"If Kosovo is not Serbia, then Republika Srpska is not Bosnia!" Banner in front of Serbia's Foreign Ministry. December 2018. Photo: Kristof Bender/ESI

No border changes

Why Kosovo and Serbia must not discuss territory

The two decade old consensus of no border changes in the Balkans keeps being challenged. In recent years Serbia's president Aleksandar Vucic, Kosovo's former president Hashim Thaci and some leading US and EU officials have supported border changes. In a region where most states are multi-ethnic this is dangerous. The EU should take a clear stance against.

ESI report: The Hypnotist – Aleksandar Vucic, John Bolton and the return of the past (25 April 2019)

Politico: Redrawing Balkan borders would be a fatal mistake (28 August 2018)

The old idea of Serb nationalists of redrawing borders on the basis of ethnicity has re-emerged from the graveyard of terrible ideas. It is striking how successfully Serbia's president Aleksandar Vucic managed to repackage this old idea as progressive, non-conventional, out-of-the-box thinking. Why not, the siren song goes (again), adjust some borders along ethnic lines as long as the process is negotiated peacefully and leads to reconciliation?

When presenting the case for new borders Aleksandar Vucic talked about the need to be realistic. He wanted Serbia to be "smart" and to "take whatever we can." He insisted "on peace and stability, on negotiations and a solution, because we should not leave the problem to our children and grandchildren."

But what are the problems that Vucic proposed not to leave to the next generation? In February 2018 Serbia's minister of defence, Aleksandar Vulin explained that his country's priority was "to stop 'Greater Albania' after a century of expansion." Serbia needed "a permanent and firm demarcation between Serbs and Albanians on the territory of Kosovo." In August 2018 president Vucic described Kosovo as a powder-keg in which both sides were just waiting to attack at any moment: "Everyone will wait for an opportunity to strike the other in order to achieve an advantage on the ground." In November 2018, Vulin explained that, in fact, Greater Albania was already emerging. In February 2019 foreign minister Ivica Dacic explained on television: "Let us be clear about one thing, people: if there is an attack on Serbs in North Kosovo, we will have to defend them militarily, not with prayers." In the same month Vucic explained that the conflict in Kosovo "was no longer a frozen conflict … Big armed clashes might erupt at any moment."

This sharp rise in tensions coincides with rising fear among minorities across the region and growing concern among Serbia's neighbours. After two decades of peace Europe is sleepwalking into another Balkan crisis.

The European Union should close Pandora's box of further talk on redrawing borders. It should reaffirm the core principles that led the EU to open accession talks with Serbia in 2014, which included the gradual normalisation of relations with Kosovo. The EU should warn Aleksandar Vucic that the war-mongering by Serbian government ministers has to stop. Threats to intervene militarily in North Kosovo are unacceptable. Germany, France and other EU members should also make clear that they are prepared to take more responsibility for security in the Balkans, if at any moment the US decides to withdraw US troops from Kosovo.

At the same time the European Union should offer Serbia, Kosovo and all other Balkan countries the prospect of real, tangible progress. As full membership remains unlikely for any accession country for years to come, a concrete, ambitious and meaningful goal could be set for all Western Balkan countries: to meet the required standards to become full members of the EU's common market by 2025. In parallel countries should gradually be included in EU regional and cohesion policies. The EU should also support the region moving towards a Western Balkans Schengen area by 2030, with the concrete goal that by then all Balkan borders should become invisible. This and minority rights, rather than changing borders to get rid of minorities, should transform borders in the region.

In addition, to remain credible in Pristina, European countries should take two long overdue steps: first, to lift the visa requirement for Kosovo citizens, as the European Commission and the European Parliament have recommended; and second, to support Kosovo in applying and joining the Council of Europe, with protection of minorities in Kosovo a key requirement of post-accession monitoring.