Partition in Kosovo Will Lead to Disaster
Ill-advised land swaps and population transfers won’t bring peace. They’re more likely to revive the bloodshed that plagued the Balkans during the 1990s.
Since Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leadership declared independence from Serbia in 2008, the territory has remained a disputed and partially sovereign entity. At present, it possesses recognition from more than 110 countries as diverse in power and influence as the United States and Germany to Malawi and Vanuatu. However, Kosovo’s sovereignty remains de facto; it has yet to achieve membership in the United Nations, has only distant prospects for entering the European Union, and is still largely dependent on the diplomatic sponsorship of patron states that speak in its defense.
At present, Kosovo’s sovereignty is opposed by Serbia, which enjoys support from Security Council members Russia and China; five countries in the EU, including Spain and Cyprus, which both have separatist problems of their own; and a number of other countries around the world like India, Brazil, and Indonesia. As such, Kosovo finds itself in a frozen conflict similar to other disputed territories like Northern Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, and Abkhazia. All have functionally separated from the state they broke away from, but all are unable to obtain de jure sovereignty.
Since 2011, the European Union has been actively involved in organizing a “normalization of relations” between Serbia and its wayward province. A number of proposals envision both sides coming to some sort of modus vivendi that may or may not include recognition, but certainly calls for a stable, democratic, integrated, and multiethnic Kosovo with an empowered Serbian minority that retains strong institutional links with its parent country. The trouble is that no agreement has been reached, which means membership in either the UN or the EU remains indefinitely blocked.
One option that frequently comes up is the partition of Kosovo at the Ibar River. This means reattaching to Serbia proper the northern tip of the territory that is overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Serbs and has effectively resisted being integrated into the ethnic Albanian-led government in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. In return, Serbia would write off the rest of the territory as an independent state. Partition has been officially opposed by all sides, including the EU, the UN, and the United States, but it has been frequently suggested by a number of policymakers and analysts as a type of last-resort solution to ending an intractable impasse. Most recently, officials in the Trump Administration, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, have stated they are no longer opposed to such an idea if Belgrade and Pristina agree to it.
There is now talk of partitioning Kosovo alongside a larger “land swap” in which Serb-majority northern Kosovo is ceded to Serbia, while Kosovo gains the neighboring Albanian-majority Presevo Valley region of Serbia. In addition, Kosovo would allegedly be given membership at the UN while Serbia would get the proverbial “green light” for EU membership. The source of these rumors is Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic, whose grand political theatrics tend to portray him as the only person standing between Serbia and a diplomatic catastrophe over the fate of Kosovo. While he has neither confirmed nor denied such discussions are taking place with Hashim Thaci, his Kosovar counterpart, such talk has renewed tension between the two communities.
Arguments in favor of Kosovo’s partition have existed since 1999 and tend to revolve around the following points:
First, northern Kosovo has never come under the control of Pristina, either during the transitional period after NATO’s intervention in 1999 or after Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. As such, Pristina lacks both authority and legitimacy among a population that overwhelmingly identifies as citizens of Serbia because, for all intents and purposes, Serbia has never really ceased to function there. Forms of identification are issued by Belgrade, goods are purchased with the Serbian dinar, Serbian election posters cover walls and signposts, and politicians from Belgrade regularly visit the region. Serbian radio and television stations fill the airwaves, Serbian power and telecommunications companies provide uninterrupted service, and schools continue to operate within a Serbian educational curriculum.
Second, despite the official claims by Kosovo’s Albanian leaders of territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders, most know the Serb-controlled north will never be fully integrated. Pristina’s authority there is, at best, visually symbolic. Real power resides within a murky mixture of authority from Belgrade, local political bosses, and a sophisticated organized criminal network that run the three municipalities and the urban center of Mitrovica north of the Ibar as a breakaway region within a separatist entity.
For years, Kosovo’s Albanian leadership has accused the north of running a number of “parallel” political, economic, and social systems with financial support from Belgrade—an ironic statement to make since the roots of Albanian separatism in the region began with “parallel” institutions and active boycotts toward the-then Yugoslav state. More recently, these Serb parallel institutions have evolved into constitutionally-recognized political parties and organizations within Kosovo, but they still take their marching orders from Belgrade, rather than from Pristina.
A third argument in favor of partition suggests there should at least be some sort of “concession” to Serbia if Kosovo is to gain de jure independence. The north will never be integrated, so the argument goes, but it is the only part of Kosovo that Serbia can feasibly defend due to its geographical proximity.
Given this reality, some Serbian officials favor partition in order to save what can still be saved before everything is lost, or so the rationalization has gone for years among officials in Belgrade. This would also mean that Serbia would renounce any claims to the rest of Kosovo which may also include a transfer of all Serbs living south of the Ibar. Similarly, the idea of a territorial swap of northern Kosovo for the Presevo Valley has been considered in some Kosovo Albanian circles as compensation for them “giving up the north.” In both cases, it would lead to population transfers reminiscent of those that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and have no place in the twenty-first—a process disturbingly but tellingly labelled “peaceful ethnic cleansing” by the scholar Charles Kupchan in a recent New York Times op-ed.
Such a population transfer would produce, according to its supporters, a win-win situation in which both sides get territory populated by ethnic kin in exchange for losing a presumably disloyal and unruly ethnic minority.
They are wrong. Partition is both a bad and highly dangerous option—and has long been formally rejected by all parties for numerous reasons.
For Serbia, accepting partition effectively means having to recognize the loss of the rest of Kosovo, which not only undermines Belgrade’s claims about its territorial integrity, but also upends the idea that Kosovo is the heart of Serbia’s historical, cultural, and religious identity. Furthermore, the parts of Kosovo that actually matter to Serbian cultural identity and heritage—the medieval monasteries and towns, as well as the historical Kosovo Polje battlefield—are almost all south of the Ibar which would, in the event of a partition, be lost.
Aside from an historically significant monastery, a ruined fortress, and a curious Yugoslav-era monument, northern Kosovo holds little historic symbolism. Its hub, the run-down industrial city of Mitrovica, has become an important outpost for Serbia that has empowered, and greatly enriched, a number of local officials. As a reincorporated part of Serbia, the influence of these individuals would diminish and the reincorporated northern part of Mitrovica would just become another dilapidated southern Serbian town under Belgrade’s influence. Local Serbs there might be in favor of partition because it solves their immediate problems, but the attention, special status, and generous funding from Belgrade the north has enjoyed since 1999 would effectively cease.
More important, it is the 60 percent of Kosovo’s Serbs south of the Ibar who risk losing the most, as partition would effectively leave them marooned within a rump Kosovo where the pressure to leave would come from both Belgrade and Albanian hardliners in Pristina who would feel far less obligated to respect minority rights. Alongside these communities is the influential Serbian Orthodox Church, whose monasteries and other holy sites have been frequent targets of Albanian extremists since 1999. One of the most outspoken and internationally respected church figures, Father Sava Janjic, the Abbot of the immensely important Visoki Decani monastery, has taken to social media to point out the precarious position of the Serbian Church and its communities in central Kosovo where partition would be absolutely devastating for their future security and safety—especially if a potential land swap replaces 70,000 Serbs of northern Kosovo with nearly 70,000 Albanians from the Presevo Valley.
Albanians share the same sentiment against partition but for different reasons. Pristina holds that Kosovo’s borders cannot be compromised, and the north remains an inalienable part of its territory. While popular Albanian sentiment might favor getting rid of an unruly north, officials agree with the position of many Western policymakers that a partition of Kosovo would seriously undercut Kosovo’s future economic benefits. Northern Kosovo is home to the Trepca Mines—itself straddling both sides of the Ibar—and the Gazivode hydroelectric dam and power station. While including the north in Kosovo raises the possibility of Serbs having a definitive stake in both operations, partitioning the territory would cede these engines of the economy to Serbia. Gaining the Presevo Valley would add little value to Kosovo’s already rudimentary economy.
Beyond Kosovo, a partition and land swap would do nothing for the Albanians of the Presevo Valley, who as residents of Serbia currently benefit from being citizens of an internationally recognized country with all rights and benefits of travel, access to international organizations, and EU-supported standards of minority rights. Being annexed to Kosovo would suddenly make them part of a disputed territory with limited international access and even less international mobility.
Finally, partition would destroy years of work by the United States and key Western European powers that have provided a carefully crafted image of Kosovo as a multiethnic society as well as efforts in convincing Serb and Albanian communities to live together. Internationally backed agreements between Belgrade and Pristina in setting up powers of autonomy for Kosovo Serbs would go up in smoke.
Beyond that, the carefully crafted argument by the West that Kosovo’s separation from Serbia was “sui generis” and that no other changes to borders would be supported would suddenly be upended. The threat of drawing new borders could open a Pandora’s Box in the region that would encourage Serbs in Bosnia and Albanians in Macedonia to seek similar arrangements of territorial secession and unification with their ethnic kin. Were this to happen, the international community would be forced to intervene in the Balkans to halt yet another ethnonationalist land grab.
The international powers invested in finding a lasting solution to Kosovo’s disputed status need to discourage any further talk of partition. It is an endgame that benefits no one except extremists and short-sighted elites on both sides. “Velvet divorces” and “negotiated” territorial adjustments are not part of the region’s history; war and ethnic cleansing sadly are. Any calls to redraw borders and swap territory would almost certainly degenerate into the sort of violence and chaotic population exchanges that plagued the region in the 1990s. It would be an abdication of leadership to invite the return of such wars to European soil.