Land swaps and other conversations in the Balkans

Land swaps and other conversations in the Balkans

If the international community does not appreciate ethnic partition in the Balkans as a mode for division of the region, then it should not have championed that very cause when Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro all became independent and Yugoslavia, the region’s quintessential multi-ethnic state, was ethnically divided. The most fundamental lesson of recent Balkan history has been forgotten within a period as short as 20 years.

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By Matthew Parish

At the time of writing, there has been a spate of international journalism deploring a new series of crises in the Balkans. Western media articles have criticised recent elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the proposed land swap between Serbia and Kosovo, and the process of Macedonia changing its name. Yet this negative narrative is wrong. The Balkans are getting better. The people of the region are starting to learn how to work with one-another without international support.

The Macedonian government finally resolved the long-standing dispute over the country’s name with its neighbour Greece. On 20th October 2018 the Macedonian Parliament voted to approve changing the country’s name to Northern Macedonia. The dispute arose from the fact that Greece has a province called Macedonia, and objected to a neighbouring country having (exactly) the same name as one of its provinces. The details of years of vexed negotiations are lost in history. The result of this is that Northern Macedonia’s path is now clear to join NATO and then the European Union.

On 7 October 2018 Bosnian general elections produced a predictable result not in line with the international community’s wishes. Veteran Bosnian Serb politician, Milorad Dodik, became a member of Bosnia’s tripartite Presidency. Although much complaint was voiced within the halls of western embassies, given that Dodik has clashed with international community interests in Bosnia and Herzegovina more or less constantly for the last fifteen years, one thing was notable. Dodik had moved from participation solely in the institutions of the sub-sovereign ethnically Serb entity Republic Srpska, to playing a role in the multi-ethnic institutions of the Bosnian central state that was set up so awkwardly from the ashes of the Bosnian civil war.

Whatever the future for Bosnia, that future cannot be cemented without participation of Serb representatives in a nation ethnically divided by war. Dodik’s participation in the multi-ethnic Bosnian central government, as easily the most popular Bosnian Serb politician, is a remarkable advance. Most importantly, the international community played no effective role in this transition because for the most part its representatives dislike Milorad Dodik. Bosnian politicians mediated this transition themselves. The same was true in Macedonia. The proposed alternative country name of Northern Macedonia had been under discussion for years. The assumption on the part of Macedonians was that the international community would impose a solution upon Greece and Macedonia. Only when it finally became clear that this would not happen did the nations find the energy to agree the matter themselves, appreciating it was obviously in their common interests.

The most remarkably recent political movement of which there has been domestic Balkan custody is the proposed land swap between Serbia and Kosovo. Formally part of the Republic of Kosovo, the area of north Kosovo, a land block north of the River Ibar and whose political centre is the northern half of the divided city of Mitrovica, is 88% Serb. The area is governed by a series of more or less informal institutions that provide almost no allegiance to the Kosovar capital Pristina whose government is overwhelmingly Albanian. The Presevo Valley is a region of southern Serbia adjacent to Kosovo, whose population is 89% Albanian. The Presevo Valley is slightly smaller in both territory and population numbers.

The plan is for Serbia and Kosovo to swap territories. Kosovo loses what it has never controlled, while Serbia loses what it does not want. More fundamentally, it is hoped that the geopolitics of the region can thereby be changed. If Serbia recognises Kosovo’s independence then Russia may drop its objection to Serbia’s admission to the United Nations. Serbia and Kosovo can thereafter pursue a direct route to EU membership.

Although the plan has the merits of simplicity, substantial objections are being raised to the prospect of such a land swap the premise of which is principally homegrown by Balkan politicians themselves. Perhaps the most substantial voices of resistance are former international overseers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who assert that a land swap premised upon an ethnic criterion gives rise to ethnic cleansing that they fought hard to prevent in post-war Bosnia. The argument seems to be one of a slippery slope. A peaceful land swap legitimises ethnic cleansing. This will make continued ethnic cleansing in Bosnia more likely. Hence there will be another conflict in the Balkans. Out of a peaceful interstate transaction will follow war in another part of the region. Accordingly they are lobbying the European Union to oppose the land swap. That is because a land swap cannot achieve either party’s goals if the European Union does not reciprocate by accelerating the membership process for the two states involved in reward for the assumption of peaceful diplomatic relations.

There are other factors at play. Russia may be presumed not too much to care about the prospect of a land swap in territory a substantial distance from its borders. Nevertheless its capacity to maintain its veto over Kosovo’s UN membership is something for which Russia may be expected to want something to bargain away. Russia’s principal contemporary European geopolitical concerns at present are alleviation of sanctions, since Europe represents Russia’s principal commodities market. The problem for Russia is that the land swap, and consequent acceleration of the EU accession process for Serbia and Kosovo (all EU accession procedures are currently stalled because the EU has greater crises afoot, amidst negotiations for the United Kingdom to leave the EU and the Euro debt crisis) may be an insufficient benefit in exchange for granting any level of Russia sanctions relief.

Nevertheless this calculus may change with time, as the focus of Brussels and Berlin once again becomes focused upon completing the European accession. Serbia’s economic and institutional development towards EU standards is already enhanced, and although Kosovo’s progress is not as significant (it proceeded from a far lower base, after virtually the entire institutional capacity of the Kosovo government was eradicated amidst the 1998-1999 conflict), there has been a recent zeal for reform as Kosovo’s leaders understand the profound changes in government structure needed for EU membership and realise that they risk being left behind amidst transformation of the region.

The land swap is obviously a good thing and it ought to go ahead. That is because it is domestically conceived, and it is a peaceful domestic solution to an intransigent Balkan problem. It is no reply to say that the land swap would legitimise ethnic cleansing. Almost everything the international community did in the Balkans from 1991 onwards, beginning with encouraging the accession of Slovenia from Yugoslavia and hence precipitating the disintegration of Yugoslavia into bloody ethnic warfare, has legitimised ethnic cleansing.

The Dayton Constitution that prescribes Bosnia’s shaky post-war government structure was drafted by American lawyers in the Clinton administration, imposed upon the local people, and expressly recognises mono-ethnic principles of government throughout. The very idea of there being a Serb member of Bosnia’s Presidency was an international community invention, written into the text of Bosnia’s Constitution. Now it seems as strange to object to a Serb taking the position the international community created, as it does to object to a land swap that implicitly recognises the rights of people of the same ethnic group to be governed by structures dominated by people of their own ethnicity.

If the international community does not appreciate ethnic partition in the Balkans as a mode for division of the region, then it should not have championed that very cause when Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro all became independent and Yugoslavia, the region’s quintessential multi-ethnic state, was ethnically divided. The most fundamental lesson of recent Balkan history has been forgotten within a period as short as 20 years.

Bosnia and Herzegovina remains the most dysfunctional country in the region, and the international community remains at a loss as to what to do with it. One problem with the land swap project may be that because it clears the way for Serbia and Kosovo to join the EU, with Macedonia to proceed following resolution of its historical name dispute, the expectation will be that the only remaining post-conflict country in the region, Bosnia and Herzegovina, should join at the same time. Otherwise Bosnia may remain an ugly sore revealing international community failure in the Balkans, surrounded on all sides by EU member states but inadequate to the task of membership itself. But again the problem with Bosnia and Herzegovina may be that the international community is overly engaged. The Office of the High Representative, the colonial governor imposed by the western powers to supervise politicians in Bosnia In 1997 in the immediate aftermath of war, amazingly still exists some 20 years later. It should not. The last High Representative should resign, in a display of confidence towards the constitutional structures that most recently performed effectively in a Bosnian general election. Foreign troops, still present in Bosnia and Herzegovina, should simultaneously withdraw.

At that overdue juncture, the Bosnians can be under no illusions that the international community will no longer pander to their ethnic caprices. If they want to join the European Union then they will have to cooperate in the interests of reform. Otherwise they will have to answer to their electorates at the ballot box. In all likelihood this change in Bosnian politics, to deprive the country of a sense of International supervision, should have taken place years ago. The contemporary lack of development in Bosnia’s economic situation and institutional quality may be the direct result of a sense on the part of domestic politicians that they are not responsible for their own country’s progress. The international community is. The problem needs to be corrected immediately, through a combination of international withdrawal and generous but targeted aid.

The notion that a land swap will generate ethnic conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as Republika Srpska seeks to secede and join Serbia, is implausible. The most powerful and highly regarded politician in Republika Srpska has just won the top Serb post in the country. He is demonstrably committed to the future of the Bosnian state, or he would have remained as President of Republika Srpska rather than moving to work in institutions in Sarajevo. Serbia does not want Republika Srpska, which is geographically contorted, economically backward and politically toxic. The President of Serbia and Milorad Dodik do not have easy relations. The idea that a consensual land swap between Serbia and Kosovo catalyse violent dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, when that country has remained at peace for almost 23 years under its current constitutional structure (far longer than Kosovo has remained at peace; Kosovo continues to have periodic violent flair-ups north of the Ibar) seems unrealistic. One might almost be tempted to conclude that aged dinosaurs of the international community are stirring imagined Balkan dragons with a view to keeping themselves relevant.

The saving grace of the Balkans is that they are not boiling anymore after the ethnic cleansing that become the mode of political operation in the 1990’s. The fact that the current leaders of Serbia and Kosovo can sit down and negotiate anything with one-another, given that it was precisely the same individuals leading some of the most nationalist movements on each side amidst the conflicts of the 1990’s, is remarkable. If land swaps keep the peace, so be it.

Efforts may be needed for an accommodation to be reached with Russia, to work around its UN Security Council veto for new member states. But this may just be a matter of time, and also depends upon externalities such as the development of the US relationship with Russia: at the time of writing at a particularly low ebb. One should be optimistic about the current political dialogue in the Balkans. Perhaps most crucially, the notion of the land swap may be delayed but it is highly likely that it will eventually take place. It is a simple idea with benefits for everyone. And in politics, those are the ideas most likely to succeed.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.

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

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