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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Another nail in the coffin for land swap

Last week, the Special Prosecution indicted former Minister for European Integration Dhurata Hoxha for abuse of office due to a contract signed with a French PR company, which, as BIRN discovered last year, was hired to promote territorial exchanges as a solution to Kosovo’s ongoing dispute with Serbia.

The indictment does not condemn land swap itself as it focuses on the former Minister’s alleged abuse of power – specifically hiring the French company without an open competitive process. However, the collateral damage of this charge is that, domestically in Kosovo, another nail has been driven into the coffin of the notion of territorial exchanges.

There have been recent indicators that the idea is also dead in the water outside of Kosovo. On June 22, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio held a speech at the Kosovo Assembly, in which he stated that Italy was concerned about nationalistic attempts to redraw borders in the Balkans, adding that this would set the region back 30 years.

Germany, Austria and a number of other countries have also come out against any alterations to borders. In February this year, President Biden sent Serbian President Vucic a letter commemorating Serbia’s Independence Day, in which he stressed the importance of reaching a comprehensive normalisation agreement with Kosovo based on mutual recognition.

However, it should be noted that two ‘non-papers’ have circulated in recent months in which the notion of amending borders in the Balkans was still very much alive. The first anonymously authored and chauvinistic paper proposed the annexation of a part of Bosnia into Serbia and the unification of Albania and Kosovo, among other changes to the constitutional makeup of the Balkans.

Meanwhile, the second non-paper suggested the creation of the Autonomous District of North Kosovo, a separate administrative unit which would have legislative control over a number of areas in the municipalities of Zvecan, Leposavic, North Mitrovica and Zubin Potok

What is most perturbing, besides the content of these papers, is their frequency and timing, with the dialogue process now once again underway. Fortunately, the majority of politicians in Kosovo have rejected the ideas in these non-papers, while Serbia has denied authorship of them.

With these papers circulating it is important to state first and foremost that any redrawing of borders or ‘territorial exchanges’ would not contribute to a healthy and harmonised relationship between Kosovo and Serbia. Albanians living in the south of Serbia and the Serbs living in the north of Kosovo are demographics that enrich both countries. Multiculturalism is a positive and healthy feature of any society and every modern state should aim at nurturing the vibrancy of the multiple ethnic communities living within it.

Furthermore, in the event that any territorial exchange did take place, it would be the Serb community in Kosovo that would suffer the most, as it would create a power imbalance between the country’s largest ethnic minority and other ethnic non-majority communities. This in turn would trigger problems within the legal and constitutional system of Kosovo.

Currently, Serbs have 10 guaranteed seats in the Kosovo Assembly which corresponds to their population. However, if anything were to significantly decrease that demographic, it would pose an issue and affect their decision-making abilities and political voice.

Similarly, the Albanian community in Serbia is mostly concentrated in the three municipalities bordering Kosovo. If this part was ceded by Serbia then there would only be a small minority of Albanians left in the country scattered across numerous municipalities. This would leave them bereft of any real political power and an uncertain future in regard to maintaining national identity.

Instead of separation, Kosovo must strive to integrate the Serb minority population located in the four Northern municipalities. Serbia should, at the same time recognise the civil rights of the Albanian minority population who live in the Presevo Valley, Bujanovc and Medveda, allowing them the same guaranteed rights and freedoms as other minority groups. Both countries should focus on this, as opposed to nurturing nationalistic ideals on border changes and ethnic separatism.

Currently, although the Serb population in the four Northern municipalities of Kosovo enjoys all civil rights guaranteed by the Law, their full integration as a minority community in Kosovo, alongside other Serbs who live in other municipalities, has not been achieved.

This is mainly due to Serbia’s overarching and border-crossing influence over these areas. The 2013 Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalization of Relations (also known as the Brussels Agreement) may have stipulated the political integration of the North, but this has largely remained theoretical.

Perhaps this is why some in Kosovo have been in favour of this hypothetical land swap. The challenges in integrating Kosovo’s north could be avoided for the ruling classes, as could potentially the tough task of establishing the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities, while three Albanian-majority municipalities could be ‘gained.’

However, the general consensus in Kosovo has fortunately always remained in opposition to this idea, as most believe it could trigger civil unrest and create a dangerous future precedent. Demarcation must happen in order for both Kosovo and Serbia to have clearly defined borders, but it must not be accompanied by border changes or demographic dislocation.

Kosovo and Serbia’s borders must remain unchanged from their current position as the majority of Western Balkan and EU leaders have stated, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The EU’s Special Representative for the Dialogue Miroslav Lajcak has also described the idea as extremely dangerous, arguing that the redrawing of borders is contrary to the idea of building multi-ethnic, democratic societies. The EU representative has even gone further, stating that any solution along this line would mean that the EU has failed when it comes to resolving the prolonged conflict between Kosovo and Serbia and achieving lasting peace in the Balkans.

It seems that the world is currently cognizant that opening the Pandora box of territorial swaps and border corrections would mean going back to the doctrine of the ‘90s. Years of dialoguing and finding a peaceful solution for the coexistence of both countries as multi-ethnic entities would be in jeopardy. The territorial integrity of both countries must remain as is.

Whether it is called land exchange, swap or partition, it has never been a viable resolution to the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, and any further mention of this notion by any side will be a disingenuous attempt to stall the future course of the dialogue.

Klarisa Fetahu is a law graduate from the University of Prishtina who has worked in Kosovo civil society and is currently a foreign policy researcher.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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