Skip to content

A Land Swap in the Former Yugoslavia Must Be Considered

The dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s marked the worst bout of bloodshed seen in Europe since the Second World War. The continued tension between Serbia and Kosovo is one of the last remaining major conflict in the Western Balkans. Since Kosovo declared independence in 2008, Serbia has claimed Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia, though Kosovo operates as a de facto independent state. As a part of ongoing talks over this issue, officials from Belgrade and Pristina have recently floated the idea of a “land swap” between Serbia and Kosovo as a means to get closer to peace. While there are serious risks, this land swap should be considered seriously as it has the potential of creating a lasting peace between Serbia and Kosovo.

Image courtesy of PANONIAN, © 2012

In the land swap proposal, Serbia would give up land that has a majority Albanian (the dominant ethnic group in Kosovo) population, while Kosovo would give up an equal sized region with a majority Serb population. This proposal has been met with a mix of outright opposition and cautious support from the general population and world leaders. Much of the opposition stems from fears of renewed conflict between Serbs and Albanians and a general reluctance to change borders based on ethnic populations. The fear of renewed ethnic violence in the Balkans is well founded. The region is still politically in flux, which creates a great deal of social and political instability. Croatia has recently joined the European Union, following Slovenia. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Greece have recently reached an understanding on the name of the FYROM. There is still tension within Bosnia between the Bosnian population and the Serb population of the autonomous Republika Srpska. Also, of course, there is the tension over the status of Kosovo.

There is always a chance that whatever peace proposal is produced, radical elements, such as ultranationalists seeking revenge for past grievances, within Serbia and Kosovo will restart violent conflict. However, this is no reason to discount or discard the land swap proposal. The prospect of a lasting peace between Belgrade and Pristina, including Belgrade’s recognition of Kosovo’s existence, is more vital to the long-term state of the region than attempting to prevent radical elements from instigating hostilities that could be contained within a matter of months.  The fear of violence now is a short-term concern that is blocking consideration of a long-term solution that would lead to sustained peace between the two. If the status quo is unacceptable, then something needs to change.

Furthermore, finalizing Kosovo’s international status, and normalizing its relations with its immediate neighbor, Serbia, would allow Kosovo’s economy to grow in a way that it cannot now due to the ongoing dispute with Serbia. A land swap could allow both nations to focus on the internal state-building necessary for both to become prosperous, or at least better off than they are now.

Some of the opposition to the land swap comes from the belief that peace can be better achieved by having the populations learn to get along in the name of pluralism, instead of changing the present borders. This is a worthy cause, and one that underpins many of the modern Western states. A more pluralistic society in the former Yugoslavia would help ease ethnic tensions in the region. While not specific on how to promote pluralism, some Western leaders have stated that changing the borders now would only reopen wounds and promoting pluralism is the better way forward.

However, this land swap proposal would do nothing that hasn’t already been done in the region or elsewhere in the world. National borders are not set in stone, and the present borders in Yugoslavia were drawn with some ethnic considerations in mind. Kosovo’s very existence is contingent upon its reality of an Albanian majority region that was violently oppressed by the Serb majority within Serbia. Furthermore, it is difficult to develop the kind of pluralism that Western leaders are advocating for when the status quo is unstable in that Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as an independent and sovereign state. As long as Serbia claims dominion over Kosovo, neither state will be able to fully move past the violence of the independence war.

It is shortsighted to claim that the borders cannot be changed now, after everything that has happened. Strict promotion of pluralism in the region and the fear of renewed violence are only serving to keep Serbia and Kosovo from considering a path that could lead to the elusive goal of peace. Pluralism will come naturally to the children of Yugoslavia, as it has in Western societies. However, they must first be allowed to mutually exist without claiming one another’s territory. As such, the status quo, which only serves to keep Serbia at odds with Kosovo, needs to change. Changing the borders now, while admittedly controversial, will only be a continuation of the process that started in the 1990s and is still ongoing to this day. If it is to come to a peaceful conclusion, Serbia and Kosovo must be allowed to consider this land swap that could lead to a lasting and stable peace.


John Ashley

John Ashley was the 2017 YPFP Nuclear Security Fellow; he holds a Master of International Policy degree from the University of Georgia, where his studies concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation, export controls, and international security. John also holds a B.A. in History from the University of Georgia, and wrote his thesis on the Great War in Africa. His career goal is to work on the committee staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Posted in

Leave a Comment