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Kosovo and Serbia might redraw their border. Could this keep them from going to war?

- September 10, 2018
A woman sits by a grave in the village cemetery in Meja, Kosovo, on April 27. (Visar Kryeziu/AP) 

Last month, national security adviser John Bolton said the United States “would not stand in the way” of a land swap deal between Serbia and Kosovo. Recent reports suggest the two countries are close to an agreement that would resolve one of Europe’s most challenging political standoffs since the end of the Cold War.

The plan would redraw the Serbia-Kosovo partition to allow a Serbian-speaking territory in Kosovo’s north to join Serbia, while an Albanian-speaking region in Serbia’s south would join Kosovo. The stakes are high: Resolving this impasse probably would pave the way for Kosovo to gain a seat at the United Nations. And it would boost the likelihood that both Kosovo and Serbia would join the European Union and, potentially, NATO.

Bolton’s remarks are at odds with many European leaders, who have concerns that any such tinkering would be destabilizing. But could a repartition deal bring about peace? Here’s what you need to know.

Some types of partition work better than others

My earlier research on partition as a solution to ethnic civil war suggests that separating territories and ethnic groups significantly increases the chance of peace — compared with partitions that focus on territories alone. Using a World Bank data set, I looked at the 17 partitions that coincided with the end of ethnic civil wars between 1945 and 2004.

I created an index to track the degree to which partitions also separated ethnic groups involved in the conflict. This happened in only eight of the 17 partitions. Of those eight, not one experienced significant renewed violence during the first five years — a critical number because most civil war terminations experience conflict recurrence, and the risk is highest in the earliest years.

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This is an uncomfortable result for most of us who are committed to the concept of multiethnic states because it suggests that, at least for ethnic wars, one of the best ways to achieve peace may initially be through separation.

Ethnic groups after Kosovo’s partition 

How did Kosovo’s partition work out? Kosovo’s 1999 partition from Serbia (then Yugoslavia) received a midrange index score — significant minorities remained on either side of the border. As the research would predict, deadly armed violence recurred, and exactly in those regions where ethnic minorities were located, most notably in 2000-2001 in Serbia’s Presevo Valley and in 2004 in Kosovo’s Mitrovica. The latter outbreak quickly spread across the country to pockets of Serbs and other minority groups.

These clashes led to dozens killed and tens of thousands displaced, with renewed ethnic cleansing campaigns. My research suggests that, had the 1999 partition of Serbia-Kosovo been drawn to more accurately reflect the demographics in the country instead of blindly following borders established in 1947, there might have been significantly less postwar violence.

Should Kosovo be further partitioned today?

Not necessarily. Case study research I conducted on the micro-mechanisms of post-partition violence in Georgia and Moldova suggests that the causes are driven less by ethnic hatred and more by poor state capacity, which is widespread in countries after civil wars. When states manage to either maintain their state infrastructure or rebuild that capacity after conflicts, violence recurs less frequently — even when displaced minorities return to their prewar homes.

This suggests that members of ethnic groups that fought each other during a civil war can live together peacefully afterward as long as the state is sufficiently strong (whether the state has the political will to allow minority returns is a critical but different question). Ethnic hatred may be present, but violence can be reduced to a minimum — an encouraging result for postwar, multiethnic peacebuilding.

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How can Serbia and Kosovo pursue peace? 

While Presevo Valley has a majority Albanian-speaking population, Serbia has firmly controlled the territory since the 2001 Konculj Agreement, and the valley’s residents are not likely to rebel in the future without significant external support from Kosovo, an unlikely occurrence given Kosovo’s foreign policy goals of integration into the European Union and NATO. While the Albanian minority may prefer to live under Kosovar rule, most are likely to continue working peacefully with Serbia as long as Serbia’s state institutions remain strong.

This suggests it’s logical for Presevo Valley to remain within Serbia. Handing control of this peaceful region over to Kosovo now could lead to destabilizing violence as Serb security forces withdrew and Presovo’s minority groups — including more than 15,000 Serbs — probably fled.

Kosovo’s northern Mitrovica from the Ibar River up to the border with Serbia is a different story. That territory is almost exclusively Serb-speaking and has been effectively independent from Kosovo since 1999 — a de facto partition. Although the 2013 Brussels Agreement has taken steps to integrate the region into Kosovo, including placing the north’s security forces formally within a single Kosovo police force, the region is ethnically segregated and functions autonomously. Ethnic Serbs still control the region’s security.

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Reintegrating that area into Kosovo today could only be done by force, and this probably would lead to mass violence if the Kosovo government attempted to control or drive out quasi-state Serb security forces. Serbia would almost certainly support the enclave in such a conflict, either openly or informally — a scenario perhaps similar to Russia’s support of eastern Ukraine today.

One way to maintain peace would therefore be for Kosovo to cede formal control of the region to Serbia, accepting the partition that has already occurred in all but name. If this could be completed in exchange for Belgrade’s recognition of Kosovo, the chance of long-term peace would be even higher.

Critics of border changes argue that doing so risks “opening up a Pandora’s box of new challenges throughout the region.” But this position fails to appreciate the international community’s ability to accept inconsistent positions without causing instability. The same risks, for instance, were noted when dozens of countries lined up to recognize Kosovo’s independence in 2008 while denying that same right to Republika Srpska, a region with separatist ambitions within Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yet no instability ensued.

Changing the Kosovo-Serbia border may bring about much debate, but it need not open the door to further changes elsewhere.

Carter Johnson is an associate professor of political science at the National Research University — HSE in Moscow. He is finishing a manuscript titled “When Partition Works: Dividing Lands and Peoples in the Pursuit of Peace.”