achieved through means of a land-swap deal. Serbia, in its rush to realize EU membership, should not be hasty in its attempts to break out from the stalled attempts at normalizing relations. Rather than bringing peace between states, the land-swap deal is likely to jeopardize the tenuous stability of the entire region and promote displacement and conflict.
Arisa Herman is a third year student studying International Politics and Diplomacy Studies. She is on exchange for Spring 2019 semester from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. This blog was completed for the UCD Politics module: Introduction to EU Politics.
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BBC (2018). Kosovo profile – Timeline. Available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-18331273 (Accessed 2 March 2019).
Chazan, D. (2018) ‘Kosovo president says no ethnic land swap as Serbia peace deal stalls’, The Telegraph, 14 November. Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/11/14/kosovo-president-says-no-ethnic-land-swap-serbia-peace-deal/ (Accessed 1 March 2019).
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