What about the ideas raised by Sir Ivor Roberts for Serbia/Kosovo land-swaps? How to start analysing this? Some considerations as I consider them.

First, the ‘international community’ simply does not care where Balkan borders (to be precise here, the borders between former republics and autonomous provinces of the dead Yugoslavia) are. Should any scruffy litter-strewn village full of unemployed people be on this side of the border or the other? Sorry – don’t care.

The international community does care about the way these issues are decided. No fighting! And don’t set bad precedents!

When Yugoslavia started to collapse, the world had two basic choices:

  • Take the country’s existing internal republic borders as the basis for new states, and ignore ethnic self-determination
  • Do something else

The first was chosen:

During the 1980s, while communism was collapsing across Europe, Yugoslavia’s contradictions became unbearable. Two republics — Slovenia and Croatia — played the self-determination card and broke away from the Yugoslav framework. An indignant Serbia, now led by Slobodan Milošević, deployed the Yugoslav National Army against them. Milošević argued that it was wrong to divide the country along the borders of its internal republics, borders that had (he claimed) been drawn up to disadvantage Serbs; why should Serbs living in Croatia or Bosnia suddenly find themselves minorities in these new states?

Milošević had some good points, but his willingness to use violence against his neighbouring republics repulsed those Western nations that might have accepted his logic. In any case, the international community had no appetite for rummaging around in the region’s messy history to try to negotiate new borders that gave enough self-determination to every Balkan community. Where to start? How to get eggs from an omelette?

Plumping for what looked like the easier option, western governments joined with post-communist Moscow to work out a plan based on Yugoslavia’s existing internal republics.

Why? Because EU governments plus Washington and Russia (then in the throes of the collapse of communism)  wanted to have their omelette and eat it:

Slovenia made sense as a new independent state: Slovene-speakers predominated and no one seriously disputed their historic territory. Elsewhere the situation was much less clear. The large Serb communities in both Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina wanted to stay within a national framework that included Serbia, and they had active military support from Milošević’s Belgrade. Conflict erupted, the worst of it between Bosnia’s Muslims, Serbs and Croats …

The new Bosnian constitution was a hotchpotch of ethno-territorial compromises. The state’s borders were determined by the hotly contested territorial integrity of an internal Yugoslav republic, while self-determination claims for Bosnia’s Croat and Serb communities were simply ignored. It’s not easy to make a country work when half its population reject the basis for its existence.

Eighteen years later and despite colossal financial support from the US and EU, Bosnia barely functions as a modern state.

It’s now nearly 22 years since Dayton. Bosnia is still a striking failure in so many ways. And the Serbia/Kosovo problem is unresolved, to the point that the EU itself still has no common position on whether Kosovo is an independent European state or not. If that is not diplomatic cluelessness, what is?

Back in the day, the FCO under New but Fast Ageing Labour rejected any idea of land-swaps to resolve the Kosovo issue, as did the EU. Why? Because that would be a victory for howwid reactionary ‘mono-ethnicity‘:

In Bosnia we said to the three hostile communities “Look, stop fighting! Get along with each other in a moderate way in a single state framework. No more Balkanisation!

Just down the road in Kosovo we have said “Er, oh dear, if you Albanians want to leave a democratic Serbia, who are we to stop you? Indeed, have lots of our taxpayers’ money, with very few strings attached!

Why is our former Yugoslavia policy dealing with the break-up of that modestly sized European country not based now on even minimal common sense policy consistency?

This is more a psychological than political question.

It would have been reasonable to play this one very long – to tell the Serbs and Kosovo Albanians that there would be no discussion of status until both had lifted their game and moderated their behaviour towards significant European standards as part of a shared trajectory towards full EU membership.

Or we could have accepted Reality with a small dash of Fairness (sometimes a wise approach) and said that neither side wins all of Kosovo, so the territory has to be shared somehow, eg through formalised EU-supervised power-sharing. Or negotiated border changes. Or the creation of ‘Entities’ as underpinned the Dayton outcome in Bosnia. Or maybe something based on Swiss-style cantonisation.

The Serbs have put all these ideas and more forward, drawing on Europe’s own myriad successful examples. They invariably have been treated with EU/US disdain as a cheap trick intended to promote ‘mono-ethnicity’.

More importantly, the Albanians/Kosovars have made clear that they would not respect any such nuanced approaches and indeed would simply brush them (ie us) aside. Neither Europeans nor Americans have been prepared to stand up to this blackmail. Nor have we been ready to allow Serbia to do so.

Thus it is that another notable building-block from the Versailles Treaty following WW1 finally falls away. Will independence settle the Kosovo Question? Yes. Exactly like the Versailles settlement did.

The fundamental dishonesty in all this is pretending that Kosovo/Kosova is not essentially a mono-ethnic project. Yes, there are in Kosovo as many EU-backed legal/constitutional checks and balances and minority rights and goodness knows what else as expensive EU-funded and US-funded experts can invent. Maybe more. But that’s not what Kosovo is about.

Kosovo’s claimed independence is a powerplay of self-determination by one language/ethnic community. And if self-determination is conceded to one community in a disintegrating country but not others, you get endless philosophical and political contradictions. And no stability.


Because on the level of primitive common-sense consistency, the deal is not fair. One side gets too much. Other sides get too little.

That asymmetry is also the reason for Bosnia and Herzegovina failing in its current format. The Dayton deal gave the Serbs ‘their’ own Entity, but compelled the Bosniacs and Croats to share the other Entity. Not fair.

Thus the underlying logic of Kosovo/Serbia land-swaps. If both sides agree to the principle and peacefully negotiate the footling details with international help, the outcome helps achieve a result that is crudely fair.

In effect Serbia says to the Kosovo Albanians: “OK. You win (for now). But you don’t win everything“. Kosovo in turn loses a slab of scrappy land full of Serbs, but in return gets some Albanian-speaking villages and full international recognition, including by Russia/China/India. The ensuing normalisation allows investment and some prospect of honest growth.

Put it another way. All negotiations are about Security, Resources, Control, Reputation and Time/Risk. See eg Brexit.

Land-swaps between Serbia and Kosovo give Kosovo Security and Resources; in return Serbia gets Reputation. Both sides end up with far better Control and reduced Risks.

So, in short, there is nothing whatsoever other than entrenched stubbornness in Priština and Brussels (and maybe in Belgrade too) stopping something like this happening. Nevertheless, would it be wise? What’s to stop eg Republika Srpska wanting to leave Bosnia and join Serbia, perhaps with some further land-swaps thrown in to try to appease the Bosniacs? Or Macedonia fragmenting along ethnic lines?

Perhaps not much. But what matters in all this? Is it better for the Kosovars and Bosniacs to sit for several generations in squalid underperforming failed states in the hope that eventually their better demographic profiles will compel a favourable outcome on their terms? That may or may not work (eventually is a long time), but the long-term opportunity cost in terms of lost growth and lost hopes and lives is extraordinary.

* * * * *

The machinations and precedents set by negotiated border readjustments within the former Yugoslavia space need not set any precedents for the wider world. Why should they? No-one cares what the result is, as long as there’s no fighting and grudging agreement by those directly involved.

There is a wider consideration. Namely that as this website has argued ad nauseam, international borders are an expression of shared identity, and the legal rules that flow from that. One of which being that if you cross an international border illegally, you might well suffer consequences sooner or later:

Authorities arrested hundreds of undocumented migrants in the first large-scale enforcement of Mr Trump’s executive order to take action against the estimated 11 million people living illegally in the US.

So I disagree with the first part of Sir Ivor’s reported observation:

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.

The whole point of any border is to mark ‘separation’ between different legal orders and responsibilities. Even if the legal rules on either side of a border are substantially harmonised, they remain quite separate.

But not the second part. In the former Yugoslavia case, the reality of the situation is that several million people feel that the legal and political order governing their lives is unlikely to give them a fair deal. There is simply not enough shared trust as between the different ethno/religious/linguistic communities, however hard the European Union tries to promote it. This creates endemic uncertainty, nervousness, defensiveness and so existential instability.

Meanwhile President Trump is (apparently) popular in northern Kosovo:

Election of Donald Trump as the new US President was reflected also in Kosovo, where Serbs in northern part of Mitrovica seem to have enjoyed his election. At least this is the impression after filling all towns’ billboards with his picture as a sign of support.

Who paid for all those posters?

Is Trumpism a sign that we starting to move on fast from what may come to be seen as dangerously mushy post-Cold War sentimentalism about ‘globalisation’ towards explicit if not brutish cynicism about ‘identity’ and ‘what works’? A rise in Paleoconservative beliefs and outcomes? If so, maybe dirty territorial deals will become fashionable once again, not least in the former Yugoslavia space? Ukraine too?

Tempting? Perhaps. Maybe in today’s world ‘multicultural’ societies are just too volatile and/or prey to outside meddling?

But if we start to move towards a more ‘realistic’ world where borders demarcate communities that feel a lot more like ‘nation states’, what really stops the greediest land-grabbers constantly coming back for Just a Bit More?