Barriers to Unity: The Future of an Albania-Kosovo Unification By Anouska Jha
The border, the word border, sounds like order, but in this place they do not rhyme.
The border is a handshake that becomes a squeezing contest.
Albert Rios ‘The Border: A Double Sonnet’ (1952)
In the geopolitical age of economic integration and transnational flows, borders have come to symbolise more than territorial sovereignty and stability. Rather, they transcend geographic bounds and represent the need for a ‘societal sovereignty’, a way to maintain the integrity of the nation state, in addition to its strategic economic and military interests. This is the case for the renewed debate on the Eastern-European Albania-Kosovo unification.
In February 2021, the Kosovo and Albanian leaders praised this possibility, especially the Kosovan Prime Minister Alvin Kurti who believed a common state would open Kosovo to the outside world after it unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The small nation is landlocked, surrounded by mountainous terrains and not involved in the United Nations and NATO. Albanians also make up its major ethnic group, following the Treaty of London and Bucharest in 1913 which demarcated the borders of the Principality of Albania. Thus, unification would allow Kosovans to carry Albanian passports, trade internationally and normalise its international status. Currently, citizens can live and work in each other's respective countries and have recently pledged for economic integration through a customs union; ultimately, 'merging' means Kosovo would be freed from its suspension in a perpetual state of liminality.
However, as always in diplomatic agendas, there are obstacles. Firstly, the Serbian government is reluctant for such a move; Kosovo was part of the Kingdom of Serbia until the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991 (following the collapse of the Soviet regime). After attempts to break from Serbia to join the cluster of newly liberated nations of North Macedonia and Montenegro in 1999, Kosovo declared its independence in 2008. This was a political blow to the Serbs, who saw Kosovo as the birthplace of Serbian identity.
Additionally, there is the powerful presence of China and Russia. Serbia’s non-recognition of Kosovo’s independence disrupted the United States’ aims to bring both countries into Western institutions, giving Russia and China geopolitical leverage by backing the Serbian position in the UN. Despite a brief moment of optimism in 2017, when Donald Trump attempted to broker a deal between Kosovo and Serbia, public backlash in Kosovo meant this was unfeasible. The backlash and subsequent imposition of 100% import tariffs by Kosovo on Serbia came from the claim that Serbia could not dictate the terms of Kosovo’s borders, especially after Serbian ethnic cleansing attempts in their invasion of Kosovo in 1999.
Additionally, China and Russia - on behalf of Serbian concerns - could veto the Albania-Kosovo proposal on the grounds that it would gradually lose potential channels for influencing trade and political postures. They believe that Kosovo casts a shadow over other minor Balkan states with ethnic tensions, so unification could set off a chain of irredentist movements. For example, in the immediate periphery, North Macedonia has an Albanian minority keen to join Albania. Bosnia and Herzegovina contrastingly have a Serbian community, keen to push for Serbian unity.
However, the Balkans is a place haunted by its clashing past, and this chain reaction of iridescence may result in chaos, as it is a region chained to a history which it cannot consume. Whilst armed conflict is unlikely, as Kosovo is surrounded by NATO members, the 70% increase between 2015-2021 of Serbian military spending on Turkish drones and Iranian missiles adds pressure to this urgency to maintain stability. Hence, it can be argued that not only China and Russia, but the EU and US are hesitant to accept an Albania-Kosovo unification. One must remember that this event is not comparable to German unification - to which the EU embraced as a watershed in democratic progress. Supranational integration, not the changing of borders, is the EU’s rhetoric. Unfortunately, the talks in the Balkans are unlikely to harness transatlantic recognition.
Whilst Serbia cannot outrightly block unification, it can certainly circumvent it through political manoeuvring. Its motivation would be to salvage political protection and it may do this through capturing northern enclaves through negotiations. For example, it may insist that unification deals included all Albanians, such as those in north Macedonia, Bosnia and Montenegro. Resultantly, it could integrate itself into the Bosnian and Montenegrin diaspora, which would be attractive to both states in the context of Serbia’s ‘mini-schengen’ (a replica of EU customs in the Balkans). This appeal of economic and political stability may then attract Albania itself into the diaspora. Such events could take the pressure off of irredentism of peripheral balkan states and remove provisions of an Albanian-Kosovo state, thus marking the end of the unification project, and the rise of a Greater Serbia. Therefore, an Albania-Kosovo state is perhaps not the end in itself - Albania may just desire the assurance of some form of cooperative political and economic entity and this is something a Greater Serbia could provide.
Will Kosovo be willing to give up its northern territory, consisting of ethnic Serbs, to Serbia upon a unification deal? Will it spark movements in the peripheries and destabilise the Balkans into a crisis of national borders? Will realpolitik unravel its historic reel or will one nation emerge victorious? Washington is also highly cautious of European countries’ fracture in the context of cross-purposes with the Kremlin - if unification leads to the Serbian adoption of a shared Western agenda, the NATO and the EU may support the plan. However, retaliation by Serbia against Kosovo to reclaim the ethnic Serbs would force NATO to turn back on the 1999 Kumanov Agreement, which ended NATO's hostilities with Belgrade. Naturally, these questions are based on the speculative nature of geopolitical realities and of diplomacy. Internal dialogue, better healthcare, and education policies for Serbs in northern Kosovo as well as a higher fiscal capacity of the states to facilitate unification may relieve some of these tensions, but the question of borders remains largely ambiguous.