Guest article by Benjamin Sanders
The ever present reality of ethno-religious and cultural tensions in south eastern Europe resurfaced this week. Serbia and the country known as Kosovo, whose existence is only partially recognised, have been at logger heads since the end of the Balkan Wars nearly 20 years ago. There was a flare up of hostility in 2011 which was settled relatively quickly, however now tensions have re-emerged.
On Saturday, around 60 Kosovan Special Forces entered a predominantly Serbian ethnic enclave within the north of Kosovo, and seized several industrial sites. They took control of a dam and a local hydroelectric power station, as well as the Centre for Ecology and Sport Development. This operation violates long held agreements between the governments in Belgrade and Pristina, and caused Serbia to put their military on high alert.
It has been claimed that the operation by the Kosovan Special Forces was conducted to provide security for the leader of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, during a visit to the area. However others have accused Kosovo of executing a publicity stunt in order to distract attention away from a growing protest movement in the country.
This all occurred amid moves by the two countries to agree a proposal which would see a ‘land swap’ occur. In other words, the ethnic Serbs of Kosovo (who are orthodox Christian) would see their land become part of Serbia, whilst the ethnic Albanians of Serbia (who are Muslim) would see their land become part of Kosovo. Despite what many may think, the redrawing of sovereign borders in the Balkans was not very clean cut at all, and has left Christian and Muslims on the ‘wrong side of the fence’, which only leads to tensions flaring that have their roots in the Ottoman invasions of the region which started in the 14th century.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic flew to key ally Russia on Tuesday to have talks with Vladimir Putin. Although this visit has long been scheduled, the events over the last week served as a centre point for both countries. After the talks, some analysts stated that a land swap between Serbia and Kosovo could lead to the latter joining Albania, and could also raise the prospects of other ethnic minorities and their land changing nations in the years to come.
The wider political implications of everything mentioned above are also complex. Serbia wants to join the EU, however it will never be allowed to join unless it recognises the independence of Kosovo, something which it will not do until land disputes have been settled. So the expansion of the EU into the Balkans is really resting on whether this issue can be resolved, because without Kosovo being recognised, other countries like Albania will never themselves be content and settled.
This is important because Albania also wants to join the EU, and it would be the first Muslim country to do so. If it did join, this would have huge ramifications for the rest of Europe, and would probably increase the likelihood of Turkey, a major Muslim country, joining as well.