Discussions between Serbia and Kosovo about the possibility of agreeing on border adjustments to settle a solution to the current frozen situation will be a short-lived romance. Not because the presidents of both countries could not finally agree on a deal, but because Europeans suspect the return of ‘Balkan ghosts’. The proposal discomforts the European Union and its member states. International leaders and analysts have already demonized this option, condemned their consequences and warned that another tragedy might befall the Balkan people.
On the weekend of 8 and 9 September, Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vu?i?, made a trip to Kosovo. On Saturday, he visited the Gazivode Lake – located in the majority-Serb northwest region, which is strategic for the supply of water and electricity. On Sunday, he had plans to go to the majority-Serb village of Banje, located south of the Ibar River, but over 200 Kosovo demonstrators blocked the road with trucks, tractors and car tires set on fire.
The two presidents are discussed territorial swaps, in which allegedly Kosovo would give parts of north Kosovo to Serbia in exchange of the Presevo valley and Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. The idea is still incipient and lacks concreteness but has haunted the EU-led rounds of talks since Vu?i? insinuated it to the media in July. He suggested that border correction was a possibility, justifying that even if Kosovo would no longer be a province of Serbia, at least some territory would be kept.
However, other foreign observers have endorsed the possibility of border swaps, like John Bolton, US President Donald Trump’s national security advisor. Most importantly, confronting Angela Merkel’s views, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, argued that the European Union would support any solution reached by Serbia and Kosovo, without excluding border swaps. But it remains to be seen how long Mr. Hahn keeps this stance for since he also added that ‘the overarching goal is stability in the region’, and stability is a word that averts political debate and steps forward.
In addition, the European mood is against any proposal that involves an abrupt change in the map. EU members do not wish any precedents that could encourage border claims in provinces at home. Finally, three former High Representatives for Bosnia have written a letter to Mogherini and pleaded not to endorse proposals involving territorial changes. Historically, international observers who have shown the deepest distrust of the Balkan people’s capacity of coexistence have defended partition and transfer of population. Yet, today, when the proposal is coming from the Balkans, analysts attacking the possibility of border swaps are wary of the people’s capacities to negotiate, too.
Border correction seems a phantasmagorical idea, as it would certainly carry unpleasant risks. The key issue highlighted here, however, is not whether border corrections are legitimate or a preferred solution, but whether Belgrade and Pristina are entitled to meaningful negotiations. The proposals these days, with the counterproposals and critiques by opposition parties, bring something new on the table: new imaginaries that aim at bringing the Balkan people closer to peace and to EU membership, which is (so far) desired by most.
Yet, possibilities for agreements dim, as European leaders like chancellor Merkel discard certain options. As final solutions and agreements cannot satisfy everyone, at best the EU and its member states intend to influence any proposal coming from Balkan politicians. At worst, they foster frozen conflicts or perennial negotiations, rather than agreements. What the EU should avoid is just the publication of another photo of Balkan leaders in the same room and a headline stating that a next meeting – without concrete proposals – is on the horizon.
“EU Fears of Balkan Ghosts at Kosovo-Serbia Border Changes” – Opinion by Pol Bargués-Pedreny – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.