Partition phobia

The simple assumption that border changes, by necessity, bring horrific consequences is a form of work avoidance, as is the teleological notion that there exists some sort of known and practiced transition process from identity-based to civic-minded security regimes. As Kuhn demonstrated, the paladins of normal science can construct rationales to paper over the anomalies in their paradigms. Until the day they can’t.

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By David B. Kanin

“If war breaks out, the Powers declare that they will not allow any modifications of the territorial status quo jn the Balkans.”

Declaration of the Great Powers to the Ottoman Empire and Balkan League, October 10, 1912.

Territorial status quos and great power declarations in favor of inertia come and go in the Balkans, Middle East, and elsewhere. The visceral hostility to territorial change and population movements in the Balkans expressed by Western governments, pundits and academics has more to do with the efforts of those people to protect their serial, tattered, civic, multicultural paradigms than with anything to do with the Balkans. Despite their squabbling and the attendant disputes over tariffs and arrests in northern Kosovo, Alexander Vucic and Hashim Thaci deserve credit for exhibiting the leadership necessary to take on the scare rhetoric from people who for three decades have instructed them and their predecessors to ignore any alternatives to liberal institutionalist orthodoxy.

Thaci and Vucic will continue to face considerable domestic political opposition to border adjustments, land swaps and attendant population movements, and – if they actually come to an agreement (which would amount to something much different than “normalization”) – would confront the real risks such a deal would pose. At the same time, the pundits will continue to work to prevent Balkan politicians and communities from forging their own future. Some of these people struck a particularly pathological note when they sought assurances that Serbia and Kosova would not have “unlimited freedom of action.” It is important to understand the conceptual basis for the intensity with which the “experts” will continue to attempt to obstruct any thinking and action alternative to their own.

More than a half century ago, Thomas Kuhn described the workings of “normal science,” the community of professional cognoscenti who band together to control work and the definition of expertise. He analyzed the make-up, psychology, and strategies of those who share an interest in monopolizing the right to decide what schools of thought are acceptable, which thinkers are “serious,” who shall have what credentials, and which younger acolytes will be accepted into their club and replicate it. Kuhn showed how the denizens of normal science attempt to repair tears in the fabric of their operational “paradigms “(he coined that term as we use it and then attempted unsuccessfully to adjust its definition in reaction to how normal scientists and other turned it into a slogan). He concluded that normal science often proved able to craft explanations to anomalies in their paradigms, and could protect their privileged professional positions until and unless some thinker(s) or researcher(s) could inundate their conceptual fortresses with the sort of compelling conceptual framework/evidence that ignited a scientific revolution.

Shattering the paradigmatic teleology of the normal science of Western Balkan mavens, NGO bureaucracies, and civil society industry would be an essential component of any improvement on the tenuous status quo imposed by Western governments and supporting academics since they failed in their effort to manage the collapse of Yugoslavia. The problem with the pundits’ attitude is not so much their complaints about “partition” — land swaps and populations movements definitely come with problems and make sense only in a context of a larger deal between conflicting Balkan sides. The bigger point is that these public intellectuals refuse to admit that they have been wrong about the efficacy of civil society-based approaches to social construction that under-analyze difficulties just as dangerous as those associated with identity-based alternatives.

  • They do not acknowledge the damage done by the international decision to force Bosniaks and Croats into a federation neither wanted in 1994, thus ensuring Dayton Bosnia would be (and remains) congenitally dysfunctional.
  • They ignore the fact that the Erdut Agreement did not produce intercommunal cooperation; Serbs who left what was a relatively cohesive set of Krajina communities returned as supplicants in a resoundingly nationalist Croatia, which now celebrates its nationalism from inside the EU.
  • They are silent on the serial errors committed by American and European diplomacy (with academic assistance) that created a stunted Kosovar entity that lacks uncontested sovereignty and left the door open to the very land swaps, population movements, and – eventually – further conflict normal science claims to abhore

Instead, Paddy Ashdown threatened inevitable wars and bloodshed, and “stampede at the gates of Europe” if borders change. Other Balkan mavens retreat to the stale rhetoric around “European values,” which keeps Balkan governments and communities in thrall to EU procedural inertia. Ashdown and other former international viceroys would do well to contrast their rhetoric with the behavior of Matthew Nimitz, who enabled (rather than imposed) the agreement between Greece and Macedonia that, if it survives politics in both countries, might actually solve a regional security problem.

It is hard to see what the experts’ panic is about – Thaci and Vucic both face opposition from nationalists and political opponents who have whipped up a crisis atmosphere designed in part to scuttle any deal that includes land swaps or border adjustments. Thaci, who some accuse of using partition talk to avoid indictment for war crimes, is likely to see his domestic position weakened by trying to assert more authority than he has on national security policy. For his part, Vucic’s willingness to take on liberal institutionalist dogma has for the first time made him vulnerable to political enemies he heretofore has dominated with ease.

The vehemence of Western intellectuals’ attacks on the Vucic-Thaci negotiation appeared to intensify once some voices inside the EU began to wobble on the issue. Perhaps the pundits are concerned their own standing is at stake if governments and European structures ignore their orthodoxy and consider changes in attitude and policy.

Instead of whining and telling tales of disasters to come, it might be more constructive for the pundits for once to keep quiet and let the locals work out their own problems and politics. If in fact something emerges from the two presidents’ negotiations that includes land swaps and population movements, perhaps public intellectuals might have some wisdom to offer as to how Kosovars and Serbs might manage such change. Maybe they can suggest how to avoid the horrors involved in the lethal mess made by the 1947-1949 partition of the Indian Raj and the problems attendant with the population swap between Turkey and Greece after the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

They then might turn their attention to Bosnia, which certainly would be affected if a deal between Belgrade and Pristina changes borders and moves people. With or without a deal, Bosnia is unsustainable, in large part because three communities rather than two are competing for power, resources, and control over who gets which jobs. Any change to the current status quo elsewhere in the region is likely to turn chronic Bosnian faultlines into urgent problems. The pundits likely will blame any short-term instability on Milorad Dodik and his much-touted but so far empty threat to secede. However, the real problem is that Bosnia’s Serbs and Croats both dislike being in what both communities largely view as a Bosniak Bosnia. Whether or not Vucic and Thaci change political geography and demography in Kosova and southern Serbia will affect Bosnia’s near-term security but its overall downward spiral will proceed in any case.

The simple assumption that border changes, by necessity, bring horrific consequences is a form of work avoidance, as is the teleological notion that there exists some sort of known and practiced transition process from identity-based to civic-minded security regimes. As Kuhn demonstrated, the paladins of normal science can construct rationales to paper over the anomalies in their paradigms. Until the day they can’t.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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

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