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Why partitioning Kosovo is a bad idea…

The author of this article is half-Palestinian, and although he never lived in the Middle East, he nevertheless feels entitled to an opinion about various peace agreements. Ditto on the most famous phrase of the conflict, the “land for peace”. In its original meaning, it stands for Israel giving up the lands occupied in the “Six-Day War”, for recognition and guarantees of peace by Arab countries and, of course, the Palestinians.

So in its most original meaning, the phrase is not applicable to Kosovo in any way (except possibly one, more on that below). And yet, the notion of doing something with the territory to finally settle the conflict comes up every now and then in the Balkan conflicts, with Bosnia and Kosovo being the most notable examples. In Bosnia, the idea was put into practice because territory appeared to be what every side in the conflict was actually after. So the Croats and the Bosniaks divided 51% between them, and the Serbs got 49% for themselves to enjoy. Getting to that point was tragic in every conceivable sense of the word – hundreds of thousands were displaced, maimed or killed, and if establishing boundaries was to end the fighting, so be it. And so it was that in 1995, when the situation on the ground during some very serious fighting reflected the 49-51 partition in terms of territory, a peace conference was called and uneasy peace forged. Bosnia today is not a model of transitional success.

Nowadays in Kosovo, separation between Kosovo Serbs and Kosovars themselves seems to be as clear as ever. Reasons for this are manifold and not a subject of this article. Nowhere is that more visible than in the North of Kosovo, a territory north of the Ibar River bordering Serbia. And it is this part of Kosovo that is most often mentioned as the part that should be partitioned. Basically, the notion goes like this: “why don’t you, Albanians, give to Serbia parts that you don’t use anyway, and be recognized in return and all your troubles will be over”.

So here the problems start: which parts of Kosovo would Serbia claim, and what would Kosovo get in return? Normally, the answer to the first question is “parts where Serbs live”, but more Serbs live in other parts of Kosovo, than in the north. So then the issue is either down to the vulgar territorial trade we’ve witnessed during the Dayton negotiations, which could involve up to a third of total territory of Kosovo, or to a possible “movement of the population” to a more compact area (this last one being considered so terrible that it is hardly ever ushered above whisper).

While still on territory, the north of Kosovo is actually important for Kosovo in several ways. It houses the Gazivode lake and the small power plant, it is a transit area for some of the major power lines, it is a rail and road route from Priština to Belgrade, or from Kosovo to Bosnia, and so on. There is also a small Kosovo Albanian minority living there, and there are more waiting to return after the conflict.

In addition, there is the “what exactly do you mean, recognized?” problem. Would it be a full, standard unconditional recognition of another state, wholly separate from Serbia, with a normal functioning border and “nothing behind that border is any of your business”? Or would it be a “you can get vehicle registrations, but no seat in the UN, you can get a dialing code, but not Interpol, you can have a border but we want a privileged access to our holy sites” etc., etc.? Questions like these keep coming up over the years, and so far there does not seem to be a meaningful answer.

Finally, there is the domino effect. From Belgrade’s perspective, there must be some who see it as not all negative, as it could (and there are at least some in Banja Luka and Belgrade who hope it would) get repeated in Bosnia with the RS. So if Serb areas in Kosovo can secede, why not those in Bosnia? The RS is already independent from Bosnia in everything but the name… Right?

However, from a somewhat wider perspective this argument gets a scary spin. Because, in that case, what is to stop the Albanians in Macedonia from asking for the same? Or the Hungarians in Vojvodina? Or the Bosniaks in Novi Pazar? Or the Albanians in the Preševo valley? Or the Greeks in Albania? Or the Turks in Greece? And the nightmare scenario in Macedonia should be enough in itself to bury any such ideas under a mountain, not to mention possibilities of territorial questions being opened in several EU and NATO countries almost simultaneously. Macedonia could be a trigger to most of those, and Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia of course know it. So like some others in other countries, they know that some instability in Macedonia could do wonders in motivating the international community attention and focus, and it has been hinted that on occasion they have used it as such. Also to consider are possible Greek and Bulgarian reactions, there is also Albania, and of course the grandmother of the Balkans, Turkey. Would all that mess be worth it? Hardly, at least from the international perspective.

Then, of course, the argument switches to a swap – Kosovo gives up Mitrovica, and receives the Preševo valley in return. With clear guarantees that this is an one-off, does not include any other countries (meaning Macedonia) etc etc. But this argument cannot even get off the ground, let alone get some traction, because Serbia would clearly not be willing to trade the Preševo valley for Mitrovica. Just ask them. The valley is much too important to Serbia in strategic terms, as the main corridor to the south. Just remember the fighting in that area, following the Kosovo war, when the Serbian government invested a lot of effort and credibility to calm the area down and keep it stably within borders. And, for what it’s worth, the Covic Plan seems to still be working many years later.

Just a word on “land for peace” comparison that might have some merit – the original UN resolution basically says to Israel: “give back the land you occupied, and you shall have peace”. The only way this could be applicable to Kosovo is if it comes from Belgrade, and with a qualifier: “give back the land that matters to us, and you shall have peace”. But this analogy has no meaning from any other point of view, so apart from being a good soundbite, the phrase can be discarded altogether when it comes to Kosovo.

It is our view that solutions for Kosovo based on territory other than the established borders will not work, at least in forms outlined above, so the solution must be sought somewhere else. That is clearly a topic for another article.

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