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Politics

US-backed Kosovo land-swap border plan under fire from all sides

It may ease their way into the EU, but ethnically homogeneous states are a recipe for disaster. I know from my family history

Agron Bajrami

The Balkans are boiling again. This time it’s because speculation is rife that Kosovo and Serbia may finally end their dispute and normalise their relations. Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaçi, and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vučić, are said to be close to an agreement that would help stabilise the Balkans and open the doors for both countries to join the European Union. Negotiations are happening under the mediation of the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

Ten years after Kosovo declared its independence, the last chapter of the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia would be closed.

It sounds like a fairytale. Two leaders who were on opposing sides in the 1998-1999 war that left thousands of Kosovar civilians killed, tens of thousands of homes burned and destroyed, more than a million people expelled and displaced – and which ended only after Nato intervened – would have suddenly conquered their hatreds and enmities for the sake of a better future for their people. A breakthrough at last?

On the contrary, it could turn into a nightmare. The deal under consideration is sometimes called a “border correction”, or an “exchange of territories”. Neither Thaçi nor Vučić have given much detail, but it seems that the agreement would see part of Kosovo’s northern territory, with a majority Serb population, joining Serbia; meanwhile part of southern Serbia, a region commonly known as Preshevo Valley, whose population is majority Albanian, would join Kosovo.

This land swap would result in fewer Serbs living in Kosovo and fewer Albanians in Serbia. Both countries would become more “ethnically pure”. Many people would have to leave their family homes and birthplaces. In short, there would be an exchange of populations, not just territories.

Why would Brussels even entertain the notion of supporting a plan that so deeply contradicts European values?

Charles Kupchan, former adviser to Barack Obama and now a professor at Georgetown University, has described the tentative plan as “peaceful ethnic cleansing”. Supportive of the land-swap idea, he believes “pragmatism needs to trump principle”. I beg to differ.

Creating ethnically homogenous territories and states (in short, getting rid of minorities) is hardly a new idea. In Kosovo, throughout history, it’s happened many times. And it has always left deep wounds that simply won’t heal. Almost every Kosovar has family stories to vouch for this. Here are mine.

The first goes back to the dying years of Ottoman rule in the Balkans. In 1877-8, my mother’s family was among tens of thousands of Albanians expelled from their homes in the village of Berjan i Poshtëm (Donje Brijanje in Serbian), located in today’s southern Serbia. Even now, during family gatherings, elder cousins recall the stories their grandfathers told – of houses, fields and graves they had to leave behind. Their expulsion was ethnic cleansing, made irreversible by the 1878 Congress of Berlin.

Another family story is from my late paternal grandfather. As a child, I would watch his tearful eyes and hear his deep voice trembling while he recalled a night in 1927 when he, his father and his elder brother had to leave their house and pastry shop in the town of Pravishte – now Eleftheroupoli, in eastern Greece. It happened as a consequence of a Greco-Turkish Lausanne agreement on population exchange. This was not their homeland, but it was all they had to provide for the family back in Kosovo. They were given only a few minutes to pack, there was no violence, everything was peaceful, as my grandfather would describe, years later. But it was ethnic cleansing, nonetheless.

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Supporters of the Kosovo Self-Determination Party hold a banner reading ‘no bargaining on national lands’ during a protest against Thaçi’s proposal. Photograph: Petrit Prenaj/EPA

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Just a few minutes to leave was also what many Kosovar Albanians were given by Serb military and security forces, in March 1999, when Slobodan Milošević’s campaign of ethnic cleansing was in full swing. It was repressive, violent, bloody and criminal. Many were killed, most were expelled. Over a million people were turned into refugees, including almost all my mother’s family, descendants of those expelled from southern Serbia, 120 years earlier – as were many relatives on my father’s side, descendants of those who’d had to abandon the pastry shop in eastern Greece. I ended up as a refugee myself, in Macedonia. We were all victims of ethnic cleansing, and it took Nato’s intervention to reverse that.

I don’t think those supporting the Kosovo-Serbia land-swap idea aren’t aware of the risks. They just ignore the obvious. Ethnic cleansing is a crime, peaceful or not. Apart from being morally unacceptable and ultimately anti-European, the plan would also cause huge, long-term political and security instability across the entire region. If Kosovo and Serbia are allowed to swap territories and people, how could that be denied elsewhere? Many communities in the region dislike the state they live in: Serbs and Croats in Bosnia, Muslims in Serbia, Albanians in Macedonia, or even Hungarians in Slovakia and Turks in Cyprus.

That’s why many oppose the “solution” that is seemingly under consideration. In Kosovo, the land swap has been rejected by a majority of parliamentary parties as well as by the governing coalition. Kosovo’s status and borders derive from its independence in 2008, based on a plan proposed by the former Finnish president, Martti Ahtisaari. That solution was found by the international court of justice to be in accordance with the law.

The border deal is also unacceptable for many western countries – notably Germany and the UK. Angela Merkel has made clear she rejects any border changes in the Balkans. “This has to be said again and again, because again and again there are attempts to perhaps talk about borders, and we can’t do that,” she warned in August.

So the real question for the EU is this: why would Brussels even entertain the notion of supporting a plan that so deeply contradicts European values, that is rejected by European capitals, and unwanted by most people on the ground? Federica Mogherini can and should provide some answers.

 Agron Bajrami is editor in chief of Koha Ditore, Kosovo’s leading newspaper

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