‘Correcting’ Kosovo’s Border Would Shake Postwar Europe’s Foundations – OpEd


The inviolability of frontiers has been a cornerstone of postwar Europe’s architecture – but some believe the EU and the US are preparing to throw away the rulebook on Kosovo.

By Marcus Tanner*

For the legion of rights activists, former diplomats, academics and others who fiercely oppose ethnic partition as a solution to the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, the silence of the European Union and Washington on the subject is ominous.

Ethnic partitions based on supervised plebiscites were a normative way of resolving European border disputes after World War I.

In that very different world, the creation of ethnically pure states was seen then as a goal. The old, defeated polyglot empires, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, stood discredited – their multi-national character seen as the prime cause of their downfall.

After World War II, however, Europe, America and the former USSR underwent a radical change of mind.

Ethnic-based partitions now were regarded with deep disfavour, as a danger to the post-war settlement, an encouragement to revisionism – and as wrong in principle.

The ethnically “pure” state now was associated with the Nazi project, while multiculturalism was to be promoted as an asset, not a hindrance.

In the 1990s, following the example set by the dissolution of the USSR, Europe and the US insisted that the borders of all states emerging from the former Yugoslavia must follow the internal borders of the former republics – or, in Kosovo’s case, provinces.

No deviations or “corrections” were permitted. Serbia was allowed no ethnic claim to the Krajina in Croatia or to northwest Bosnia. Likewise, Croatia could not claim western Herzegovina, nor could Bosnia claim the Sandzak – and so on.

However, informed sources say opinion in Brussels and Washington on this once inviolable principle may be shifting.

This explains why the expected condemnations of the recent upsurge of partition talk in Serbia and Kosovo have not occurred.

A UK Guardian article this week wrote that its sources said “the international mood towards potential partition of Kosovo was shifting, despite the opposition of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.”

It added that when Ivica Dacic, Serbia’s Foreign Minister, met Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner in July, they “discussed partition”.

It also cited a Serbian government source as saying: “The American position is changing from totally against partition to willingness to discuss this option. France is also quite positive about it. Germany is not.”

The Economist’s Balkan Correspondent, Tim Judah, a longtime associate of BIRN, said that following visits to Serbia and Kosovo, he had noticed a change in emphasis on partition from Brussels and Washington.

“Before, it was taboo and they didn’t even want anyone to discuss it. But now they’re saying, OK, you discuss it, and then we will see.”

Discredited tool for resolving disputes:

“Partition” first emerged in the language of diplomacy in the late-18th century, when Russia, Prussia and Austria applied it ruthlessly to Poland, successively slicing bits off the old kingdom until nothing remained.

But partition’s real heyday followed the end of the First World War, when ethnic nationalism enjoyed intellectual credibility and the creation of ethnically “pure” states was championed as the key to the creation of a more stable Europe.

Partitions and plebiscites were applied in numerous areas.

Ireland was partitioned in 1922, admittedly more on religious than ethnic lines, with six of the 32 counties remaining in Britain.

Schleswig-Holstein was partitioned in 1920 following a referendum, with north Schleswig going [back] to Denmark.

Upper Silesia was partitioned in 1921-2 between Poland the Germany, also following plebiscites.

So was the Burgenland, between Austria and Hungary, following a plebiscite held in Sopron/Odenburg, in December 1921, which saw the town go to Hungary and the rest to Austria.

Carinthia was also put up for partition, for which purposes the victorious allies divided it into two zones, A and B. Supervised plebiscites resulted in both zones going to Austria – to the anger of the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

After World War II, although ethnic-based partitions were falling from favour, they were enacted in Istria, resulting in the city of Trieste remaining in Italy while the rest of Istria went to Yugoslavia. Another curious anomaly was the plebiscites held in Tende/Tenda and La Brigue/Briga, which resulted in both villages switching from Italy to France in 1947.

In Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, the USSR ordered Romania to relinquish the Dobrudja region to Bulgaria on ethnic grounds, while the USSR rearranged its own frontiers, drastically with Poland, less so with Romania, again citing ethnic criteria.

But the intellectual and diplomatic climate was changing fast. The while idea of “ethnic borders”, with their obviously Nazi overtones, now was seen as retrograde goal. Moreover, the allies were determined to stamp out what they saw as an encouragement to revisionism.

Borders were now deemed permanent, whatever minorities felt – a principle that had major consequences for the Balkans.

In its modified form, it meant that when states dissolved irretrievably, as did Yugoslavia, the world would insist on the old internal borders becoming the new external ones.

This principle advantaged some communities much more than others. It conveniently left almost all Macedonians and Slovenes within the borders of their respective republics.

But it left about half a million Croats outside Croatia, mainly in Bosnia, and a much larger number of Serbs outside Serbia – the vast majority also in Bosnia.

As a result, Macedonian, Slovene and Bosniak nationalists are highly conservative on the border question; few have serious aspirations towards northern Greece, Carinthia or Sandzak – while Serbian, and to a lesser extent Croatian, nationalists – tend naturally towards revisionism.

Until now, such dreams have remained dreams. But, were Europe and the US to throw away the rulebook and allow a border “correction” on ethnic lines between Serbia and Kosovo, the dreaded “precedent” would, obviously, have been set.

After all, if a few tens of thousands of Serbs and Albanians on either sides of the current border can change their frontiers, what is to stop about a million Serbs in Bosnia?

Small question generates big dispute:

The populations in question in the Kosovo-Serbia dispute are surprisingly small for such a large dispute.

In Kosovo, despite the loose talk of “Serbian North Kosovo”, in reality the question concerns three municipalities: Leposavic, [population 18,600 in 2015] Zvecan [16,650] and Zubin Potok [15,200] and half of another, Mitrovica.

The only significant urban settlement is the Serb-run half of the town of Mitrovica, home to about 30,000 people. At most, the area is home to about 80,000 people.

On the other side of the border, almost wholly Albanian Presevo is home to some 35,000 people. Over half of the town and municipality of Bujanovic are also Albanian, as are a smaller proportion of Medvedja.

Can Serbia and Kosovo come up with a deal?

Even if they do get Europe’s reluctant permission to tear up a key post-war principle of international relations, it is hard to see the two sides in this dispute reaching an agreement.

Importantly, the two sides are not equal in bargaining strength

This is a major difference between now and the plebiscites of 1920-22, when the two sides were usually equal in power – like Austria and Hungary – or when, as with Germany versus Denmark, Germany was a defeated power and in no position to be exercise pressure.

In the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, on the other hand, Kosovo is the supplicant – seeking recognition of its independence by Serbia.

Serbia, independent since the Congress of Berlin in 1878, has no such issues over its diplomatic place in the world. Kosovo needs an agreement, therefore, more than Serbia.

Kosovo’s only real card – and it is not an ace – is that the dispute is slowing Serbia’s progress towards EU membership. But Serbia can live with that.

If Serbia’s leader Aleksandar Vucic does go for partition, therefore, he will almost certainly seek corrections in Serbia’s favour: Serbia to get the northern municipalities – which Kosovo does not control – in exchange for recognizing Kosovo’s independence.

It is more difficult to imagine Vucic, or any other Serbian leader, offering territory to Kosovo that it does control, just for the sake of “fairness”.

Another complicating factor is the future of the remaining Serbs in Kosovo proper.

Their only hope of a future lies in the long-delayed formation of an association of autonomous Serbian municipalities in Kosovo.

But Kosovo has sat on this issue for years now, wanting to keep this important card in reserve and not give it away ahead of a final settlement.

However, if tiny Kosovo is forced to give away significant bits of land, the chances of it then forming a Serbian municipal association on the rest of its territory as well are minimal.

In short, the small rural Serbian communities of the south will be finished, which is why the spokespeople of the Serbs in the south, like Fr Sava Janjic, are so vehemently against partition.

In all likelihood, therefore, whatever Europe or America allows in principle, the various border “correction” plans in the minds of Vucic and Thaci will remain too far apart for an agreement to be possible.

*Marcus Tanner is an editor of Balkan Insight and the author of “Albania’s Mountain Queen, Edith Durham and the Balkans” [Tauris].

The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.


Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (formerly the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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