BY JANUSZ BUGAJSKI, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR — 04/01/20 09:00 PM EDT THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY CONTRIBUTORS ARE THEIR OWN AND NOT THE VIEW OF THE HILL
While the coronavirus pandemic preoccupies Washington, the Trump administration is inadvertantly stoking a new conflict in the Balkans. In a hastened effort to forge a settlement between Serbia and Kosovo that would enable U.S. forces to leave the region, the White House could unravel many Western achievements since ending the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s by inciting new regional rivalries.
Kosovo is in the midst of a political crisis as the coalition government fell apart on March 25 because of disagreements over responses to the pandemic. But the real battle has pitted President Hashim Thaci, who has reportedly discussed Kosovo’s partition with Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic, against Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who is adamantly opposed to any border changes. Washington has evidently sided with Thaci in the forlorn hope that it can quickly settle the Serbia-Kosovo dispute.
The core of this Balkan standoff is Belgrade’s refusal to recognize Kosovo as an independent state. This inter-state paralysis hinders Serbia’s ambitions to enter the European Union and freezes Kosovo’s entrance into international institutions. Instead of agreeing on implementable steps toward bilateral recognition, Thaci and Vucic seem to believe that an exchange of territory will be a magic wand in normalizing relations.
The fall of the Kurti government and the resulting political turmoil provides an opportunity for Thaci to bypass government and parliament in making deals with Belgrade. The swirling rumors in Pristina about U.S. supported land swaps has even forced the State Department to issue a statement denying that there is any secret plan. But the wording of the statement did little to assuage growing fears that Thaci and Vucic are negotiating with Washington’s blessing.
If a land swap is considered by some officials to be such a great deal, then one wonders why it has only been discussed secretly and is regularly denied. If Washington supports territorial changes, it should be clear how exactly this will occur with full democratic legitimacy. A credible land exchange would require several preconditions: Serbia and Kosovo recognizing each other as independent countries; popular approval through a parliamentary vote or public referendum; necessary constitutional amendments; and assistance to citizens affected by the land swaps during their voluntary relocation.
Without such a comprehensive package, three immediate threats will surface: Domestic, regional and international. Half-baked border alterations are likely to create even more domestic conflicts in both Serbia and Kosovo. Without plebiscites and parliamentary approval, deals struck behind closed door will not be widely accepted and can accelerate feelings of grievance. In Kosovo this will intensify political conflicts especially if the country does not benefit from UN membership as a result of the deal. And in Serbia, the loss of any more territory could inflame nationalism if the deal does not culminate in EU entry. Such disputes are more likely to turn violent during times of economic disruption, fear and uncertainty that the pandemic has unleashed.
Regionally, border changes approved by the U.S. will encourage separatists and irredentists to interpret them as legitimizing national homogenization. With the principle of multi-ethnicity evidently jettisoned, demands for mono-ethnicity would escalate and potentially unravel several countries. Western institutions and NATO forces may find themselves woefully unprepared for the wave of instability that could engulf the region. Calls for several hundred American troops to be withdrawn from the vital NATO mission in Kosovo will add fuel to the flames.
Territorial revisions in Kosovo could raise support for unification with Albania. Such momentum could spread to North Macedonia, where at least a quarter of the population is Albanian. Threats to North Macedonia’s territorial integrity would intensify ethno-nationalism and potentially bring both Bulgaria and Albania into an expanding conflict. The Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina can demand the application of the Kosovo precedent in splitting from Bosnia, likewise with the Croat population in western Herzegovina and the Bosniak population in Serbia’s Sandjak region.
Internationally, the prospect of land swaps adds another dimension to Moscow’s divisive plans in the Western Balkans and establishes usable precedents elsewhere. The most effective way to close doors to NATO and EU membership is to exploit inter-state conflicts so the disputants are viewed as unfit for accession. Moscow is well aware that various Balkan nationalists will pounce on the prospect of territorial acquisitions and can be encouraged to pursue even more ambitious irredentist claims. Russian officials can simultaneously offer regional settlements and inject themselves as mediators.
Kremlin support for Balkan land exchanges also establishes valuable precedents, particularly for its own partition of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and other targeted states. Moscow’s coerced border changes can be depicted as legitimate moves that mirror Western support for ethnic homogenization in the Balkans. This could reduce calls for economic sanctions against Russia for carving up its neighbors’ territories. Instead of pushing back on Moscow’s subversion and destabilization of the Balkans, U.S. supported border changes could turn out to be a gift for President Putin.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, D.C. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is entitled “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks,” Jamestown Foundation, Washington, D.C.