A Critical Examination of the Land Swap Idea: A Response to James Ker-Lindsay

19 qershor 2023 11:04

Artikulli i përkthyer.

The recent unrest in northern Kosovo has led to a renewed interest in the idea of a land swap between Kosovo and Serbia. The idea has been touted at various times, most notably during the negotiations between Thaci and Vucic in 2018, as a quick way to finalize a deal between Kosovo and Serbia.

While most suggest it would be a disaster, others have argued “peaceful ethnic cleansing” would solve the long-running dispute. James Ker-Lindsay recently resurrected the idea and proposed swapping Kosovo’s four northern municipalities for several Albanian villages in the southern part of Serbia.

Ker-Lindsay’s expertise in this specific dispute, and territorial disputes in general, mark him out as significantly more qualified than most others who have advanced this idea; nonetheless, his proposal comprises many of the same problematic features.

Challenging the “Both sides” perspective

In his analysis, Ker-Lindsay fails to acknowledge the violence perpetrated by Serbia in Kosovo. He summarises the events in the late 1990s as follows: “the Kosovo Albanians launched an armed independence campaign. Amidst growing violence peace talks were convened in early 1999”.

However, a comprehensive understanding of the current dispute between Kosovo and Serbia requires an appreciation of the historical context. Specifically, the fact that between 1989 and 1999, Serbian nationalists in power in Belgrade revoked Kosovo’s autonomous status, systematically oppressed the Kosovo Albanian population, and ultimately initiated an ethnic cleansing campaign that culminated in war.

By ignoring the state-sponsored violence inflicted upon the Albanian community, Ker-Lindsay presents a misleading picture where uninformed readers might conclude that this conflict was simply a case of violent separatists clashing with the government.

Additionally, Ker Lindsay’s analysis omits crucial details about Vucic’s past, including his disregard for human rights and press freedom in Serbia, his links with organised crime and his rejection of the recent EU-brokered peace plans.

After Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party came to power in 2012, Serbian nationalists increased their sabre-rattling and sectarian provocation. Vucic’s links with organised crime, and his assault on press freedom, human rights and democracy have all been well documented. He has also repeatedly denied that atrocities occurred in Kosovo whilst branding Kosovo’s democratically elected Prime Minister Albin Kurti as “terrorist scum”.

Kurti, by contrast, is branded as “an uncompromising nationalist hardliner” and there no mention is made of his expressed desire to sign the EU-brokered peace plan or the progress his government has made in the area of press freedom and human rights.

Albin Kurti has never endorsed sectarian violence or served in an administration engaged in crimes against humanity. Since his party came to power, Kosovo – in stark contrast to Vucic’s Serbia – has made significant progress in tackling corruption, improving press freedom and increasing respect for human rights.

Furthermore, commenting on the most recent violence in the north of Kosovo, Ker-Lindsay describes the situation as follows: “As local Serbs protested, NATO peacekeepers stepped in leading to clashes”.

This depiction is at the very least incomplete. It was not only “local Serbs” involved and “clashes” fails to do justice to the fact that the violence against KFOR was perpetrated by what KFOR spokesperson Colonel Andrea Gallieni, described as “criminal groups” who came to the protests armed with grenades and guns.

Omitting these pertinent details – whether consciously or not – creates a false impression of the events. Ultimately, it fails to situate the violence in the context of the Serbian nationalist long-running struggle to reclaim Kosovo and rid it of its Albanian inhabitants as part of a broader project to create a “Serbian world”.

Discussing a land swap without acknowledging this latter point and whilst framing “both sides” as needing to compromise, extricates the issue from its all-important context.

A Victory for Serbian Nationalism that Offers no Sustainable Solution for Peace

Ker-Lindsay argues that a land swap would constitute “a clean break”, “mark the end of any question about Kosovo’s status” and “allow Serbia to move on”. However, the idea that Serbia would “move on” after a land swap is highly unlikely.

Vucic believes Kosovo is “the cradle of Serbia” and has admitted to being “obsessed with Kosovo”. He has built his powerbase by perpetuating the notion that Serbia is besieged by enemies, historically subjected to unjust foreign interference, and ultimately destined to reclaim its stolen lands.

Should a land swap occur, he and his supporters would not settle for the four northern municipalities.

It is important to note that the majority of Serbs in Kosovo live south of the river Ibar. Therefore, their challenges and concerns – whether real or contrived – would continue to serve as an emotive totem and an excuse for interfering in Kosovo’s affairs.

Furthermore, the majority of the Serbian Orthodox Church sites in Kosovo lie outside the four northern municipalities, such as the UNESCO World Heritage sites – Decani, the Patriarchate of Pec, Gracanica and the Church of the Virgin of Levisa – as well as many other historic religious sites.

Additionally, the “Field of Blackbirds” where the 1389 battle against the Ottomans occurred, lies close to Pristina; the Gazimestan Monument to the battle is a site of major significance for Serb nationalists. These various sites outside the four northern municipalities will invariably fuel the aspirations of those who covet Kosovo.

For decades, the idea of partitioning Kosovo along ethnic lines was repeatedly rejected by Kosovo’s Western allies who argued that Kosovo’s territorial integrity was non-negotiable. A land swap now would effectively reward Serbia for its persistent intransigence and suggest that what the West says is non-negotiable today will become negotiable in the future.

Having established the principle that Kosovo’s territorial integrity is not sacrosanct, would Serb nationalists give up their campaign to regain all of Kosovo? It is highly unlikely.

19 qershor 2023

Aidan Hehir