Land and population swaps are a feature of Europe’s geopolitical history. There have been examples aplenty of border reassignment, population expulsion, ethnic cleansing and genocide throughout the 20th century. Less well-known cases include the 1923 population exchange between Turkey and Greece. Signed in Switzerland, more than 1.5 million people were deported with the vast majority hailing from Greek-speaking communities living in Turkey. Greece had to accommodate 1.2 million people, which provides perspective as to what the country has had to cope with in more recent years. The move was designed to bring both countries closer towards the ideal of the nation-state: a homogeneous national community within defined borders.
Further north of the Greek peninsula, the former Yugoslavia (and before that the Ottoman Empire) has had no shortage of border change and population displacement. Terms such as ‘balkanisation’ were re-popularised in the 1990s as countries such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia split along linguistic, ethnic or other identity lines. The ground zero for ethnic nationalism in this period was Bosnia-Herzegovina, but Albanian-speaking enclaves such as Kosovo also proved enduring examples of how communities could be torn apart by chauvinism and violent nationalisms. For decades, the ‘Balkans’ has been a short-hand term in European discourse for such division and difference.
In the last decade and a half, former Yugoslavian countries such as Slovenia have joined the European Union, the latest being Croatia in 2013. Four other countries in southeast Europe are ‘transposing’ towards EU membership – Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, while Bosnia and Kosovo have also been identified as potential candidates. In order for candidature to progress there needs to be evidence that certain qualities, such as commitment to rule of law, are respected.
Unresolved territorial dispute is not a barrier to membership per se, as the Republic of Cyprus’ EU status demonstrates. Nevertheless, in recent weeks, Kosovo and Serbia have been consulting with one another about a possible deal over disputed territory as part of their collective plans to secure a place in the EU. Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 was not recognised by Russia and Serbia, or by EU members such as Cyprus, Greece and Spain. Under the terms of the Brussels Agreement (2013), both countries committed themselves to so-called normalisation of relations. One possible option is to divide Kosovo so that the Serbian majority are integrated into Serbia and Kosovo gains the Albanian-majority Preševo Valley, where around 60,000 Albanian speakers are thought to live. But this would prove troubling not only within Kosovo and Serbia but also within the wider region. Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia have all had recent histories of ethnic/national tension and cleansing, and observers have expressed concerns that public talk of land swaps will unsettle.
Proposals for partition come in the wake of a bitter conflict between Kosovar and Serbian forces in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In the intervening period, there have been signs that powers such as the United States might be prepared to support partition if it proves conducive to normalisation. But others are understandably cautious, with Germany warning that such actions would destabilise neighbours. Around 20 per cent of Macedonia’s population is Albanian speaking and other Macedonian citizens might worry about new expressions of Albanian irredentism. EU membership for all the candidate nations in southeast Europe could contribute to a new geopolitical imagination where ethnic and national borders would matter less in everyday life. But that is a future prospect.
The Kosovo-Serbia land swap proposal, however tentative, is a powerful reminder of unfinished geopolitical business. The relationship between the two countries is not straightforward and partition is unpopular with both. Kosovo remains staffed with NATO troops (around 4,500 in number) and the Kosovo Force (KFOR) is tasked with deterring Serbian aggression, ensuring stabilisation and humanitarian support, and preventing people trafficking. The first KFOR commander was the now retired British general, Sir Mike Jackson. KFOR is now under Italian military leadership and Italy is the largest contributor to this peace-keeping mission. The force were active in September helping to protect the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, who visited Kosovo. The visit was challenging and newspapers reported on stories of Kosovar protesters making it impossible for the Serbian president to visit a Serbian-majority village in central Kosovo.
Population exchange and border alteration continue to be integral to European affairs. For all the heady optimism in the early years after the disintegration of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, other parts of Europe had a different experience – separation, violence and imposition. Meeting EU membership requirements might mean normalising things that we might not wish to see normalised.
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