Western Balkans and EU News
20.06.20 | Opinions

[Opinion]: Kosovo-Serbia talks: There is more than one bad idea in the W. Balkans

By Daniel Serwer

Prishtina, 20 June 2020, dtt-net.com - The (Donald) Trump Administration is bringing Kosovo and Serbia Presidents (Hashim) Thaci and (Aleksandar) Vucic to Washington June 27, in an effort to hammer out some sort of agreement the American President can boast about at a Rose Garden ceremony before the November 3 election. Speculation about the substance has focused on the apparent willingness of both Vucic and Thaci to consider land/people swaps on an ethnic basis: Serbs in northern Kosovo would be traded to Serbia in exchange for Albanians in southern Serbia.

This is a spectacularly bad idea, against which I and others have argued vigorously, as it would destabilize the Balkans as well as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Only Vladimir Putin could like it. Maybe Trump’s special envoy Richard Grenell has been listening, as he has now let it be known that his Washington conclave will focus on economic agreements while the more sensitive political issues will be settled in talks the European Union hosts.

If we accept this division of labour at face value, it is certainly odd: economics is the speciality of the EU. The US–not the EU–will have to deal with Russia on the bigger political issues like diplomatic recognition and UN membership. But I trust the EU a whole lot more to oppose partition of the two countries (which is what a land/people swap amounts to), as Germany is solidly against it and the five countries within the EU that do not recognize Kosovo also have good reasons to oppose partition, along with several other EU members.

It is of course possible that Grenell is prevaricating. The Trump Administration tells more lies in a day than most recent American administrations tell in a year. Consistency is to Trump and Grenell “the hobgoblin of small minds.” I’m afraid they agree with the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” If it is partition they really want, they won’t let their prior statements interfere.

Fortunately, in both Serbia and Kosovo the idea of a land/people swap is getting a Bronx cheer. President Vucic still wants it, and after Sunday’s parliamentary election he might have the kind of supermajority in parliament that would go along. But it is doubtful that he can get it approved in a constitutional referendum, which would require not only 50% to agree but 50% of registered voters to vote. The second part of the double majority would be particularly difficult. In Kosovo, Prime Minister Hoti has declared his opposition, and there is nothing like a 2/3 majority in parliament that would approve it, never mind 50% of the population.

Of course, that doesn’t mean they won’t try it anyway. Once written down with a map that shows on which side of a new border Albanians should be and on which side Serbs should be, the ethnic cleansing and self-cleansing will start, including pressure to move to Kosovo on Albanians all over Serbia and pressure on Serbs all over Kosovo to move to Serbia. This would also ignite an independence move in the Serb half of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and possibly a similar move by Albanians in Macedonia. The chaos would destroy two landmark Clinton achievements: peace in Bosnia and Kosovo.

But let’s assume Grenell is being honest. There are certainly things that need doing on the economic front. He has already supposedly negotiated agreements on air and rail travel between Kosovo and Serbia, but there is no visible sign of implementation. Getting that moving would be a good idea. The Serbian and Kosovo chambers of commerce have a good understanding of the non-tariff trade barriers on both sides of the border. Removing those would help to improve economic conditions in both countries and attract international investment, as would the implementation of the many “technical” agreements negotiated between Pristina and Belgrade, many of which have not been implemented.

So there are lots of good things Grenell can do, if he focuses as declared on the economic issues. But there are also bad ideas other than the land/people swaps. One thing on which Pristina and Belgrade seem fully agreed is amnesty for their respective bigwig war criminals. De facto that already exists for Serb commanders in Serbia and Albanian commanders in Kosovo. Neither country seems inclined to punish its war criminals any more than Donald Trump wants to see American war criminals punished. Amnesty for war crimes and crimes against humanity is not permitted under international law, but that is just one more norm Trump might like to puncture. It would be truly ugly, but not unthinkable, if renewed American engagement in the Balkans came in the form of letting mass murderers go free.

There is more than one bad idea in the Balkans, and fending them off requires constant vigilance.


(Daniel Serwer is professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and director of its Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs, as well as a Scholar at the Middle East Institute.  This opinion of his was first published at his blog: peacefare.net)


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of dtt-net.com.

20.06.20 | Opinions