The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Further Balkanizing the Balkans is a recipe for disaster

European Council President Donald Tusk, left, and Serbian President Aleksander Vucic in April. (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

When it comes to the future of the Balkans, the discourse is slowing leaning toward proposing new divisions in the region — which is a recipe for geopolitical instability.

Discreetly, Serb and Albanian political leaders have been exploring the possibility of sorting out their differences using territorial swaps. The idea of sorting out divisions through exchanging territories has been circulating in Belgrade for years, but lately, it seems to have acquired traction in leading Albanian circles, as well.

The idea is certainly not new, but it was dangerous in the past and remains so in the present. Serbia’s strongman Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s leader Franjo Tudjman conspired in the early 1990s to divide up Bosnia between them. But the international reaction put a stop to those plans.

But so far, the policy of both the European Union and the United States has been very clear: The borders that were there in old Yugoslavia should remain in place, and solutions should be sought within them. To further Balkanize the Balkans is to open the region up for further conflict and bloodshed.

The Kosovo predicament remains one of the most difficult of the issues in the region. It wasn’t sorted out by the 1999 NATO intervention, nor by the 2008 recognition of Kosovo as an independent state by a large number of nations. As long as there isn’t a normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, the issue will limit the potential of both countries and the stability of the region.

And that’s why the idea of new territorial divisions have emerged again. There could be different versions of such schemes. Kosovo could cede the area north of the river Ibar, inhabited almost exclusively by Serbs, and then gain diplomatic recognition, and possibly also gain some predominately Albanian inhabited localities in Southern Serbia.

Serb President Aleksander Vucic has been thinking along some of these lines, and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama seems to have been receptive as well, as told to me in conversation.

Lately, strong opposition to these ideas has emerged from the Serbian Orthodox Church and its leadership in Kosovo. They argue that a division of this sort will be a betrayal of the Serbs living in Kosovo south of the river Ibar and in all probability will lead to a complete ethnic cleansing of the area, with threats also to the historic Orthodox monuments in the area. Of the remaining Serbs in Kosovo, the majority lives south of the Ibar.

These fears are undoubtedly well founded. A territorial swap would likely be followed by a population swap to create ethnically homogeneous territories. While some claim that this might pave the way for more stability, eventually including a greater union between and coming together of Albania and Kosovo, this is hardly likely.

Apart from the controversial details in the immediately affected countries (and the fact that it would be difficult to implement), it would risk opening up a Pandora’s Box of new challenges throughout the region. It could reopen the debate over the future of Bosnia. Hardliner Bosnian Serb leaders will certainly welcome the opportunity.

And then there is the even more difficult and dangerous issue of Macedonia, where Albanians are a substantial part of the population. If the Albanian areas of the wider region start coming together also through a process of territorial swaps, there will certainly be those asking why this should not apply to Macedonia as well. That would seriously be playing with fire.

There are those in Brussels and Washington who might say that if the leaders in the region agree on an exchange of territory between Serbia and Kosovo, why should we have any objections? Especially if it includes the establishment of full diplomatic relations? But such an attitude is dangerous. At a time when all attention should be put on promoting stability, turning the other way on these issues is to invite turmoil in the decades ahead.

A compromise must undoubtedly be found between Belgrade and Pristina, Kosovo, to further the European and Atlantic integration ambitions of both countries. This might well include a greater degree of decentralization to Serb parts of Kosovo and could mean admitting Kosovo into the United Nations as well. It has been more than five years since the E.U. brokered an agreement indicating a path toward normal relations between the two countries but since then, E.U. and U.S. diplomatic efforts have faded. As a consequence, the inclination to divide has returned to the region, which has already Balkanized too much.

This is dangerous, and both Washington and Brussels should wake up to the risks. Gradual integration for Serbia and Albania in E.U. and NATO, all on the basis of existing borders and boundaries, is the only way toward enduring stability in the region. Playing with borders and divisions in the Balkans was dangerous in the early 1990s, and remains so now.