Balkan Land Swaps: Peace Settlement or Renewed Conflict?

By Campaign Agent Charlotte Davies

10 years after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, there has been very little progress between the two countries. With Serbia failing to recognise Kosovo’s statehood, could potential land swaps lead to resolution, or is it likely to plunge the whole region into renewed conflict?

As the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, is preparing to visit Kosovo next month, amid mounting speculation that he is exploring the possibility of a land swap with Kosovo, debates have commenced with regards to the implications of such divisions. With predominantly Ethnic-Albanian areas of Serbia being traded for Serbian majority areas in Kosovo, there is debate about the unintended consequential conflict that may arise in the region as a whole if an ethnically driven land swap is to take place. What is hoped for is a lasting settlement between Belgrade and Pristina, with Belgrade acknowledging Kosovo’s independence, opening the way for Kosovo to take a seat at the UN and for EU membership for both in the longer term.

However, despite this, critics argue that land swaps would open a “Pandora’s box” in the Balkans. It could set off further debates and renewed conflict in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia. Even in Albania, which borders Kosovo, a division is viewed with fear. Edi Rama, the Albanian Prime Minister, has been seen to take an uncharacteristically silent stance on the land swaps. Caution should perhaps be taken. It would set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the Balkans, particularly after the bloody ethnic wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. With the war still present in the memory of many living in the region, further territorial changes are viewed with fear and trepidation. As Father Sava Janjić, an abbot at the Serbian Orthodox monastery of Visoki Dečani in Kosovo, suggested- “the sinister plan of the ethnic-territorial partition in Kosovo will bring us back to the horror of the 1990s”. He has also warned that the idea of ethnically clean territories has the power to stretch further afield, becoming a model throughout Europe and strengthening radical ideologies. A long-serving Bosnian foreign ministry official said that “it’s the perfect formula for a new disaster in the western Balkans. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s fragile statehood could evaporate before our eyes, spreading a new spiral of nationalism. It could encourage Albanian extremists to seek the same solution in Macedonia.”

The response from the wider international community has confirmed increasing worries of renewed conflict and violence in the region. While the US has remained somewhat ambiguous, suggesting that the two partners should aim to reach a mutual agreement, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has made her views incredibly clear. Merkel has spoken out about her rejection of any changes to borders. The main concern is that altering a border anywhere threatens borders everywhere in the region. Despite this, some have taken a more optimistic view towards potential land swaps. Marko Prelec, a professor of practice in the school of Public Policy at the Central European University, has suggested that Kosovo and Serbia are talking about a mutually beneficial deal, with considerable support among the people who would be most directly affected. It promises to bring some genuine good will, a quality sorely lacking in the region.

What is perhaps true is that the Serbian-Kosovo tension is a key issue that needs to be tackled by the international community. Not only does it feed into instability and uncertainty on the south-eastern edge of the EU, but equally, it presents a major hurdle to integrating the Western Balkans into the international community. Therefore, any potential land swap in the Balkans needs to consider all interests and needs to be able to work for all to be effective in creating a lasting settlement. 

Sources and further reading

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