The COVID-19 pandemic has engendered an opportunity to reinitiate discussions regarding the controversial redrawing of borders along ethnic lines between Kosovo and Serbia.
Right when the COVID-19 crisis reached Kosovo, its government fell.
The Parliament ousted Prime Minister Albin Kurti in a vote of no confidence. The pretext was that he refused to enact a state of emergency that would legally justify the restrictive measures he had put in place in order to curb the Coronavirus outbreak.
Kurti claims he was concerned about transferring the government powers to the Security Council chaired by President Hashim Thaci. Yet Kurti added that his concern was less about the coronavirus threat, and more about his fear that Thaci would use the powers given by the new act to conclude a controversial deal with Serbia to redraw Kosovo’s borders along ethnic lines. In the weeks that followed, the deal seemed set to become reality.
There is reason for Europe to take this seriously, as it may well become a defining moment for nation-states in Europe. The question of redrawing borders underlines a larger crisis of the nation-state in which ethnic minorities play a key role. In some cases, the presence of large ethnic minorities has been perceived as a legitimate factor in the demarcation of borders. Yet it has also been used as a claim to legitimise ethno-territorial fantasies that brought the Western Balkans to war in the 1990s.
Although governments aim to present their borders as stable, the ideological nation-state is in flux, and nationalism is swiftly evolving across Europe. Amidst rising populist sentiment and ensuing xenophobia, ethnic difference is increasingly presented as a problem for the nation-state. If the fall of the nation-state has been predicted already, the pandemic crisis has only served to highlight and amplify its centrality in debates over the future of Europe by now rendering it a crucial component of public discourse. While the grave health and economic consequences of the Pandemic persist, the rapid political shifts that resulted from it can bring about structural changes that will be felt for decades to come, and have implications for Europe as a whole.
The pandemic crisis has only served to highlight and amplify the centrality of the nation-state in debates over the future of Europe by now rendering it a crucial component of public discourse.
The Kosovo-Serbia dialogue has remained in a stalemate for quite some time, with Brussels hesitating to take any decisive action. However, to address lingering tensions in the Kosovo-Serbia relationship, Europe must also look at its own complex history in relation to ethnic minorities and nationalism. Moreover, it also needs to learn from recent history in order to keep a very volatile situation under control.
Pandemic of discord: could it bring about ethnic borders in Europe?
Prime Minister Kurti and President Thaci had long disagreed on a proposal for territorial exchange as part of a potential Kosovo-Serbia final peace settlement. Kurti was worried Thaci would seize the opportunities offered by the COVID-19 Pandemic to move forward with this deal.
While the specifics of such a land swap are largely unknown, Thaci’s statement in 2018 announcing the proposal suggested it would unify Albanian majority areas in southern Serbia with Kosovo. In return, Serb majority areas in northern Kosovo would be united with Serbia.
The thought of redrawing borders along ethnic lines led thousands to protest in Kosovo’s capital Prishtina. Given the EU’s acquiescence on the matter, several civil society groups in Kosovo and Serbia, as well as former highrepresentatives to Bosnia sent open letters to then-EU High Commissioner Federica Mogherini, urging her to oppose the deal. For the past two years, the issue has galvanised intense public debate, particularly after it was revealed that the Kosovo government had in 2019 commissioned a Paris-based company to lobby in favour of a land swap.
Given the controversy, President Thaci later reframed his proposal with the more palatable framing of “border correction” (supposedly modeled on similar agreements between Belgium and the Netherlands) and promised that there would be no demarcation along ethnic lines. In promoting the proposal, he adopted a language grounded in liberal democratic values, speaking of normalization, reconciliation and the “preservation of a multiethnic spirit,” in line with EU aspirations. However, the ambiguity and complete lack of transparency of the proposal’s contents, as well as lack of concerted efforts to consult public opinion, has done little to diminish concerns.
The EU, given its prominence in the process, needs to be particularly wary of the risks of setting an ethnopolitical precedent in the Western Balkans.
The prospect of a final settlement between Kosovo and Serbia looks to be dictated by circumstance. The Trump-administration, eager for a foreign policy win, offered to host talks between Thaci and President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic in the White House on June 27th.
That is, until June 24th when Thaci was indicted for war crimes by the Special Prosecutor’s Office in the Hague, prompting the cancellation of the talks.
The timing was not an accident. The Court stated that Thaci was suspected to have made efforts to obstruct the work of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, and feared Thaci would attempt to negotiate amnesty for himself as part of a settlement with Serbia, as well as to overturn the law establishing the Court.
The EU now looks set to once again take charge of the dialogue, and has announced it will host a series of talks beginning with its Paris Summit in July 2020. To ensure that the Pandemic is not used as a pretext to rapidly conclude a final settlement between Kosovo and Serbia, it is imperative to critically address the EUs approach to peace and state building in line with its perspective on multiethnic states and minority rights. This is particularly urgent given its acquiescence to border change, and in light of what appears to be a race towards a final settlement for Kosovo and Serbia.
The Pandemic has facilitated conditions in which a democratically elected prime minister could be ousted, without proper opportunity for the governing party to elect a new prime minister. Social distancing measures complicated the opportunity to hold a snap general election and limited protests. This has not gone unnoticed in Europe. 15 European MPs signed an open letter urgently warning against “using the extraordinary situation caused by the Pandemic for political maneuvers that can damage the country, its reputation and the path to democracy and freedom.” It specifically called on political leaders to “waive the rapid signing of an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo if it threatens to risk the stability of the region (…) especially the case if the agreement provides for ethnic-geographical exchange of land between countries.” It concluded that any agreement must have public support and strengthen rule of law and democracy “beyond ethnic borders.”
Now is the time for the EU to take decisive action. Changes brought on by emergency measures enacted during the Pandemic may well affect the political landscape of Europe for years to come.
History has shown there are reasons to take this moment seriously. A state of emergency in the Western Balkans has through its history been used for political purposes. At times this has had dire consequences. Former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who initiated a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Western Balkans in the 1990s seized on the opportunity of a state of emergency, and under the authority of the latter, captured power legally. When protests had erupted over proposed amendments to strip Kosovo of its autonomy, Milosevic declared a state of emergency. This allowed him exceptional authority to amend the Yugoslav constitution and return governing power over Kosovo to Belgrade. Amidst the Pandemic, governments in Russia, Poland and Hungary have all taken advantage of the current state of emergency to acquire greater powers internally.
The EU, given its prominence in the process, needs to be particularly wary of the risks of setting an ethnopolitical precedent in the Western Balkans. This extends beyond the Balkans – given Russia’s assertion of its right and obligationto protect Russian ethnic minorities everywhere, the EU may find itself inadvertently endorsing ethno-territorial claimssuch as that of Russia to parts of Ukraine, Moldova, The Baltics and Central Asia.
A future for the (multiethnic) state?
EU officials and academics have warned that redrawing borders along ethnic lines may open old wounds and cause ripple-effects across the Western Balkans and the EU itself. Ethnic tensions are not solely a Balkan issue. Underlying the rise of far-right nationalism in Europe today is fear, anger and hatred of a particularly ethnic character: grounded in xenophobia and a belief that ethnically different groups cannot coexist in peace. Despite efforts to foster diverse and multi-ethnic identities across the European Union, large ethnic minorities continue to be perceived as threats to the nation-state.
Even the more moderate of views tend to consider mono-ethnic groups as politically and culturally homogeneous, as if in a natural and inherent manner. Ethnic homogeneity, thus, is believed to ensure higher levels of social and political trust and thereby easier to govern within the framework of a nation-state.
Preached in this belief, tangible solutions to disentangle Kosovo’s ethnic apartheid system have been sparse and uncreative. Establishing concrete benchmarks and demonstrating tangible progress on minority rights is a precondition for EU membership. However, proposals for Kosovo’s Serbian minority have fallen little short of segregation. Addressing the internal biases that may be leading all parties into a stalemate on this issue is indispensable, as lack of progress in this field has been the major cause of dialogue impasse.
Despite efforts to promote civic identities that embrace ethnic diversity, the EU has tended to accept that ethnicity has clear borders and boundaries.
The EU’s approach in the Western Balkans tends to see ethnic identities as inherently problematic. This is consistent with theories of ethnic nationalism that characterise ethnic identities as intolerant, irrational and xenophobic.
The EU’s Enlargement process attempts to make ethnic identities less salient, for instance by encouraging ethnically inclusive national symbols: a multi-ethnic flag asserting its EU-future and a national anthem called “Europa” without any lyrics – so as to respect Kosovo’s multiethnic nature. Across Europe and its neighbourhood, the EU has sought to promote civic national identities, considered liberal and inclusive, based on solidarity, democracy and political legitimacy.
Concurrently, ethnic identities are protected and empowered under universal values that lay the foundations for minority rights, as set forth in the EU’s accession criteria. While civic identities, in theory, should be permissive of ethnic identities, the result is an, at times, confused and contradictory approach: striving simultaneously for multiethnic coexistence that promotes and preserves ethnic identities, and for a unified civic national identity that attempts to make ethnic identities less salient.
Prospects for progress are not helped by the EU’s chronic lack of enthusiasm for the Western Balkans. Despite efforts to promote civic identities that embrace ethnic diversity, the EU has tended to accept that ethnicity has clear borders and boundaries. From this view, the conclusion is that ethnic relations need to be managed in a way that assumes the permanence of ethnic identities. A reading of Kosovo’s history, as presented by historian Noel Malcolm (who explores myths and facts of both Kosovo Albanian and Serbian histories), demonstrates that culture has been in constant flux since records began.
Instead of building resilient structures to protect against government neglect and mismanagement; instead of empowering civil society to come up with sustainable solutions permissive of multiple and transcendent identities and the evolution of these over time- such as desegregating the school system, facilitating multiethnic history exchanges, or to question how minority communities may have come to shape their own distinct culture- institutionalizing a framework for minority rights has failed to surpass ethnic segregation.
Transforming the process
The EU holds a key responsibility in supporting Kosovo to develop an approach to minority rights that avoids entrenching ethnic divides into its political system. Abandoning the all-stakes, high level, trickle-down approach of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue in place of a transformative multi-level and bottom-up approach that makes governing officials accountable to their citizens- would make Kosovo more resilient against circumstantial political disruption and vigilant against officials using their positions to ensure their own impunity over people’s interests.
If the EU remains uninterested and inactive, it may end up with an unprecedented problem on its borders and, if a land swap is agreed to, risk endorsing a precedent with dire consequences.
Commissioning an expert group of local and international academics, researchers, EU officials, politicians and policy-makers, students and civil society groups to develop a comprehensive, sustainable, and resilient framework for minority rights that holds governments accountable to the protection of rights and interests, and ensures minority representation in political institutions – could pave the way for sustainable peace and resilient, democratic institutions. The EU can do this by also opening up its own preconceptions of ethnic difference for debate.When it looked as if the US would take over the dialogue and negotiate a final settlement, it was a wake-up call for the EU. Now that the EU is back in the driver seat, it can use the opportunity of the talks to transform the dialogue’s format and put agency back in the hands of citizens, as well as to begin the process of putting options on the table that are centred on citizens’ interests. This is even more important given the risk of rapid political shifts spurred on by emergency measures enacted under the guise of the Pandemic. The EU needs to ensure that the dialogue is accountable to citizen interest by complimenting the high-level talks with formal and informal dialogues with mid-level leaders and civil society. The EU needs to establish guidelines and evaluate emergency measures on a case-by-case basis, and keep in mind its history in the Western Balkans. If the EU remains uninterested and inactive, it may end up with an unprecedented problem on its borders and, if a land swap is agreed to, risk endorsing a precedent with dire consequences.