Forgetting the First Principle, and in the Balkans of all places

Photo: Battle of Kosovo (1389)

Photo: Battle of Kosovo (1389)

The Balkans are different, so anything goes there, so often even the expert opinion doesn’t apply. The first principles of politics as they apply to, for example, Europe, do not apply to the Balkans. Consequently, territorial accommodations are not only possible but indeed are an adequate way to solve inter-state conflicts, even though the first principle of international politics is not to raise territorial issues if violent conflicts are to be avoided. Otherwise, the animosities might not only increase, you also risk wholesale Balkanisation. The term, Balkanisation, was coined on the example of the Balkans to visualise the meaning of the first principle, or rather its violation.

Where does that arrogance towards the Balkans come from? The answer is trivial – from ignorance and irresponsibility. I will put these basic issues aside and just point to where the support for the so-called swap of territories between Serbia and Kosovo had brought both sides and everybody else to.

Before the idea of the swap of territories (ethnic territories, in effect, but that is not essential for the argument, though it is for the issue at hand), there was a rather modest normalisation agenda which was promoted by the European Union (EU) and was to be facilitated with their mediation. The two sides would agree to disagree about the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, but Serbia would not stand in the way of Kosovo’s joining the UN and other international and European institutions. In exchange, Kosovo would take into account Serbian interests in Kosovo, i.e. the rights of the Serbian minority and the Serbian Church, and would agree to some reasonable terms of post-secession division of property and other assets and liabilities: some kind of a withdrawal agreement with no formal recognition of Kosovo by Serbia.

The normalisation agreement would be legally binding for the two sides, with the EU and the United Nations (UN) vouching for its implementation. Eventually, the expectation was, the two sides would formalise their relationship with full mutual diplomatic recognition, but that is, in the end, up to them. The incentive would be their membership in the EU, but clearly that would be a decision for the two countries, and indeed primarily for Serbia, to make. No territorial issues emerge in the process of normalisation, which is reasonable given that the border between the two countries was drawn in a war. Not unlike many if not most other current borders, and not just in the Balkans, but in Europe, and indeed in the world. Thus, the first principle of international politics.

Now, one does not need to be Thrasymachus or the Hobbesian Knave to claim that power trumps principles. Take the case of Ukraine. If you are Russia, you may just go in and take over Crimea and indeed all of eastern Ukraine and argue that you are entitled to make your own principles – ethnic, historical, legal, international, eternal, whatever. Indeed, most of borders have been drawn over time with such arrogance. And sometimes you win and other times you lose. Serbia for example lost in all its attempts to redraw the intra-Yugoslavia borders and indeed failed to erase its internal border with its Kosovo province.

But, in general, if you want peaceful resolution of international conflicts, the first principle is not to touch the borders. Because even if you are Russia, the power distribution is not just bilateral, but multilateral, and while you may be able to bully Ukraine, there is the rest of the world that may conclude that the power can and should be shifted against the aggressive Russia and in favour of other power players. So, the first principle of international politics may even be biased towards the peaceful resolution of conflicts due to shifting distribution of power.

In the Balkans as well as anywhere. So, what have we seen since the idea of the swap of territories to solve the Serbia-Kosovo conflict was promoted half a year or so ago?

For one, the normalisation strategy has been shelved. This is in part due to the mistaken push by some EU member states (e.g. Austria) for the territorial solution, and by at least a tacit acquiescence by Ms. Mogherini and Mr. Hahn to the goal of “the historic resolution of the eternal problem” which can be achieved with the redrawing of the borders. And there are self-identified tough realists like John Bolton who appear to agree (though apparently the State Department does not).

For another, the two sides are not talking to each other anymore in Brussels or anywhere and are mostly exchanging complaints and threats. Prominent among those is Kosovo’s 100 percent tariff on imports from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. If you do not know where the border is, tariffs are one way to demonstrate where it really is, and whose authority is on which side of it.

Third, both Serbia and Kosovo have been internally destabilised. The idea behind the Balkans being different is almost always the assumption that strong, authoritarian leaders can do whatever they want, and the docile public will follow blindly. Especially if these leaders depend on foreign powers as if their countries are in effect protectorates. That has proved wrong; the public everywhere, and clearly in Serbia and Kosovo, opposes the loss of territories irrespective of how much they might support the gain of extra territories.

And thus, finally, both sides are now asking for territorial concessions from the other side without any territorial compensation from their side. Serbia is reclaiming at least the north of Kosovo while Kosovo’s president Mr. Thaci vows to annex the three Albanian majority or plurality counties in the south of Serbia.

That is the outcome so far. And that is without even touching on the regional and wider ramifications. That is the consequence of the belief that the first principle of international politics – do not talk about changing territories if you want peaceful resolution of a conflict – does not apply to the Balkans of all places, the very place which gave us the concept of Balkanisation.

Pešč, 13.03.2019.