My previous post rehearsed some of the existential issues about the Serbia/Kosovo problem and mooted the idea of tweaking borders to help achieve a deal.
Let’s look at this in more detail. Factors to bear in mind as my mind in-bears them.
Where to draw lines?
Post-WW2 Yugoslavia had six republics and two ‘autonomous provinces’ within one of those republics (Serbia). That arrangement for the Yugoslav space was imposed by Tito’s communists after WW2. It was very different from how Yugoslavia had been organised between the Wars, namely a succession of changes intended to reflect or not ‘ethnicity’.
Tito’s communists did things differently. Here is a simple explanation of their approach:
The process was not democratic, but the matter was very carefully considered by the executive of the ruling Communist Party. In the event, the borders between the republics and provinces were drawn largely along ethnic and/or historical lines and defined in Yugoslavia’s 1946 Constitution.
In words of the then Vice-President of Yugoslavia, Milovan Djilas, they represented “logical conclusions based on human geography, with regions grouped according to their ethnic majority and shared political heritage”.
In other words, the ‘borders’ between the republics and provinces were ad hoc compromises imposed by Tito’s communists for their own reasons. They lasted until Yugoslavia collapsed so had some acquired operational legitimacy for local people, but no a priori legitimacy – down the centuries Balkan borders have ebbed and flowed, and this was just one new way to do it.
When Yugoslavia started to collapse, the world had a problem. If new states were to emerge, within which borders should they be recognised? There were three basic options:
- Recognise new states only within existing ‘internal’ borders, and let ethnic rivalries play themselves out within them (see also USSR)
- Negotiate a wholesale realignment of borders to try to match the locals’ own expectations
- Negotiate some borders but not others, where a negotiation looked essential to create a durable result
The first option was proclaimed:
The world watched in alarm. What to do? Create new smaller states based on the internal Yugoslav borders, drawing a parallel with the approach taken for the former Soviet Union? Or somehow try to negotiate new borders that took better account of Yugoslavia’s confusing ethnic map?
With the European Union to the fore, it was agreed to base international recognition of new states in the former Yugoslavia on the former internal republic borders. This seemed both principled in itself and the simplest way forward in a messy situation: how to begin to negotiate new borders in that angry, divided part of Europe?
Cheap! Easy! Principled! What could go wrong?
That policy has lasted for nearly 30 years after the initial ruinous conflicts. Communist Yugoslavia had six republics, and two ‘autonomous provinces’, Kosovo and Vojvodina, within one republic (Serbia). All six republics are now fully recognised independent states and members of the United Nations. One autonomous province, Vojvodina, remains within Serbia.
The problem is the other autonomous province, Kosovo. After serious conflict and NATO intervention against Belgrade, Kosovo is now recognised as an independent state by 111 UN member states, but not by India, Russia, China, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Spain, Romania and many others.
Those countries that do not recognise Kosovo each have their reasons for their position. The key unifying idea is that they do not accept that part of state A can break away to create a new state B without state A’s consent, the more so if (arguably illegally) NATO can enter the fray and help undermine state A’s integrity.
Serbia blocks Kosovo’s UN membership. Kosovo effectively blocks Serbia’s EU membership. The stand-off drags on, making each side poorer than it needs to be.
Why rule out Balkan territory-tweaks?
If (as we demand) Balkan leaders have to take responsibility for their respective countries’ futures, why not treat them like consenting adults and let them tweak borders if they want to?
“HELL NO!” says the EU. “This amounts to dangerous un-European ‘mono-ethnic partition!’”
This rings hollow, given that the whole break-up of Yugoslavia and then Kosovo’s break from Serbia was all about mono-ethnic partition in different forms. Most of Europe’s own borders have ‘mono-ethnic’ origins.
In any case, if Serbia and Kosovo both join the EU as we and they say is their strategic goal, their respective citizens can live and work where they want anyway. Why exactly do borders and where exactly they run ‘matter’ in this wider context? ‘Natural’ local inter-mingling should eventually dissolve any concerns about high principle?
If we primly principled Europeans have to pay the price of dropping flat-out opposition to Balkan border adjustments to help both sides make essentially symbolic concessions as the basis for a deal, isn’t that a cheap price worth paying to get Western capitals and Russia/China/India all back on the same policy page in the region?
What’s important in all this. What matters?
Here’s what matters! The much harder argument worrying many states in Europe and beyond is that fiddling with the borders of Serbia sets a fat ‘common sense’ precedent for fiddling with other borders in the region, and above all the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina. If unhappy Kosovar Albanians can break from Serbia, why can’t unhappy Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats break from Bosnia?
The hapless Bosniacs lose once again! Islamophobia! And what about the wider precedent set? You’re incentivising ethnic obduracy and obnoxiousness. OMG DOMINOES!
One strong legal and political rejoinder is that (if/when a Serbia/Kosovo divorce agreed by Serbia/Kosovo happens) the world’s states will all be recognising that divorce only because both Serbia and Kosovo have consented.
If Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole does not accept any would-be breakaway by (say) Republika Srpska, that breakaway won’t be recognised by the civilised world. This means that the Bosniacs as the largest community within Bosnia and Herzegovina have a legal and political veto on any breakaway bids by the Bosnian Serbs. Plus, of course, for the EU to accept any eventual Serbia/Kosovo deal Serbia will have to promise solemnly not to try anything on in Bosnia.
The Spanish government flatly refused to accept Catalonia’s bid for independence. Not one state anywhere in the world supported Catalonia. Catalonia is left looking forlorn and isolated. A glum precedent for the tricksy Mr Dodik in Republika Srpska and his Moscow allies to ponder.
Hmmm. Is that enough?
Won’t the Republika Srpska leadership exploit a Serbia/Kosovo deal to manoeuvre indefinitely to make even more tenuous the formal arrangements holding Bosnia and Herzegovina together? Or perhaps the Bosnian Croats will demand that they too have an Entity within Bosnia – more divisions!
WE DON’T NEED MORE BALKANISATION IN THE BALKANS.
True. But we DO need arrangements that meet the reasonable expectations (and deal with the reasonable concerns) of people who live there. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s arrangements as per Dayton are in principle unbalanced and unwise: why organise a state with three core communities in two ‘Entities’?
What’s the Yugoslavia Problem basically about?
Very broadly speaking, the Yugo-Balkans has two great rivalries:
East/West: Serbs v Croats v Muslims/Bosniacs
North/South: Serbs/Slavs v Albanians
It’s no coincidence that Belgrade is the ‘pivot’ for settling all these issues, if they can in fact ever be ‘settled’. The Serbs and Serbia represent the largest part of Yugoslavia and so are directly involved in both rivalries. The Western part of the international community lost patience with Serbia because of Milošević and his insane levels of inat. But not everything Belgrade says is objectionable just because Milošević said it.
Thus, the Question of Questions
What if there is a deal between Serbia and Kosovo involving mutual territory tweaks and other crafty compromises (special ‘extraterritorial status of some sort for Serb monasteries, acknowledgement of Serbia property claims in Kosovo etc)? Can Belgrade be trusted not to break up Bosnia, either by actively encouraging Republika Srpska to break away or by sighing sadly if it does break away and joining it to Serbia?
Can we in fact stop other dominoes toppling over?
Or are those dominoes inherently precarious – and in the wrong place?
Is there one and only one ‘natural’ result for the Balkan space:
Greater Albania (most Albanians under one roof)
Greater Croatia (most Croats under one roof)
Greater Bulgaria/Macedonia (Bulgarians/Macedonians under one roof)
Some Bosnia (all Bosniacs/Muslims under one roof – the Muslim/Bosniac areas of Bosnia with some added Muslims/Bosniacs from Serbia’s Sandžak area and Montenegro)?
In other words, a wholesale negotiated package of border adjustments as originally ruled out back in the early 1990s, but with all states getting/giving some territory as the basis for joining the EU space in a way that provides sustainability in the form of region-wide popular buy-in and so credible legal guarantees for minority rights etc.
* * * * *
Look at all the dreary ‘theory’ of international relations such as Realism.
How to apply it to this confusing messy never-ending Balkan area where so many issues are existential/psychological?