Why Borders Are Not the Problem—or the Solution—for Serbia and Kosovo

In the Balkans, Redrawing Maps Serves Politicians, Not Citizens

People protest against Kosovo President Hashim Thaci's border change proposal deal with Serbia in Pristina, Kosovo, September 2018. Hazir Reka / REUTERS

In August, political leaders in Kosovo and Serbia proposed to resolve long-standing tensions by exchanging territory: Serb-populated municipalities in the north of Kosovo would come under Belgrade’s administration, while Albanian-populated towns in the south of Serbia would be yoked to Pristina. Politicians and specialists weighed in on what remained a vague notion over the month that followed. Nobody seemed to regard the idea as brilliant, and in general responses ranged from grudging acceptance to shocked scorn. But neither side of the debate gave much consideration to what should have been its central question: How would the proposed changes affect the lives of those who reside in the areas under discussion?  

The omission of such a consideration reflects the dangerous underlying presumption of those making and debating this proposal: that the basic desire of both Serbs and Albanians is little more than to be united with ethnic co-nationals. This assumption buys into the fundamental schemes of all Balkan (and other) nationalisms. If such a narrative is going to be bought at all, let the buyers beware.

There are almost certainly other solutions to the dispute between Belgrade and Pristina, involving elements that have not entered the discussion very much to date: securing the well-being of citizens, enhancing security and freedom, and building relations of trust between and within communities. These alternative approaches may not have quite as much appeal as a cartographic quick fix, but they promise to be more stable and durable.


One reason the land swap solution has become so focal is that it appears to serve the personal interests and political goals of three regional players: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. When he took power, Vucic was expected to produce the settlement with Kosovo that had eluded his predecessors, precisely because he was a figure from the far right whose constituency would have no place else to go. Six years in, efforts to normalize relations have unimpressively fizzled,

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