By David B. Kanin
There has been a fair amount of back and forth since press reporting started speculating about a partition or exchange of territories between Kosova and Serbia. While it appears the Serbian government is attempting to prepare the press, public, and Orthodox hierarchy for an endgame that would include some sort of land swap, noises from Pristina and Belgrade suggest bristling hostility by elements on both sides to such an arrangement. Presidents Vucic and Thaci clearly are the biggest proponents of such a deal, which means both that the idea is not going away any time soon and that if it does fail to come to fruition it will not be easy to get meaningful negotiations back on track (the EU-mediated Brussels/Berlin process is insignificant).
Various versions of a land deal are being bruited about – the area north of Mitrovica to Serbia in exchange for a UN seat for Kosova, parts of the Presevo valley to Kosova in exchange for northern Mitrovica and Zubin Potok (with or without formal recognition by Serbia of the loss of the bulk of its former province), etc. A key element of every version of this conversation is speculation over whether the United States has decided to drop the commitment to Kosova’s independence and opposition to any further changes in Balkan borders that have been bedrock foundations of its rhetoric and policies during and after the series of partitions involved in the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.
This activity, coupled with the struggle to enact the recent agreement between Greece and Macedonia over the latter’s name, marks the first serious regional diplomacy since Kosova’s contested declaration of independence a decade ago. Everyone involved – to include those Americans, West Europeans, and Russians who are paying attention – knows failure to get something done this time will matter, because the motivating elements are local leaders rather than international rhetoric. In addition, the specter of Kypriakos Mitsotakis maybe killing the Macedonia name agreement for the sake of short-term, short-sighted political advantage gained from bringing down the Government raises the possibility that a Kosovo deal could become perceived as the only chance for something constructive to emerge from all this diplomacy. (No one is even talking about forward movement in Bosnia – for good reason).
The current discussion about territory creates a danger that policy makers in Pristina might lose focus on their central interest – replacing the stunted status created by US diplomacy between 2006 and 2008 with a universally recognized Kosovar state. Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj’s strongly stated opposition to changing Kosova’s borders distracts from the far greater danger that Belgrade might be able to avoid recognizing Kosova’s independence and gain EU membership at the cost of a little land.
Achieving membership in the UN or other international institutions is no substitute for de jure and de facto recognition of a Kosovar state. If Pristina permits itself to be hoodwinked on this point it has lost the entire game. Period. Any agreement arranged between the parties now that leaves Kosova as less than a state would leave it that way until the conditions come about that enable Serbia to retake the place. Until then, Kosova could comfort itself that its possession of security forces – but not an army – and functioning civil institutions means it is not Palestine. Still, its lack of sovereignty not only would leave residual Serbian claims in place, but would leave Kosova dependent on the kindness of foreign powers. This is not a good condition, as the apparent changes in contemporary US foreign policy attest.
For his part, of course, Vucic has to manage domestic opposition to such a deal having nothing to do with Kosova. His ineffective political opponents see a chance finally to have an issue with which to club him. Like Mitsotakis, the less than stellar group of personalities arrayed against him could care less about what happens to the symbolic issue they intend to exploit. At the same time, their cynical willingness to move against his nationalist flank is less credible than New Democracy’s claim to a history of opposition to permitting Greece’s neighbor to the north to appropriate the word “Macedonia.” Mitsotakis also stands above the smaller opposition parties (including PASOK), while Boris Tadic, Vuk Jeremic, Dragan Djilas, and the other Serbs cancel each other out.
Vucic’s real problem is the Serbian Orthodox Church. For good reason, “Kosovo and Metohija” is much more central to the bishops than to any of the politicians. The churches and monasteries in the lost province are sacred places, not just architectural gems. Periodic processions and ceremonies involving those spaces create the sense of sacred time; worshipers embrace the spiritual juncture with God and the martyrs to perpetuate their sense of communal identity and personal meaning. Given its setbacks in Macedonia and Montenegro, the departure of Serbs from Kosova likely to follow any agreement poses a major challenge to the Serbian Church’s credibility.
Vucic needs a solution that will enable permanent and secure physical and temporal control by Serbian clerics over holy places to exist in Kosova. If he can do that and still deny full statehood to Kosova he will have achieved a lot. The question is whether Vucic will concede full sovereignty in return for a partition/land swap and attendant population movements that – if well managed – could work in the interests of both countries.
This is where the internationals have a chance to function more constructively than they have so far. The American piece is relatively simple – provide Kosova with the diplomatic, military, and economic support it needs to establish unquestioned security. This need not involve a new deployment of troops, but would include diplomatic and material support for national armed forces. The EU would help matters if it would finally drop its boilerplate rhetoric in favor of a clear statement that Serbia has to recognize Kosovar sovereignty as the price of membership.
Europe is too divided and weak to agree to any practical commitment to membership for any of the Balkan candidates. Nevertheless, the comparison of European to Russian economies should keep the Balkan states oriented toward the always receding horizon of EU membership until China’s long game reaches a point where the Balkans is more than a blip on Beijing’s radar screen.
Make no mistake, failure definitely is an option regarding this ongoing diplomatic game. There are a lot of moving parts regarding Kosova and Macedonia, and the record of the past 20 years provides much reason for pessimism. It is conceivable that – once again – neither the locals nor the internationals will be able to bring anything to closure. Russia’s failures to skew political processes in Montenegro and Macedonia suggest Moscow can make only limited gains in case things stall. Nevertheless, further fumbling would reinforce the motivation for young people to emigrate and for patronage bosses to become even more confident of their future. Indeed, the sort of local and inter-communal informality currently driving politics and society in eastern and central Europe might well begin to provide the hegemonic institutional model for security policy as well as everything else if regional and international diplomacy falters yet again.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).