Serbia and Kosovo have been talking about a grand bargain to defuse lingering ethnic conflicts. Critics have been quick to weigh in. Some argue that the risks are simply too substantial for the international community to entertain the idea of “border adjustments,” or territorial exchanges, involving Serb-populated territories in northern Kosovo and Albanian-populated territories in southern Serbia, which is being subtly pushed by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his Kosovar counterpart, Hashim Thaci.
The crux of the critics’ argument rests on the potential for spillover throughout the Balkans. If Belgrade and Pristina exchange territory, this will show Croats and Serbs in Bosnia that they, too, can find a way to secede and join their ethnic kin in Croatia and Serbia, breaking up Bosnia in the process. Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro would demand the same.
But aren’t these the same arguments that were made or could have been made in 2008 when Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia and was immediately recognized by the United States as a separate country? Kosovo is 95 percent Albanian. Its breakaway from Serbia was ethnic partition and an adjustment of borders on a massive scale.
Ten years ago, most observers in the United States and in Europe concluded that the only practical solution to the question of Kosovo, which was under U.N. and NATO management since 1999, was to grant the territory full statehood. While Croats and Serbs in Bosnia and Serbs in Croatia were not permitted to secede during Yugoslavia’s bloody collapse in the 1990s, and the international community rightly maintained that the borders of Bosnia and Croatia could not be altered, the same principle was not applied in Serbia with respect to Kosovo.
Kosovo was said to be unique. What’s interesting is that many of those who are currently opposed to a land swap between Serbia and Kosovo supported the sui generis argument in 2008 and reasoned that there would be no spillover consequences from Pristina’s independence declaration as a result. Croats and Serbs in Bosnia would stay put because they were told that Kosovo was not a precedent. Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro were told the same. It was loudly declared that Kosovo’s secession could not be used as a template by minorities in the Balkans or anywhere else.
And what happened? Absolutely nothing. With the exception of some admittedly heated and unconstructive rhetoric, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia did indeed stay put, as did Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro.
In fact, all the arguments that were made in favor of Kosovo’s declaration of independence a decade ago can be made in favor of land swaps between Serbia and Kosovo today.
A peaceful and mutually agreed-upon exchange of territories between Serbia and Kosovo should be acceptable to those who want to see stability in the Balkans. Such a deal would need to include several features in order to convince skeptics. First, it must lead to a normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, including an exchange of representatives. Second, the agreement must give Pristina the right to apply for and join international institutions, such as the U.N.
Third, Belgrade would need to unambiguously tell Serbs in Bosnia that the only way to erase the borders separating them is for both countries to join the E.U. Such a declaration would need to be made in written form and ratified by the Serbian parliament. Albania and Kosovo would have the same obligation with respect to Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro. Finally, the E.U. must firmly and convincingly reiterate its commitment to accept new member states from the Western Balkans once these countries have fulfilled all necessary accession criteria.
In addition to removing the prospect of conflict between Serbs and Albanians, an agreement to swap parts of northern Kosovo for parts of southern Serbia would remove Russia’s principal point of leverage over Serbia and all but rid the Balkans of Moscow’s nefarious influence. Right now, the Kremlin uses Kosovo to blackmail Serbia. Belgrade cannot go against Moscow in any significant way without incurring Russian threats that the Kremlin will lift its Security Council veto and allow Kosovo to join the U.N. before Serbia and Kosovo reach an agreement on their own.
If Serbia and Kosovo can make their own deal, though, this leverage will evaporate, and Russia’s position will weaken accordingly. Moscow might then try to pressure Belgrade into concessions, perhaps asking for guarantees that Serbia will never join NATO, but such costs are likely to be far outweighed by the benefits of normalized relations with Kosovo, fully consolidated borders and a clear path into the E.U.
Both Vucic and Thaci should be praised for their bravery. The two leaders are going against the political incentive structure in Serbia and Kosovo. For each of them, the easiest and most logical move to make is no move at all. Yet, they have chosen to temporarily close their eyes and shun the laws of Balkan politics. This confluence of genuine leadership in Serbia and Kosovo isn’t likely to reemerge for decades or maybe longer. Let’s give Serbia and Kosovo the chance to reach and define their own peace.
Daniel P. Vajdich is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former lead staffer for Europe and Eurasia on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.