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A Proposed Kosovo-Serbia Land Swap Intensifies Europe’s Integration Challenges

Though coverage of the COVID-19 crisis in Europe has focused primarily on hard-hit Western European countries like Italy and Spain, the pandemic has also brought profound political developments to the continent’s periphery. On March 25th, 2020, the parliament of Kosovo voted to remove the government, casting an uncertain shadow over the country’s political future and a proposed Kosovo-Serbia land swamp. Despite the seeming insignificance of this partially-recognized nation of 1.85 million, the recent upheaval could have profound implications for the wider Western Balkans region, and further tests European integration.

The 82 to 38 vote of no-confidence, called by the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), ousted Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s government after less than two months in power. Though the LDK was a member of the ruling coalition along with Kurti’s Vetevendosje party, it had previously disagreed with many of his policies – including, most recently, his handling of the pandemic.

The immediate reason for the vote was Kurti’s decision to fire his Interior Minister, LDK politician Agim Veliu. Veliu had expressed support for declaring a national state of emergency, which would give increased power to President Hashim Thaçi through his chairmanship of Kosovo’s Security Council. Kurti, however, had officially opposed such a declaration, and therefore saw fit to dismiss Veliu.

Prime Minister Kurti’s efforts to retain power vis-à-vis President Thaçi stem from a fundamental divergence in their approaches toward relations with Serbia. Thaçi agreed to a land swap with Serbian President Aleksander Vučić in 2018, but Kurti declined to carry out this arrangement while in office. With additional emergency powers, Kurti feared Thaçi might seize the opportunity to finally make the exchange a reality.  

Unsurprisingly, the United States has played a substantial role in this saga. In response to the original 2018 agreement, former National Security Advisor John Bolton declared that the U.S. “would not stand in the way” of a land swap, overturning a longstanding national policy of opposition to additional border changes in the Balkans. More recently, U.S. Presidential Special Envoy Richard Grenell has facilitated numerous meetings between Thaçi and Vučić, leading some to speculate that the Trump administration is actively promoting a territorial exchange.

Though Grenell has denied advocating for such a deal, his actions certainly suggest otherwise. It is particularly notable that he has operated outside of the official Belgrade-Pristina dialogue in an apparent effort to exclude the European Union, which remains firmly against any border changes. It is also telling that he has opted to primarily communicate with Thaçi, who in his normal capacity as President holds largely ceremonial powers, rather than with Kurti.

However, regardless of whether or not the U.S. explicitly supports a Kosovo-Serbia land swap, the administration’s lack of opposition to such an exchange is reprehensible enough on its own. If the deal ultimately goes forward, it will threaten the stability of the entire Western Balkans region by setting a precedent for territorial solutions to ethnic issues. In an area of the world defined by its patchwork assortment of peoples, there is no telling where such a slippery slope might lead.

Furthermore, carrying out a land swap will harm both countries long-term ambitions of European integration. The foundational logic of the EU as a political project relies on a rejection of all forms of ethnic nationalism; it comes as no surprise, then, that the bloc so firmly opposes territorial exchanges in the Western Balkan countries, whom it hopes to someday welcome into its ranks. A land swap will represent a significant setback to the EU’s relations with Serbia and Kosovo, and thus to the greater interests of all three parties.

For the time being, Kurti remains as caretaker Prime Minister in Kosovo, and no state of emergency has been called. Yet these recent developments have made clear just how sharp the political division is within the country, as well as the ways in which this division is reflected into the broader transatlantic relationship.

Fortunately, there is still time to change the future course of events. In an ideal world, the U.S. would come out and directly state its opposition to a land swap arrangement; however, this seems unlikely without a change in administration. The next best solution may be for the EU to take a more proactive role in the region. If its 27 Member States can join together and reinvigorate the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, they will have an opportunity to exert real influence on this strained bilateral relationship. If they fail to do so, they may end up standing by and watching a resurgence of ethnic conflict among their closest neighbors.

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Nick Lokker

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