Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2018 Fourth-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments to watch in the coming quarter.
Just under the surface of the relative calm that has endured in the Western Balkans over the past decade, ethnic tensions and nationalistic fervor continue to bubble. In the final months of 2018, the region's peace will be tested in negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo as they work to normalize their relationship, especially by a controversial idea for swapping territory that could have destabilizing effects in the region. Meanwhile a referendum on officially changing Macedonia's name in an effort to put a long-running dispute with Greece to rest could stir up nationalist sentiment and political opposition in both countries.
The Western Balkans have been relatively calm over the past decade. But ongoing efforts between Serbia and Kosovo to normalize their relations and between Macedonia and Greece to put an end to their disputes create conditions ripe for a return to political instability and ethnic violence in the region. Foreign powers like the United States, Russia and the European Union will also be active in efforts to defend their interests and influence events.
The next round of the long-running talks between Serbia and Kosovo is set to begin Sept. 7. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo's independence, but, at the urging of the European Union, has been in discussions about normalizing relations with the breakaway republic. (The European Union has made it clear to the government in Belgrade that improving relations with Kosovo is an important part of the process of joining the bloc.) One of the most contentious topics on the agenda of the coming negotiations is the creation of a Community of Serb Municipalities, which would give some degree of autonomy to Kosovar cities in which ethnic Serbians are a majority. That idea was broached in 2013, but little progress in implementing it has been made since.
The talks will also cover another, potentially even more disruptive, topic. In recent weeks, Serbia President Aleksandar Vucic and his Kosovar counterpart, Hashim Thaci, have indicated that a bilateral agreement could include a possible "border adjustment," wherein some territory in Serbia would be ceded to Kosovo and vice versa. The leaders did not specify what territories would be included in such an agreement, but it is broadly believed that it would involve the transfer of Northern Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs are a majority, to Serbian control and the Presevo Valley, where ethnic Albanians are a majority, to Kosovo.
The idea of a territory swap, which would make Serbia and Kosovo more ethnically homogeneous, has been floated in academic and political circles since the 1990s. Opposition parties and politicians on both sides have condemned the proposal, which, some fear, could embolden ethnic nationalists elsewhere in the Balkans, where the divisions that fueled destructive conflicts in the 1990s and 2000s still run deep. But at this point, it’s unclear what territories the border adjustments mentioned by Vucic and Thaci would actually include. In the negotiations ahead, each side likely will push to obtain as much territory as possible while conceding as little as possible. Even if a deal is reached, complex logistical, political, economic and ethnic issues would make any large exchange of territories between Serbia and Kosovo difficult to implement. And the proposal has already encountered domestic opposition on both sides. Serbian Foreign Affairs Minister Ivica Dacic has flatly declared that Belgrade will not cede control of the Presevo Valley, while Kosovo's prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, criticized Thaci’s statements supporting the border adjustment.
Opponents of a territory swap worry that if the exchange finds enough support to be included in a final deal, it could inspire similar redesigns of other borders in the region. The Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, one of the autonomous entities that make up Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, could demand independence or its annexation by Serbia, a development that could lead to the country's collapse. At the same time, ethnic Albanians, such as those in Macedonia, could likewise demand self-determination or to be allowed to join Albania. The takeaway from an exchange of territories to make Serbia and Kosovo more ethnically homogeneous could be that the idea of having multiethnic countries in the Balkans has failed.
The International Response
The European Union has reacted to the idea of an exchange of territories with caution. In late August, Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner for European neighborhood policy and enlargement, suggested that Brussels would accept an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, but warned that "it should not serve as a blueprint for other issues," likely a reference to Bosnia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, explicitly rejected the idea, calling the territorial integrity of the countries in the Western Balkans "inviolable." U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, meanwhile, said that the White House would be willing to accept a bilateral territory swap between Serbia and Kosovo, while Russia pledged to take Serbia's side in negotiations with Kosovo.
Against this backdrop, it will be a busy next few weeks for Serbian diplomatic efforts. Vucic will visit Kosovo on Sept. 9 and is expected to present an official plan for negotiations. Vucic will then meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Sept. 15, and will probably meet with U.S. President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, which runs Sept. 24-28. Support from both the White House and the Kremlin will be crucial for breaking the impasse in negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, especially since any territorial exchanges could be subject to a vote of the U.N. Security Council.
Serbia is one of Russia’s main allies in the Western Balkans. Moscow remains likely to support Belgrade in the negotiations with Kosovo as long as it does not threaten Russia's strategic interests (namely, preventing the closer integration of countries in the Western Balkans into the European Union and NATO). While Russia may tolerate Serbia’s overtures to the European Union, it would be more reluctant to support Serbia’s membership in NATO (an option Belgrade is not yet considering).
The Macedonian Decision
September will also be an eventful month in Macedonia, which is on a quest to normalize relations with its neighbors, a task it must accomplish before it could join international organizations such as the European Union and NATO. In late 2017, Macedonia signed a friendship treaty with Bulgaria, putting an end to years of diplomatic frictions. Then in early 2018, Macedonia reached an understanding with Greece: It agreed to put a referendum to change its name from the Republic of Macedonia, which Greece claims as part of its cultural heritage, to the Republic of Northern Macedonia before voters. Athens had for years used the name dispute as a pretext to veto Macedonia's accession to NATO and the European Union.
Macedonian voters will decide on the name proposal on Sept. 30. While opinion polls suggest that most Macedonians want their country to join the European Union and NATO, they also indicate division over the name change. The political opposition, led by the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, opposes the renaming and is considering whether to campaign against the change or to boycott the referendum altogether while encouraging voters not to participate. For the referendum to be valid, at least 50 percent of all registered voters must participate. Several civic organizations and nongovernmental organizations already have decided to skip the vote.
The United States and the European Union have expressed support for the referendum and encouraged Macedonian voters to weigh in. Meanwhile, Macedonia has accused Russia of trying to undermine the agreement with Greece by supporting nationalist groups that oppose it. The Greek government has made similar accusations, and in early July Athens expelled two Russian diplomats, asserting that Moscow was interfering with the country’s domestic affairs.
In the lead-up to the vote, demonstrations and acts of sabotage against the referendum may rattle Macedonian stability. In June 2018, for instance, a protest by nationalist groups against the name deal with Greece turned violent and led to the arrest of dozens of demonstrators. As the vote approaches, more incidents of politically motivated violence could occur. Should the referendum pass, protests and social unrest could continue after the vote. To enact the name change, parliament would have to change Macedonia’s Constitution, a process offering another catalyst for large anti-government protests. While the protests would target the center-left government primarily, they could also adopt an ethnic dimension. Ethnic Albanians (Macedonia’s largest minority group) tend to be more supportive of the name change than ethnic Macedonians.
The issue could cause social unrest and political turbulence in Greece as well. The name deal with Macedonia is subject to ratification by the Greek Parliament. Considering the divisiveness of the issue among Greeks, the government will wait for events in Macedonia to play out before making any moves, likely pushing a ratification vote until early 2019. The ratification vote not only could trigger anti-government protests, especially in northern Greece, but also a political crisis. The Syriza party, which supports the agreement with Macedonia, and the ANEL party, which opposes it, are partners in Greece's ruling coalition. ANEL has said it will leave the government if Syriza insists on ratifying the name agreement, a move that could trigger an early election. The governing split would not prove too disruptive, as Greece must hold a general election by late 2019 anyway.
Putting a Fragile Peace to the Test
Foreign financial assistance, the presence of NATO peacekeeping forces and the promise of accession to international organizations have all contributed to the relative peace that the Western Balkans have enjoyed over the past decade. The prospect of accession to the European Union explains, at least in part, Serbia's willingness to engage with Kosovo — formal accession negotiations started in 2014. Macedonia, meanwhile, sees the resolution of the name dispute with Greece as paving the way for it to join NATO and the European bloc.
Despite the efforts of those neighbors to come to an understanding with one another, however, many of the underlying problems in the Western Balkans continue to fester, and many parts of the region remain prone to social unrest and ethnically motivated violence. Amid this state of affairs, even negotiations that are meant to solve ongoing disputes carry the risk of sparking new conflicts.