Serbia and Kosovo: Floodgates in the Powder Keg

Shpejtim Mulliqi, head of Kosovo’s State Commission for Border Demarcation and Maintenance, discussing the proposed land swap with a journalist ( Image )

Shpejtim Mulliqi, head of Kosovo’s State Commission for Border Demarcation and Maintenance, discussing the proposed land swap with a journalist (Image)


One of the greatest axioms of modern political theory is the definite nation state. In the field of international relations, academics usually cite two key assumptions concerning such sovereign bodies: that continuity and certainty of a nation’s shape is perpetual (since the collapse of the Soviet Union), and that there is a relative homogeneity of people within these spaces that allows them to operate. Reality, as always, has a funny way of contradicting our truths. The certainty of borders was turned on its head just four years ago when Russia boldly and unilaterally annexed Crimea. Moreover, for decades the Kurds have formed a “stateless nation” as a large minority population in the Levant, and the divisions in Bosnia-Herzegovina run so deep that its parliament is literally ethnically divided. One particular such deviation in Eastern Europe is the proposed land swap between Kosovo and Serbia that some have labeled a disguised attempt at ethnic cleansing. Though it has exacerbated ethnic tensions in the two areas stemming from the Yugoslav Wars, it stands in small company as one of few such cases that have the potential for a peaceful resolution.

Kosovo is a partially recognized Balkan state composed of a large majority of ethnic Albanians, or Kosovars, and a minority of ethnic Serbs. United Nations troops expelled the Serbian government from the province of Kosovo in 1998 over allegations of war crimes against resident ethnic Albanians. The Serb minority lives primarily in North Kosovo, where the population identifies with Serbia so strongly that they lead parallel lives to the Kosovars among them. President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia and President Hashim Thaci of Kosovo frequently meet in Brussels for a different sort of trade talk: allowing Serbia to annex part of North Kosovo in exchange for Kosovo doing the same with a part of south-eastern Serbia. The legitimacy of such a deal, which would politically uproot the lives of thousands, rests on competing definitions of sovereignty. One might see the sovereignty of Kosovo as conferred by territorial boundaries endowed by the former Yugoslavia. Many Kosovars argue the essence of the nation was forged from this original land. The Serbian minority, however, also lays historical claim to Kosovo due to their mere presence in the region. Some find their sense of identity within Kosovo and their fight for sovereignty equally legitimate.

A Kosovar train with graphics asserting “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 different languages ( Image )

A Kosovar train with graphics asserting “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 different languages (Image)


These competing ethnic groups induce several implications concerning what constitutes a nation-state. If the situation presents a winner, it would shed light on what the international community constitutes as nationhood, or even who has the right to define such an entity. In the case of Kosovo and Serbia a third and unexpected actor plays a role in answering these questions: Germany has seen fit to put its foot down on the possibility of this deal. Chancellor Angela Merkel has vehemently opposed any change to these boundaries she calls “inviolable.” This is unsurprising, as Germany presides over a neoliberal European order which relies on traditional conceptions of nation-states. One might ask: if the powerful benefit from the rules, and thus enforce them where it degrades the interests of other “nations,” what have we of local sovereignty in any form?

The Kosovo-Serbia land conflict may affect future relations between the two regions as well. Tensions of this sort naturally stoke fear of destabilisation regionally and internationally. Most notably, scholars theorize over what such a land swap might mean if the Serbian minority in Bosnia demanded its own annexation. President Vucic has also acknowledged that a deal would likely include officialized statehood for Kosovo. Analogous secessionist movements, such as the eerily comparable ethnic Armenian claims to a Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in Azerbaijan, may be galvanized, perhaps to violence, by seeing Serbs succeed in Kosovo. Stasis may discourage significant conflict, but the Kosovo-Serbia talks beg the world to decide – or at least test – a threshold for action: the point at which “ethnification” is an acceptable motive in the modern world.

Not to be lost in this conjecture are the real people living within these limbo zones across the globe. Millions of people in Kosovo, Serbia, Iraq, Armenia, and elsewhere remain divided by broken and contested borders. History, identity, and theories of rights converge to present pressing questions about the concept of belonging, and most agree they ought to be answered with the best interests of those involved in mind.