Here is my former colleague (ex-ambassador to Belgrade, Dublin and Rome) Sir Ivor Roberts opining on Balkan borders:

Sir Ivor said that while multi-ethnic states might be the ideal, in practice the exchange of the Presevo Valley in Serbia for land in Kosovo north of the river Ibar might be the only way to stabilize relations between and deliver Serbian recognition of an independent Kosovo state.

Sir Ivor said the hope was that borders in the Balkans, as elsewhere, would eventually become “marks of distinction” rather than separation – but that would only happen once the various national communities felt more secure and stable within their own entities than they do now.

Addressing questions about what ethnic land swaps would mean for the rest of the region, Macedonia and Bosnia in particular, Sir Ivor said the secession from Bosnia of the mainly Serbian entity, Republika Srpska, would be hard to realize given Serbia’s own ambivalence to the idea and given the strong opposition this would arouse from Bosnia’s Bosniaks.

Sir Ivor’s first ambassadorial role was in Belgrade, when he made an FCO-wide name for himself by engaging at great length with Slobodan Milošević as the Bosnia conflict raged. His telegrams to London reporting these discussions were vivid and important. When he moved on from Belgrade he had the idea of turning them into a book called Conversations with Milošević.

This is a cheeky title. It recalls the famous book by top Titoist turned dissident, Milovan Djilas, Conversations with Stalin in which Djilas famously described his various post-WW2 meetings with Stalin over gluttonous Kremlin banquets.

It was felt in London that there was something Not Quite Right in a serving ambassador publishing his own diplomatic cables of professional discussions with a leader who was still in power but facing war crimes charges. Indeed, as the then FCO Director for that part of the world I played my own heroic part in suppressing this oddly mixed manuscript.

Still, time moves on and takes Milošević with it. So Sir Ivor has finally got his book published in English for the impressive sum of £27.03 for a hardback copy and £25.68(!) on Kindle. For that money you deserve and you get ripe #mixedmetaphors in the Amazon blurb:

Conversations with Milošević is a firsthand portrayal of the so-called Butcher of the Balkans, the Serbian president whose ambitions sparked the Bosnian conflict. At its heart the book is a portrait of an autocrat who rode the tiger of nationalism to serve his own ends and to promote those who furthered his agenda. The architect of ethnic cleansing in modern Europe, Slobodan Milošević created and sponsored two Frankenstein’s monsters, Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić, who were also indicted for war crimes.

Haha a butcher autocrat who rode a tiger to become an architect and monster-sponsor!

The original text is now updated:

Ivor Roberts analyzes the unfolding of the Kosovo conflict, which directly sowed the seeds of radicalization in Europe today. He contends that this conflict later provided a false template for the Bush/Blair administrations’ illegal invasion of Iraq: regime change under the guise of a humanitarian war.

An unfolding seed-sowing conflict that provides a template!

He further investigates how international recognition of Kosovo in the years after the conflict in breach of United Nations Security Council resolutions set a disastrous precedent for the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Hmm. Not sure about that. But he’s on safe ground in linking Kosovo to the Georgia/Abkhazia mess.

But at least the breathless blurb has been proof-read carefully.

Wait …

A posting as Minister in the Embassy in Madrid followed. Thereafter I became Charg d’Affaires and later Ambassador at Belgrade during the Bosnian civil war and the descent into war in Kosovo.

Bosnian civil war? Hmm. With Milošević and Tudjman scheming to carve up much of former Yugoslavia between Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia, maybe it was a Yugoslav civil war?

Anyway, at the book launch in London Sir Ivor suggested (as above) that territory swaps as between Serbia and Kosovo might open the way for a wider normalisation of that unhappy part of former Yugoslavia. Is that a good idea? Or a bad idea? Is it practical? Would it work?

I wrote at length about Kosovo and wider principles of borders over at Aeon in 2013, including the land-swap thought myself (emphasis added):

States either win global recognition and a flag at the United Nations, or they don’t. Kosovo is either part of a modern Serbia, or it isn’t. Once Washington, London and other capitals decided to recognise Kosovo within its Yugo-era borders — in the face of strong opposition from Moscow, Beijing and many other important power-centres — all options for a single-state solution were lost.

We could have reached into the European and global bran-tubs of precedent to find something that might work: Swiss-style cantonisation, or EU-supported power-sharing, or new ‘entities’ echoing the Dayton deal in Bosnia, or far-reaching autonomy such as Greenland enjoys under Denmark. Generous financial assistance and technical support could have launched the new deal.

Had the two sides still shown implacable unwillingness to live under one flag, we could have accepted this reality with a dash of pragmatism (usually the wisest approach) and proposed a deal that traded territorial integrity for self-determination. Kosovo would get its full independence — including recognition from Belgrade — only if some of its Serb communities were offered the option to stay in Serbia. Meanwhile, the Preševo Valley community of Albanian-speakers in Serbia might be invited to choose to join Kosovo. Both sides would be expected to make strategic compromises, with internationally supervised border adjustments reflecting the democratic wishes of the different local communities. The rest of the world would have nodded at this good sense and waited to endorse any deal that emerged.

In recent years, Serbia has floated such ideas and more. They have all met with EU and US disdain as cheap tricks to promote nasty ‘mono-ethnicity’ – as if Kosovo’s independence were not itself all about self-determination for a largely mono-ethnic Kosovo. Kosovars have no reason not to play for the maximum, and neither Europeans nor Americans use their huge leverage to challenge them. Serbia therefore falls back on Belgrade’s traditionally good ties with other key world capitals. It presses the attractive argument that, these days, it’s a wise move to see what Washington and Brussels want and to do the opposite.

Thus today’s diplomatic stalemate that divides the planet. Kosovo in effect vetoes Serbia’s European Union bid. Serbia makes it clear that, without its blessing, Kosovo won’t join the EU or the UN. This deadlock over territory and allegiance is one that the wily princes, dukes and bishops drafting the Peace of Westphalia would easily recognise.

No diplomat can be surprised that so many capitals round the world refuse to follow the clumsy lead of the US, London and Brussels on this issue. The vast majority of the countries that have not recognised Kosovo don’t care about Kosovo or Serbia.

For these countries it’s not about Balkan bickering — it’s about their own security. Yes, some minority communities want to run their own affairs. But territorial integrity underpins the way the whole world works: grave dangers come from trashing that fundamental principle in the face of serious international objections.

It’s one thing to amputate parts of your gangrenous leg yourself. It’s quite another for NATO to lunge in, wielding a rusty hacksaw. Good grief, who might be next? Syria?

Good questions.

To stop this post getting over-long, I’ll stop here. See the next one.