Are Vučić and Thaçi opening the Pandora’s box of redrawing borders in Western Balkans?

Kosovski predsjednik Hashim Thaci, visoka predstavnica za vanjsku politiku i sigurnost Federica Mogherini i predsjednik Srbije Aleksandar Vučić

Number of signs that USA and some EU member states support exchange of territory as the final solution to the Kosovo crisis is growing. However, drumbeat of separatist tendencies starts at the mere mention of the model. The international community could sacrifice status quo, the basis of the fragile peace established after the bloody 1990es, to put out one fire.

Have the autumn rains, which came with the sunset of summer, washed out the smell of gunpowder that wafted from the Balkan keg this summer, or are we in for new unpleasant surprises? Serbian political top pushed the narrative about "exchange of territory and population" between Serbia and Kosovo throughout the summer with the help of media hounds (with their counterparts from Kosovo doing so shyly) as the "final solution" to the Kosovo crisis.

Brussels set the deadline for solving the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo for the end of the year with the aim of finally solving one of the malignant crises that threaten to cause new conflict in the Balkans. This is important for Belgrade if it wants to continue negotiations with the EU at ease, while Pristina needs this to start the negotiation process. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić announced an "epochal" speech for Serbs on the "fate of Kosovo" for Sunday, 9 September. Since the situation is changing each day, it is difficult to predict what he will say, except that he will find enough pathetic excuses to mask what needs to be called the "loss" of Kosovo.

Truth be told, the story about exchange of territory came into spotlight rather unexpectedly. Vučić saw a ray of hope in it – to show that he managed to keep at least a part of Kosovo for Serbia. He pointed out that "something is better than nothing" and that "Serbia has to get something." Even Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dačić said that "entire Kosovo" is no longer on the table. In April, Vučić considered everyone who was in favor of division or of the opinion that Kosovo is not Serbian as the worst traitor, stressing that this is violation of the Constitution (which says that Kosovo is part of Serbia).

"If the precedent that redrawing borders based on ethnic criteria is acceptable, similar initiatives will arise in Macedonia, Republic of Srpska, Serbian Sandžak and perhaps Vojvodina."

 

At start of August he said "I am in favor of demarcation." It was in that period when the paradigm of the Kosovo treason performed its salto mortale that the Russian Ambassador to Serbia Alexander Chepurin made his benevolent statement that Moscow has nothing against division of Kosovo. Vučić was in a dilemma – to recognize the loss of Kosovo, but not just to remain in power, but to present himself as historic savior of Serbism. After that, some in Brussels provided hope to the idea, thinking that it is the way out of the vicious circle and adding that "Serbia should get something" (Vučić is pushing for that premise in the EU). Kosovo politicians were not as "decisive", even though Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi shyly mentioned "correction of borders," which was just a euphemism for division according to Agron Bajrami, the editor of the Pristina daily Koha Ditore.

Angela Merkel’s decisive "Nein"

It was clear from the start – division of Kosovo is a Pandora’s box of new announcements of border conflict, and not just in the Balkans. It was the old - write down Kosovo, carry over Republik of Srpska and Crimea, as the culmination of the idea to trade "Serbian" north of Kosovo for "Albanian" Preševo Valley in the south of Serbia. The White House brought confusion in the mater as the main sponsor of Kosovo by not seeing the larger problem, with US President Donald Trump’s National Security

Advisor John Bolton revealing that he is not excluding "territorial adjustments" if the two sides agree to such a solution. On the other hand, former high representatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina Paddy Ashdown, Carl Bildt and Christian Scharz-Schilling sent an open letter in which they opposed trade of territory between Serbia and Kosovo. They pointed out that they cannot imagine a policy more destructive for survival and fate of the Balkans than drawing new borders between Serbia and Kosovo. Soon after, the most powerful politician in the EU, German Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to end the bickering and resolutely said "Nein." Luckily, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković joined her.

Finally, the leading politicians of Kosovo revealed that they are abandoning discussion on division, while Vučić said in his speech in Bor that the solution is still far and added that, according to his prediction, "Belgrade will get nothing." – We could do nothing if they gave us nothing. If I may make a prediction, that is what will happen – said Vučić, who apparently decided to bring the "defeat of Kosovo" to the public in small, acceptable, but painful servings, like the story about the owner who cut his dog’s tail bit by bit, while presenting himself as the one who is suffering, but the evil anti-Serb international community did exactly what it was expected to do. However, his political associates like Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin, Foreign Minister Dačić and Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović believe that division of Kosovo would stabilize the Balkans. However, we should not be surprised if they follow Vučić in the wake of the new rhetoric and switch sides for the 100th time.

Potential land swap targets

1. – Republic of Srpska – Leader Milorad Dodik has been announcing a referendum on “leaving” BH and ultimately acceding to Serbia

2. – Federation of BH – In case Republic of Srpska separates, the Federation would have a difficult time surviving as a compact unit

3. – Vojvodina – Former autonomous unit in Yugoslavia, with a tendency of strengthening of autonomy in local Serb population, and especially Hungarians

4. – Sandžak – Serbian part of Sandžak with majority Bosniak population which does not consider Belgrade its capital

5. - Northern Kosovo - Serbs comprise majority of population, territory would be "swapped" for "Albanian" Preševo valley.

6. - Preševo Valley - Part of Serbia with Albanian majority, would be exchanged for northern part of Kosovo.

7. - Macedonia - West of the country is populated by a compact Albanian majority.

 

- Redrawing borders is a bottomless pit that would return the region to the 1990es, said Bajrami. He believes that Brussels is playing with fire as this is not "a solution in line with European values," adding that it is only a matter of time what will follow Kosovo – BH or Republic or Srpska, with the Federation not remaining unscathed, followed by Macedonia, Sandžak, Montenegro and, possibly, Vojvodina. According to Bajrami, the Balkans should not be held hostage to Vučić’s struggle to stay in power.

- Redrawing borders is a very dangerous idea as it carries with it ethnic division and national homogenization. They key question is whether that division would be just an introduction to a new round of conflict in the Balkans. When it comes to BH, it is the most fragile and serious point in the region and beyond. Nobody could imagine the start of ethnic separation in the Balkans with BH remaining peaceful.

Republic of Srpska’s problem

- President of Republic of Srpska Milorad Dodik is not hiding his separatist tendencies any longer. Serbian intellectual elite is seriously counting on division of BH and is advocating it, while Dodik established a direct link with Moscow and introduced Russian President Vladimir Putin as the arbiter for BH as well as made Belgrade hostage to his relations with Putin. With the confusing and unclear policies of the Trump administration, I believe that the region is in for a lot of instability – predicted professor at the Philosophy and Social Theory Institute at the University of Belgrade Milivoj Bešlin.

- BH is an important country for whose sake we should not allow division of Kosovo as "exchange" tendencies have been on the rise for decades after the dissolution of Yugoslavia and it is unlikely that something like that would end peacefully. Of course, there is the question of Croats and "their territory," the former Herzeg-Bosnia that was not meant to be and the, for now, fictional "third entity" in case BH dissolves, which presents additional cause for concern as Croatia will inevitably be drawn into the whole story, an EU member state and NATO member. And finally, what would happen to Bosniaks in BH who are under patronage of Turkey. That is why we have to commend Plenković’s recent meeting with Merkel, where he supported the idea of not changing borders. Hopefully, he will not change his mind.

"Redrawing borders is a bottomless pit that would return the region to the 1990's," said Bajrami.

 

What Bešlin finds most controversial in the whole story is the fact that Serbian political and intellectual elite still sees the solution to all problems in the region along national lines, which is a line of nationalist ideology. –The second problem is that they see the so-called Serbian question exclusively as territorial, as a matter of borders. This view of the so-called Serbian question in the 1980es led to the wars in 1990es. Borders are redrawn through peaceful means very rarely, almost never. Violence is always needed and proves to be the key catalyst for redrawing borders – stressed Bešlin. Vučić apparently cannot think differently from those who ruled during his political formatting in the war-torn 1990es – exchange of territory and population. It comes as no surprise that it was his political mentor Vojislav Šešelj who proposed the new exchange of population between Serbia and Albania. He would exchange Serbs from enclaves in Kosovo for Albanians from the Preševo Valley.

Bajrami believes that, by "accepting" the division, Vučić compromised the idea of the Association of Serb Municipalities (ZSO) in the north of Kosovo, on which he insisted until recently. –In fact, it was shown that Vučić did not think of the ZSO other than territory he plans to get his hands on, rather than some form of Serb autonomy or anything like that – said Bajrami.

Protection from invasion

Former political head of Kosovo Azem Vllasi is a big opponent of "meddling with borders" as this can only bring tragedy and harm to people. –Aleksandar Vučić knows that Serbia has to normalize its relations with Kosovo if it wants to join the EU. That is why he is asking for something, to present himself to the Serbian public as the winner. Secondly, he fears the demographic situation. Number of Albanians in Kosovo is increasing, while number of Serbs is decreasing. The situation in Preševo Valley is the same, which is why Vučić wants to secure Serbian border from the "Albanian invasion" – Vilasi said.

The pro-Vučić daily tabloid Informer released a text justifying Vučić’s policies on Kosovo with panic, apocalyptic announcement that number of Serbs and Albanians will be equal by the end of the century. Number of Albanians will grow rapidly, while number of Serbs will drop dramatically.

The proposal is to exchange the north of Kosovo, which accounts for approximately 11% of territory of Kosovo with approximately 65,000 citizens, mostly Serbs (municipalities North Mitrovica, Zvečan, Leposavić, Zubin Potok and Lešak, with the last three municipalities added to Kosovo in 1953 by late Deputy Prime Minister of Yugoslavia Aleksandar Ranković with the aim of increasing the ratio of Serbs in that region), for part of Preševo Valley in the south of Serbia near Vranj (Bujanovac, Preševo and part of Medveđa municipality with some 67,000 citizens, mostly Albanians). Vllasi pointed out that, besides that, Kosovo would be at a loss with that exchange. According to him, the north of Kosovo is geopolitically, strategically and in other ways more important for Albanians than Preševo Valley.

-Potential of the important economic resource Trepče is located there, as well as the artificial lake Gazivoda, which literally provides life to Kosovo. These resources were controlled by Kosovo during the time of the constitutional autonomy. We built them and Serbia has nothing to do with them, it did not invest. Serbs who live there are not a problem for us and it is not a problem that they love Serbia rather than Kosovo. It is in their interest to live safe and normal lives. Even if we accepted to exchange the north for Preševo Valley, Serbia would only give us some villages near the border with Kosovo and not the entire area populated by Albanians. In addition, that is where the motorway and railway infrastructure passes, connecting Serbia with the Aegean Sea and the port in Salonika. For what Serbia would give us there, we could only offer the Leposavić municipality on the very north of Kosovo, which Serbia would not accept – said Vllasi.

Erdoğan in Novi Pazar

People in the neighboring Macedonia get shivers from the possibility of "territory exchange" between its neighbors Kosovo and Serbia. That is because it is unlikely that Macedonia would remain unscathed. The west of the country is majority Albanian. For Macedonia, which is about to resolve the name dispute with Greece, the doors to European integration are opening – coming membership in the NATO and start of negotiations with the EU – which present guarantee of territorial integrity of the country.

Even though Vučić is now looking for salvation in getting a part of Kosovo and some future enlargement to Republic of Srpska, he will likely embrace "separatist tendencies" in Sandžak and especially Vojvodina, where even some local Serbs are "autonomy inclined," even desire federalization of Serbia. We should not forget close to 300,000 Hungarians, who every now and then start entertaining ideas of additional "political-cultural autonomy." As for Sandžak, some local Muslim Bosniak political leaders are openly disputing "rule of Belgrade," while Vučić is probably still suffering nightmares from the recent reception of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Novi Pazar. Serbian part of Sandžak (Serbia refers to the region as Raška) has some 150,000 Bosniaks in contrast with approximately 85,000 Serbs.

"Vučić apparently decided to bring the "defeat of Kosovo" to the public in small, acceptable, but painful servings..."

 

As the story of exchange of territory was discussed, a new problem arose when Serbia declared that position of Serbs in Montenegro is "worse compared to the Independent State of Croatia (NDH)," with Dačić pointing out that there is no worse example in the world in the 21st century than the position of Serbs in Montenegro. Serbian media even started using the term "milovci" for Montenegrins, after President of Montenegro Milo Đukanović. Serbs account for some 30% of Montenegrin population, with close to 45% of the population considering Serbian their mother tongue. They do not live compactly, which is more often political than ethnical. Serbian parties announce that they would start the process of leaving the NATO if they came to power and raise the question of reuniting with Serbia again.

- Serbian political and intellectual elite never really came to terms with independence of Montenegro. Every move Podgorica made, while pursuing its own State interests, was met in Serbia with terrible and aggressive attacks from the top of the Government and media close to the Government. The point is that Serbia did not get over independence of Montenegro and is persistently trying to manage Montenegro from Belgrade. And when that does not work, frustration ensues, accusations of treason start and the issue of position of Serbs is raised. This is a case of unquenched territorial and imperial ambition, undoubtedly – predicted Bešlin.

Inačica na drugom jeziku / Alternate language version