The Economist explains


The difficulties of exchanging territory in the Balkans

If Kosovo and Serbia swap parcels of land, the process won’t end there


 <> The Economist explains

Feb 19th 2018

by T.J.

TEN years ago Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Its Albanians, who make 
up the majority of the population, have been celebrating. But its Serbs, most 
of whom live in enclaves, have not. Serbia does not recognise Kosovo, which 
used to be its southern province, and Kosovo Serbs still consider themselves 
citizens of Serbia. The situation is typical of the Balkans, where borders are, 
frankly, a mess. So there are Serbs living in Kosovo and in Bosnia-Hercegovina, 
where they have their own republic (the Republika Srpska), Albanians and 
Bosniaks (Muslims) living in Serbia, and Greeks living in Albania. Recently the 
Serbian authorities proposed a discussion about an exchange of territory with 
their Kosovo Albanian counterparts. Is this a sensible idea?

In 1923 Greece and Turkey agreed to exchange some 2m people. Mostly 
Greek-speaking Christian Orthodox citizens of Turkey were sent to Greece, and 
Muslims from Greece were sent to Turkey. It was a brutal relocation, but, note 
its defenders, Greece and Turkey have not fought a war since. The only place 
where Greeks and Turks have fought is Cyprus, where their populations remained 
mixed. This has inspired nationalists in the western Balkans. Between 1918 and 
the late 1950s, many Muslims were encouraged to leave Yugoslavia for Turkey. 
But at the time of Yugoslavia’s collapse in the 1990s it still contained a 
thorough mix of peoples. Leaders in those Yugoslav wars saw ethnic cleansing as 
the best way to create new nation-states unpeopled by troublesome minorities. 
By 1995 historically Serb-populated regions of Croatia were empty and hundreds 
of thousands of Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks had similarly been turfed out of 
their homes in Bosnia. But the countries that emerged from the implosion did 
not neatly encircle Serbs, Albanians, Croats and so on. Myriad Serbs may have 
fled Kosovo after its war, but some 120,000 remain. 

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The Serbian authorities want to discuss taking Kosovo’s northern part, with 
Albanian-inhabited regions of Serbia moving to Kosovo in exchange. Proponents 
of such “map-tidying” say that multi-ethnic states have failed in the Balkans. 
But they ignore the fact that, once governments start down this path, the 
process has no obvious end and pays no heed to the human rights of everyone 
involved. If Kosovo and Serbia begin serious talks about a redrawing of their 
borders, the impact on Balkan communities apart from those in the affected 
parts of Kosovo and Serbia could be profound. Bosnian Serb leaders would hold a 
referendum on the future of the Republika Srpska; Bosnian Croats would follow 
suit; and Bosniaks would then fight to prevent the dismemberment of their 
shared country. Over the border Serbia would clamp down on Bosniak nationalists 
in Sandzak who dream of incorporating that region into a Greater Bosnia. 
Meanwhile Albanians in western Macedonia and Montenegro would demand to join a 
Greater Albania. Proponents of that idea would also like to incorporate parts 
of northern Greece, whereas Greek nationalists would demand part of southern 

One irony behind the mooted exchange is that most Kosovo Serbs actually live in 
enclaves in the south of Kosovo. So the agreement would not leave them living 
in Serbia, and they would probably have to leave their homes or else be driven 
out. But Serbian officials may be less concerned about their countrymen than 
about taking steps towards recognising Kosovo—and thus making their own 
hoped-for accession to the European Union (EU) easier. It may not concern them 
that an exchange of territories in the western Balkans could have huge 
ramifications. Hungarian nationalists, after all, remain unreconciled to the 
loss of Transylvania to Romania, and Romanian nationalists would like to redraw 
their borders to take in Moldova. There is a reason that “Balkanisation” has a 
bad name. As in the EU at large, lessening the relevance of national borders 
would seem wiser than redrawing them and, in the words of one senior EU 
official, “opening the gates to hell”.

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