How Lessons of Balkan Wars Apply to Today’s Kosovo Dispute
Now that the agenda of the upcoming “high-level” talks between Belgrade and Pristina is gradually taking shape, it becomes clear that the dispute is not going to be limited to the Kosovo problem. Rather, the Kosovo Albanians intend to cover with a much wider “Albanian issue” the bulk of the Albanian-populated territories across the Balkans… Pristina will push for the focus of the debates to shift to the situation in Serbia’s southern regions with ethnically mixed population – Preševo, Medveđa, and Bujanovac – to which Albanians refer as the Preševo Valley or even East Kosovo. Evidently, in the process Belgrade will face threats that its cherished Eurointegration bid would meet with a new wave of resistance unless the Serbs give in to the pressure.
Kosovo deputy premier Hajredin Kuçi recently went public with the plan, saying that Hashim Thaci’s government would not discuss options to normalize the relations with Belgrade without the interests of the Preševo Valley Albanians being taken into account. Kuçi stressed that Kosovo would seek more favorable terms for Albanians in the three regions of southern Serbia, adding that the Preševo Valley should be a subject of the Belgrade-Pristina dialog supervised by the EU and that, in his view, only such inclusive approach would serve to set the relations between Kosovo and Serbia straight or to achieve peace and stability in the region.
So far, the Kosovo administration is not voicing outright demands to tailor the region’s borders, but, if the Albanian plan goes through, the issue of the Albanian communities resident in southern Serbia would be reopened under the EU oversight for the first time since the 2000 mutiny staged by the so-called Liberation Army of Preševo, Medveđa and Bujanovac. At that time the Albanians in the area did not consider switching to the Kosovo jurisdiction, but these days the idea is being increasingly adopted by the leaders of the Balkan Albanian communities. The corresponding ideology was born in the spring of 2011 at the Gnjilane conference attended by envoys of the Kosovo administration and the Preševo Valley authorities including the municipal president of Preševo and Albanian Democratic party head Ragmi Mustafa and president of the local assembly in Bujanovac Ionuz Musliu. The conference resolution called for a “return” of the Preševo Valley to Kosovo based on an internationally supervised “popular referendum”. To implement the design, Mustafa further suggested a territorial swap between Serbia and Kosovo giving Serbia the Serb-populated Northern Kosovo and Kosovo – the three heavily Albanian provinces of southern Serbia.
Over the past years, the Kosovo leaders tended to be cautious regarding the matter but never ruled out a territorial swap which would both earn them territorial gains and spare Pristina the headache of dealing with the defiant Serbs who live in the northern part of the province. Kosovo assembly president Jakup Krasniqi says Pristina might agree to the swap provided that it gets territorial compensations – areas carved out of the adjacent regions – as, allegedly, Albanians’ interests had been damaged in the Balkans more than anybody else’s.
With the electoral campaign in Kosovo spinning off and the socioeconomic settings across the province leaving much to be desired, the theme of wider Albanian interests is likely to be exploited with ever greater intensity. Albin Kurti’s radical Vetëvendosje! (Self-Determination) movement is the only political force in Kosovo to improve scores in the dire settings, and the program espoused by Kurti, starting with the merger of Kosovo into Albania, a few lines down cites other aspects of the perceived Albanian issue – in Macedonia, the Preševo Valley, Montenegro, and Greece.
Overall, the above combines into a completely new disposition – if the Kosovo delegation at the talks manages to make the theme of the Albanian communities in the south of Serbia – or, moreover, of the territorial swaps – integral to the agenda, the EU would have to take a stance on every element of the position. Since the days of the Contact Group, the international community’s policy on Kosovo used to be premised in the assumption that it should neither be partitioned nor appended to any of the region’s countries. Originally, the principles were supposed to help draw Pristina into the Vienna talks with Belgrade, but if Kosovo rejects the approach, Brussels and Washington would be presented with a serious problem. According to the Kosovo media, consultations with the EU over the agenda of the talks continue at the moment and the EU preferences are undefined.
In the context, important opportunities arise for Serbia. If Pristina expands the scope of the negotiations to touch upon the Preševo Valley, Belgrade should be prepared to respond by spelling out an ambitious conflict resolution program irreducible to a series of technical deals. Putting it on the table, the Serbs would be able to initiate an enormously more meaningful debate on the unfinalized character of the entire patchwork of Balkan statehoods, with the taboo removed from the problems of Bosnia and Macedonia. The first step could be to bring up the possibility that Belgrade should maintain special relations with the Kosovo Serbs – similar to those Pristina already appears to have with the Preševo Valley Albanians. The concept behind the blueprint should not be hard to grasp.
Therefore, fairly strong arguments can be invoked to counter the view expressed in an opinion piece featured in a recent issue of Belgrade’s Politika. The author is right that national objectives can be accomplished only provided that they conform to the strategic visions adopted by great powers, but the visions tend to evolve, afford at least some flexibility, and may be adjusted by intelligent efforts. That was exactly what the Balkan countries demonstrated during the first Balkan war, when the great powers found themselves unprepared and had to depart absolutely from the notion that status quo in the region was an end in itself.