Serbia, Kosovo: Neighbors Test the Waters on a Land Swap

4 MINS READAug 8, 2018 | 14:40 GMT
The Big Picture

In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. Serbia and Kosovo have been negotiating a normalization of their relations since 2013 with the encouragement of the European Union. But a stalemate in the talks, as well as controversial proposals for territorial exchanges, could reignite conflict in the Western Balkans. At the same time, the European Union is not ready to accept new member states any time soon, which could reduce its influence in the region over time.

What Happened

Ten years after Kosovo unilaterally seceded from Serbia, the two countries are still far from reaching an agreement to normalize their relations. In recent days, however, an old idea has re-emerged: a mutual exchange of territory to make both countries more ethnically homogeneous. On Aug. 6, Kosovar President Hashim Thaci said "border adjustments" between Kosovo and Serbia could foster better relations. One day later, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic echoed Thaci's sentiments, saying a compromise between the two countries involving territorial swaps was possible.

While neither Thaci nor Dacic gave details on their respective proposals — and in an Aug. 8 press conference, Thaci clarified that he was not advocating for the partition of Kosovo — a potential exchange would likely involve two main territories: North Kosovo and the Presevo Valley. Pristina could cede the North Kosovo region (a territory in northern Kosovo that is home to a large ethnic Serbian population) to Belgrade, receiving the Presevo Valley (a region in southern Serbia that is home to a large ethnic Albanian community) in return. Other territories in Kosovo that feature large Serbian populations or are home to important Orthodox monasteries could also obtain special status. As part of the deal, Serbia would recognize Kosovo's independence, which would open the door for Pristina's full integration with international organizations.

The idea of a territorial swap is not new, as politicians and academics have proposed different versions of an exchange deal since the late 1990s, but any such deal would present significant obstacles. To begin with, the Serbian and Kosovar governments are internally divided on the issue. Not long after Dacic signaled that Serbia could agree to a land deal, the country's prime minister, Ana Brnabic, said the foreign minister's statements did not reflect Belgrade's official position. Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, meanwhile, has repeatedly said an exchange of territories would be dangerous and could ignite a war.

Why It Matters

Even if the two sides do hammer out an agreement, the demarcation of the new borders would present many difficulties, as Belgrade and Pristina would have to decide exactly what territory to exchange, whether the exchanged parcels of land would be the same size, as well as the fate of important infrastructure and natural resources in the affected regions. Population transfers and compensation for people who lose their property could also prove problematic. Moreover, any deal between Serbia and Kosovo would have to be supported by foreign players who are present in the region, most notably the United States, Russia and the European Union.

More important, an exchange of territories based on ethnicity could open the door to new conflicts in the Western Balkans — a region where there is a discrepancy between political and ethnic borders. For example, ethnic Serbians in the Republika Srpska (one of the entities that constitute Bosnia and Herzegovina) could demand their independence or their annexation by Serbia, while ethnic Albanians in Macedonia could demand their independence or their subsumption into Albania. In other words, an exchange of territory between Serbia and Kosovo based on the ethnicity of their populations could send a message to the wider region that the idea of multiethnic states in the Western Balkans has failed.

What's Ahead 

Under EU sponsorship, Serbia and Kosovo agreed in 2013 to progressively normalize their relations. The talks have moved slowly, as Belgrade and Pristina are still at odds over issues such as the creation of a Community of Serbian Municipalities, which would give autonomy to municipalities in Kosovo where ethnic Serbs are a majority. However, the promise of EU membership, and the pre-accession money associated with it, has given Brussels some degree of influence in Belgrade and Pristina, which has contributed to peace in the region. Serbia and Kosovo will sit down again for their next round of talks in September, when it will become clearer whether the idea of territorial exchanges has gained enough traction to warrant formal discussion — or whether negotiators will move to shelve the matter for fear of opening Pandora's Box in the region.

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