European Western Balkans

Scenario: Partition as a solution for Serbia-Kosovo normalization

Hashim Thaçi, Federica Mogherini and Aleksandar Vučić; Photo: European Commission

The term “partition” in our modern political lexicon invariably conjures up images of mass displacement and population transfer. The idea that creating ethnically-homogeneous spaces, or a homeland for a given national group, is a viable solution to inter or intra-state conflict has been employed throughout recent history as the means to end an armed struggle.

The partition of the British Raj into the modern states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh was devised to end ethnically-motivated violence between Muslims and Hindus, while the division of Ireland into the Free State and Northern Ireland (which remained part of the United Kingdom) was designed to create territorial entities for Catholic and Protestant populations there.

The concept of partition is politically related to, but practically distinct from, nationalistic aspirations to secession, which assume the breaking away of one part of a given territory or state from another.

In the context of the former Yugoslavia, partition is an oft-floated concept that has been proposed numerous times over the course of the region’s turbulent political history as a means of achieving lasting peace between warring factions. Bosnia and Herzegovina has experienced a degree of internal territorial partition, and the idea that that country, and others in the region, should be divided along ethnic lines continues to loom over political and social discourse.

Partition or population exchanges have been floated periodically over the past decade but, until now, have not carried significant political weight as they were unpalatable to the international community. That having been said, the first half of the year 2018 saw a notable shift in the tone of the debate, with partition being floated as a long-term solution by high-level politicians in both Belgrade and in Prishtina.

Ambiguities in the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue process have led to what can be described as an information vacuum that has been subsequently filled with speculation as to what a partition would look like in practice. For the most part, this speculation on the part of policy analysts, politicians and opposition figures is just that; assumptions that are not necessarily grounded in reality in the sense that they are not based on concrete statements or information coming from the actors involved in the negotiations.

It is broadly understood that President Vučić of Serbia and President Hashim Thaçi of Kosovo both support partition, ostensibly as a means of reaching a final agreement and long-term solution regarding Kosovo’s status.

However, there has been little to no elaboration as to what this plan would look like or how it would be implemented in practice. Furthermore, there has been only limited public debate regarding the question of partition, and a generalised opaqueness has contributed to a growing sense of unease among both Albanian and Serb population(s) in Kosovo.

This atmosphere is fed by political elites on both sides, whose deliberately confusing terminology and rhetoric does little to shed light on the reality of the situation.

An exchange of territories, partition or “border correction” would, in all likelihood, involve at least some part of northern Kosovo going to Serbia while part of the territory of the Republic of Serbia would go to Kosovo – most likely part or all of the Albanian-majority Preševo Valley in the south of the country.

A final agreement would presumably involve Serbia to some extent recognising Kosovo statehood and withdrawing its current institutional presence in Kosovo’s internal affairs.

Kosovo’s legal framework, at least on paper, provides for broad rights for its minority communities. This applies to nearly every sphere of political, public and institutional life: the Serbian language is defined as having equal status with Albanian, political representation at the central level is guaranteed and cultural and religious heritage is protected.

Protections afforded to Kosovo’s non-majority communities are, therefore, an essential and indispensable aspect of its legal code that, if changed, would compromise the position and welfare of those populations.

The question now is what impact, if any, partition will have on the legal and political rights guaranteed by Kosovo’s constitutional and legal framework.

It has been suggested that any agreement, or package of agreements, geared at dividing up territory would presumably involve far-reaching guarantees for the protection of the Serbian community and its cultural heritage in Kosovo. However, changes to both constitutions (as the result of territorial partition) have the potential to open the door to further systematic alterations that could potentially dramatically alter the nature of the state, and therefore the status of non-majority communities within it.

If Kosovo is no longer constitutionally and legally defined as a multi-, or, rather, a non-ethnic state, then the depth and scope of rights guaranteed for non-majority communities will invariably diminish and/or disappear altogether. If Serbs comprise a smaller percentage of Kosovo’s overall population as a result of redrawn borders, then it could be argued that the current framework is unsustainable and unnecessary because Kosovo’s ethnic structure will have become increasingly homogenous in structure.

Changes to Kosovo’s legislative and constitutional framework(s) as a result of demographic shifts will bring about drastic changes in Serbs’ role in political and institutional life in Kosovo.

Alterations to the very nature of the state, coupled with Serbia’s institutional and political retreat, will contribute Serbian life being reduced to a dwindling number of enclaves. With no mechanisms to prevent legal changes, Kosovo Serbs would face pressure for assimilation. The Serbian language would, in all likelihood, lose its official status and would thus be reduced to usage in local and municipal affairs.

Furthermore, the overall legislative framework that was devised to ensure the self-determination of non-majority communities would be called into question. Serbs will therefore not only be pressured to integrate more deeply into the Kosovo system, but also to assimilate culturally and socially.

In regional terms, due to the complex ethnic structure of the (Western) Balkans and the a variety of security dilemmas, as well as the fragility of democracies in transition, the possible partition/territorial exchange between Serbia and Kosovo would most probably trigger a chain of events involving inter-ethnic and inter- and intra-state friction in the region.

A Serbia-Kosovo territorial deal could create a precedent that would stimulate nationalist leaders to justify their irredentist and separatist claims, especially when it comes to the fulfilment of the jingoistic aspirations of various ethnic groups living in former Yugoslav republics.

Judging by Balkan political leaders’ common rhetoric and demagoguery seen over the last two decades, scenarios in which these actors would utilise the tectonic changes caused by the territorial exchanges between Belgrade and Prishtina in favour of nationalistic policies are highly feasible. Without the proactive involvement of the international community in such circumstances, regional dynamics would shift to a scenario where different nationalistic agendas (regardless of their nature) would invariably become confrontational.

If past political initiatives undertaken by Balkan political leaders are considered, it would be reasonable to assume that partition would worsen an already-unstable political environment. What is certain is that key political actors from this region would exploit any sequence of events in order to achieve nationalistic goals, be they achievable or not.

In essence, this would not constitute merely a territorial exchange, but an exchange of population(s) that would result in a large-scale migration of Serbs from Kosovo and Albanians from northern Kosovo and Preševo. In essence, it would lead to more ‘ethnically-clean’ territories for both parties, thereby endangering the rights of remaining minorities in both.

In Kosovo, partition would constitute an unacceptable interruption of centuries of Serbian life in Kosovo and what amounts to a severing of the connection between Serbs (not necessarily Serbia) and Kosovo. The destruction of economic life and the departure of Serbian ‘soft’ institutions from local communities would make life there untenable for local residents, giving them further incentive to migrate to cities in central Serbia and abroad.

Furthermore, territorial exchange has the potential to destabilise an already-fragile political situation by introducing new and highly polarising fissures to public life. Although a partition agreement would, in principle, be designed to bring about a lasting peace, the practical consequences would serve to increase ethnic tensions. The newly created dynamics in ethnic relations generated by partition would only serve to endanger the delicately constructed peace achieved after the conflict of the late 1990s.

Although there is no indication that partition would spark a re-ignition of hostilities, the consequences for the legal and political rights of non-majority communities in Kosovo would constitute a threat to improvements in the relationship between Albanians and Serbs.

What is more, the partition agreed between Belgrade and Prishtina would become a precedent which would entail negative consequences for the Western Balkans. If the multiethnic character of the region is considered, it is clear that the perception of ethnic minorities within its states would change drastically.

Specifically, minority communities would become a direct threat to state sovereignty, due to the fact that they would (possibly) be empowered to seek a higher level of autonomy or, in a worst-case scenario, secession.

Authored by Miodrag Marinković, Programme Director at NGO Aktiv, Caleb Waugh, Head of Section for Practical Policy at NGO Aktiv and Igor Marković, Researcher at NGO Aktiv.

This article was originally published on the BiEPAG Blog and can be found here.

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