INTERVIEW Head of European stability initiative (ESI)

Gerald Knaus: Moving borders or people has always been explosive


Instead of resting with a family at vacation, Gerald Knaus, head of European stability initiative (ESI) is more then busy.

After hearing of a possible deal between presidents of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Hashim Thaci on swapping territories, he got on the phone. Collecting basic information. Then, worried European politicians and prominent persons, ministers of foreign affairs, reporters... started calling...

Mr. Knaus found time for an interview with Dnevni Avaz. Wordings he is using in his answers are un-usual for him and ESI and reflects a dangerous situation for Bosnia in particular.

Is changing borders a method for resolution Balkans conflicts? Or it is pouring petrol on fire?

- The idea that minority problems are best solved by abolishing minorities – by moving borders or people – has always been explosive. It is a method to create new conflicts, and in the Balkans to turn the clock back to the 1980s, when instead of discussing reforms intellectuals and politicians in former Yugoslavia focused on borders and ethnic issues. We know how that ended. Anybody with a sense of history, or plain common sense, should oppose this.

What do you think on idea of swapping territories between Kosovo and Serbia?

- This debate is not about territory. What makes it so dangerous is that it is really about people. It is about the oldest nationalist idea: that you can only be secure and have a decent life if you live among your own tribe, people of your religion, ethnicity or mother tongue. And that, therefore, borders of states must be drawn to ensure that all people of your tribe are in that one state. This has often seemed, also in the past, a simple, even positive idea: why not form states in a way that people who share a lot are all together? But once this idea moves from theory to practice, it usually becomes monstrous, because real societies are always diverse, and people do not want to be moved. It has been the most dangerous idea - together with legitimising violence to achieve political goals - in recent Balkan history. For any regional leaders and European officials to revive this Frankenstein now would be extremely irresponsible.

You say this is not about territory. But Kosovo and Serbia appear to be talking about swapping territories?  

- Nobody knows what anyone is talking about. The president of Kosovo has no mandate from his parliament to discuss anything at this moment. He says this is about “border corrections.” Fine, there have been border corrections before, but everybody knows that this is not what Belgrade wants: a few uninhabited rocks or forests in Northern Kosovo. This is about real people, who have already lived through traumatic times, in Kosovo and in Serbia and throughout the region. What we see is two presidents discussing without transparency over the heads of these people where they should live. To discuss the future of tens of thousands of people behind closed doors is the sort of thing European diplomats did at the Congress of Berlin in the 19th century. We know how it ended: many more wars in the Balkans, for another hundred years, and many more millions displaced.  

Is a territorial swap a realistic option and solution for Kosovo and Serbia?

- No. This is what makes this both immoral and foolish: the debate itself will inflame passions, increase worries, change political agenda, and then it will not to improvement for anyone. President Thaci will not get a mandate to trade away Northern Kosovo and Northern Mitrovica from any Kosovo parliament. President Vucic will not be able to hand over Presevo and Bujanovac to Kosovo. This is why the best thing is for a group of European countries to put their foot down and say that they encourage compromise, but that some ways of solving minority issues are unacceptable - even if nationalist leaders agree.  

So if it is not realistic, why is it discussed seriously?

- So lets say that the leaders of Serbia, Kosovo and the EU are engaged in a dialogue that will not lead anywhere. It is still advantageous for some. Serbia needs to prove to the EU that it is serious looking for a solution. Nobody in Serbia really wants all of Kosovo to become part of Serbia again, a parliament in Belgrade in which, as in Skopje, all debates are bilingual, a Serbia transferring money to develop rural Kosovo, sharing its public administration jobs at all levels with Albanian speakers. So what is the second best nationalist goal once controlling all of Kosovo is no longer an objective? Obtain some territory, partition Kosovo without giving away anything but recognition, which is inevitable. And this is then presented to the EU as a compromise. Of course, a Serb leader who cares about Kosovo Serbs would not go down this road. But this is not about them.

Why is partition not good for Kosovo Serbs?

- Because most Kosovo Serbs do not live in territory that would ever become part of Serbia. Their lives would become harder if Kosovo splits, and possibly impossible, as have the lives of Istanbul Greeks after the exchange of people in 1922. They were allowed to stay in Turkey, but not as full citizens: they are part of a diplomatic game of reciprocity. And once there were tensions in Cyprus between communities, they were made to suffer. The logic was that they were hostages. Kosovo Serbs and Albanians in Serbia must not be hostages to their governments discussing their fates.

Belgrade says most Kosovo Serbs are already gone?

- Most Kosovo Serbs – contrary to myths which still circulate – never left Kosovo, not in 1999, not after the riots against them in 2004. They live in their ancestral villages around Kosovo, and the constitution gives them a lot of rights and guarantees. It is in the interest of Kosovo leaders to respect these, to show that Kosovo is a serious country that deserves recognition and integration. It is the duty of patriotic leaders in Belgrade to support the choice of Kosovo Serbs to live in Kosovo. By cutting off the only Serb urban centre, North Mitrovica, partition would also destroy the idea of the rest of Kosovo as a multi-ethnic society.

If partition is bad for Kosovo Serbs, why do Serb nationalists support it?

- Nationalists very often don’t care about real people, and don't mind the destruction of multiethnic societies. In fact, for Serb nationalists the idea of Serbs living as minorities elsewhere is also a threat. Remember how in early 1996 in the Sarajevo suburbs Serb nationalist wanted all their their compatriots to leave? How Serb nationalists tried to prevent the return of Serb displaced to Drvar in the Federation in 1997?

Why do some in the international community support such debates then?

- The easiest change to explain is that in the US. The instinct of Donald Trump is to think in terms of tribes. His repeated statements on Hispanics in the US have been openly racist, his campaign to question the citizenship of Obama has been openly racists, he has been endorsed and has praised racists in the US. This is a US administration that at the very top is fine with racism and tribalism, which is islamophobic and does not care in any case much about the Balkans. Add to this aggressive lobbying and you can see why something totally irrational - the US undercutting the core principle guiding its Balkan policy for decades - becomes imaginable.

And then there is Russia?

- It is even easier to explain the position of Moscow. Putin wants to slow down the European integration of the Balkans in the EU, and which would like a precedent it can refer to for its many occupied territories, from Crimea to the Caucasus. But the key to this does not lie in DC or Moscow. It lies in the EU.

Will the EU, will Brussels, back territorial swaps?

- The single most dangerous sentence I hear in Brussels in this context is: “Whatever the two sides agree, we are fine with it.” In general, encouraging compromise is a good idea, for pragmatic reasons and in principle. But what if two Balkan presidents would agree on an exchange of people, not territories, as was agreed between Greece and Turkey in Lausanne in 1922, a forced exchange of people? Last week a former Serbian ambassador to the US said that this might be a good idea. Has Brussels forgotten that nationalists often reach agreements which are unacceptable? The EU should be crystal clear: it will only accept any changes of borders if these are both mutually agreed after a serious public and transparent debate and leave ALL people better off where they live now. A partition of Kosovo would leave most Kosovo Serbs worse off, only to please a nationalist agenda in a distant capital. This is unacceptable.

What should the EU do instead? The Status quo is also problematic, Kosovo not recognised by Serbia and all EU members?

- Indeed, the EU needs to be much more proactive. It needs to state clearly and repeatedly: Serbia will join the EU only if it recognises Kosovo in its current borders. Kosovo will only join the EU if it respects the commitments to minority rights and protection of its Serb community foreseen in its constitution. However, the EU commits itself to much more substantial help to both countries – and the wider region – to catch up economically already today, to make this promise of eventual EU accession credible, which right now it is not really: to include countries which respect basic human rights in its programmes, from cohesion support for rural development to including the Balkans in the common market to expanding Erasmus and opening labour markets.  The goal should be a Baltic Balkans: small countries, focusing on economic and social reform, with the best education systems, catching up.


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