The Economist: The Difficulties of Exchanging Territory in the Balkans

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Bulgaria: The Economist: The Difficulties of Exchanging Territory in the Balkans

TEN years ago Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Its Albanians, who make up the majority of the population, have been celebrating. But its Serbs, most of whom live in enclaves, have not. Serbia does not recognise Kosovo, which used to be its southern province, and Kosovo Serbs still consider themselves citizens of Serbia. The situation is typical of the Balkans, where borders are, frankly, a mess. So there are Serbs living in Kosovo and in Bosnia-Hercegovina, where they have their own republic (the Republika Srpska), Albanians and Bosniaks (Muslims) living in Serbia, and Greeks living in Albania. Recently the Serbian authorities proposed a discussion about an exchange of territory with their Kosovo Albanian counterparts. Is this a sensible idea?

In 1923 Greece and Turkey agreed to exchange some 2m people. Mostly Greek-speaking Christian Orthodox citizens of Turkey were sent to Greece, and Muslims from Greece were sent to Turkey. It was a brutal relocation, but, note its defenders, Greece and Turkey have not fought a war since. The only place where Greeks and Turks have fought is Cyprus, where their populations remained mixed. This has inspired nationalists in the western Balkans. Between 1918 and the late 1950s, many Muslims were encouraged to leave Yugoslavia for Turkey. But at the time of Yugoslavia’s collapse in the 1990s it still contained a thorough mix of peoples. Leaders in those Yugoslav wars saw ethnic cleansing as the best way to create new nation-states unpeopled by troublesome minorities. By 1995 historically Serb-populated regions of Croatia were empty and hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks had similarly been turfed out of their homes in Bosnia. But the countries that emerged from the implosion did not neatly encircle Serbs, Albanians, Croats and so on. Myriad Serbs may have fled Kosovo after its war, but some 120,000 remain. 

The Serbian authorities want to discuss taking Kosovo’s northern part, with Albanian-inhabited regions of Serbia moving to Kosovo in exchange. Proponents of such “map-tidying” say that multi-ethnic states have failed in the Balkans. But they ignore the fact that, once governments start down this path, the process has no obvious end and pays no heed to the human rights of everyone involved. If Kosovo and Serbia begin serious talks about a redrawing of their borders, the impact on Balkan communities apart from those in the affected parts of Kosovo and Serbia could be profound. Bosnian Serb leaders would hold a referendum on the future of the Republika Srpska; Bosnian Croats would follow suit; and Bosniaks would then fight to prevent the dismemberment of their shared country. Over the border Serbia would clamp down on Bosniak nationalists in Sandzak who dream of incorporating that region into a Greater Bosnia. Meanwhile Albanians in western Macedonia and Montenegro would demand to join a Greater Albania. Proponents of that idea would also like to incorporate parts of northern Greece, whereas Greek nationalists would demand part of southern Albania.

One irony behind the mooted exchange is that most Kosovo Serbs actually live in enclaves in the south of Kosovo. So the agreement would not leave them living in Serbia, and they would probably have to leave their homes or else be driven out. But Serbian officials may be less concerned about their countrymen than about taking steps towards recognising Kosovo—and thus making their own hoped-for accession to the European Union (EU) easier. It may not concern them that an exchange of territories in the western Balkans could have huge ramifications. Hungarian nationalists, after all, remain unreconciled to the loss of Transylvania to Romania, and Romanian nationalists would like to redraw their borders to take in Moldova. There is a reason that “Balkanisation” has a bad name. As in the EU at large, lessening the relevance of national borders would seem wiser than redrawing them and, in the words of one senior EU official, “opening the gates to hell”.

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