Kosovo-Serbia - a “land swap” for élites, not the people

Kosovo-Serbia – a “land swap” for élites, not the people

The proposed partition of Kosovo would negate the day-to-day realities on the ground, particularly of those Kosovo Serbs living outside the four northern municipalities. It would also set a dangerous precedent that could legitimise further proposals for ‘population exchanges’ based on ethnic parameters. 

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By Francesco Trupia

The much-discussed Kosovo-Serbia relations have entered into a yet another controversial chapter. The proposal for national “border adjustment” – which might potentially reallocate Serb-majority areas of North Kosovo to Serbia and south Serbia’s Albanian-majority areas of the Preševo Valley (e.g., Preševo, Medveđa and Bujanovac) to Kosovo – has resurfaced, despite both sides apparently disagreeing.

A dichotomy of opinions has divided institutions and organizations from Kosovo, Serbia and beyond. Some welcome the proposal for “boundary correction”, arguing that it might be reached through genuine will from below. Others, however, have warned that further “territorial swaps” based on ethnicity will impinge upon human security. The idea that a territorial swap could be beneficial for both communities in Kosovo and Serbia remains highly debate.

Splitting states along ethnic lines and thereby undermining the idea of multiculturalism would not only be deeply problematic for Kosovo-Serbia relations, but also perilous for the region’s future. A territorial modification might delegitimise Kosovo’s recognition and its sovereignty, with five EU member states refusing to recognise it due to their own fears of territorial partitions. In addition, a re-allotment of north Kosovo would reward Belgrade’s political interference, including through the maintenance of a parallel system (e.g., dual citizenship, health, education and taxation). In order words, a territorial exchange will not pacify the majority-minority relations nor the power struggle over Serb-majority municipalities. Partition would take for granted the existence of monolithic communities within which a sense of belonging cannot compromise in order to co-exist with other communities.

Furthermore, claims over a particular territory implies the narrow idea that a given community cannot be understood as plural, dynamic and in the process of change. Since 1999, there have been nuanced changes on the local level. While Belgrade has always imposed a frozen picture of Kosovo Serbs in order to claim legitimacy over Kosovo itself, Pristina has generally depicted the national identity of Kosovo Serbs in relation to (often violent) attempts to strive for, or secure, national claims over the country.

However, a look “from below” at Serb-majority areas demonstrates show how Kosovo Serbs do not only live in north Kosovo and cannot be depicted as a tout court pro-Belgrade community. In north Kosovo, Serbs have always been the vessel of Belgrade, which managed to tighten its presence and limit interaction with Kosovo’s institutions in Pristina. Second, and most importantly, Kosovo Serbs in the north are more radical than their “compatriots” living in south of the Ibar, such as in the almost-urban areas of Štrpce or within the de facto enclave of Velika Hoča.

Within Serb-majority centrally (such as Gračanica/Graçanica), in the South (e.g., Štrpce/Shtërpca) and the East (e.g., around Novo Brdo/ Novobërdë, Parteš/Partesh), however, Serbs have historically had a different environment and atmosphere. Although they remain tightly connected with their own national identity, which is reproduced and performed through everyday practices, it does not have negative impacts on everyday coexistence with Albanians, Bosniaks, and so on. In Eastern Kosovo, for instance, inter-ethnic attendance at public school is quite common, in which not just Serbian and Albanian language are taught, but even Bosnian and Turkish. Among these, other small Serbian communities such as Velika Hoča, near Orahovac/Rahoveci, shows a high level of political dissatisfaction toward Belgrade’s policy. The continuous attention paid to north Kosovo Serbs has shaped a both sense of alienation and disillusion based on the understanding that they will be left adrift if partition were to occur.

Therefore, the a priori idea that a potential “territorial swap” will come to “adjust” Kosovo-Serbia kin-state relations and internal inter-ethnic relations is distant from people’s real needs. Kosovo’s partitioning would only cover the legal-political failure and diplomatic ineptitude of those élites that have done very little in terms of reconciliation and normalisation. Hence, the concrete and growing perception of political disaffection among Kosovo Serbs – at least those living outside north Kosovo – who have recently begun to even criticise the parallel system (e.g., passport, taxation, school), cannot not so easily convince scholars and experts that Kosovo Serbs share views and behavioural patterns of a discourse that has been ascribed them.

At the very end, the potential result of a territorial swap could only legitimise further proposals for “population exchanges” based on ethnic parameters. This will give credence to the (mistaken) idea that inter-ethnic coexistence has been until day-present, and will thus remain so, a concern for the Balkan Peninsula, whose kin-states policies have failed because of people’s incapacity to well-live together instead of élites’ unwillingness to establish peace within and across the region itself.

Francesco Trupia is a PhD Candidate at St Kliment Ohridski Sofia University, is currently contributing to the project “Building Knowledge on Kosovo v.2.0” for Kosovo Foundation for Open Society – KFOS.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.


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