As Danilo Sarenac notes, the recent Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue saw many present Lausanne-style population exchanges as the key to peace in today’s Balkans.

Danilo is based at the Institute for Contemporary History in Belgrade.

In 2008 Kosovo, the Serbian breakaway province declared independence. More than 100 countries have recognized the new state. The Republic of Serbia has nonetheless stood firm in its counter-secession policy, supported by Russia, China as well as five EU member states. It appeared that such a situation could be prolonged indefinitely. As both Belgrade and Pristina aspire to EU membership, however, this cold war situation had to be defused: a state having any territorial disputes with its neighbours may not enter the EU. Normalization of bilateral relations had to be done for the sake of the progress in the EU accession talks.

Thanks to EU mediation in 2013 negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia seemed to be making progress, only to become deadlocked the following year. And so it has remained ever since. In the summer of 2018, this frozen conflict was briefly interrupted by rumours of new proposals, themselves inspired by events almost a century old. Mainstream Serbian and Albanian media carried reports of secret negotiations by prime ministers Aleksandar Vučić and Hashim Thaçi, of a potential agreement involving a land swap and population exchange.

Although both prime ministers issued denials and details remained sketchy, it became clear that the idea behind the draft agreement was to exchange the land or the people, or both, of municipalities in north Kosovo mainly populated by the Serbs, for the three Serbian municipalities bordering Kosovo, where the Albanian population was numerous. High-ranking officials within the US administration signalled their approval such bold political planning. President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton stated that US policy did not rule out territorial adjustments, provided the parties involved were in agreement.

While this seemed in tune with Bolton’s unconventional approach, similar signals from the EU shocked many. Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, confirmed that “whatever outcome that is mutually agreed would get our support provided it is — as it’s being discussed currently — in line with international law and with European Union acquis [legal order].” This meant that the EU, though indirectly, supported the border change as well as ethnic displacement. Within Serbia and Kosovo such statements led many to surmise that that the negotiations were not initiated by the two Balkan prime ministers, but that the inspiration came from outside.


Many analysts and political scientists openly supported this new approach. Timothy Less, a researcher at the Centre for Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge took the view that the exchange would happen “sooner or later”.  For those in favour, the land swap was the only way forward, if not the key to a long-lasting solution to Serb-Albanian animosity. In Serbia itself  several intellectuals, politicians, and analysts saw the swap as a good idea. They did their best to normalize this idea in the public discourse by evoking the post-World War One settlements in the Balkans. Political analyst Dragomir Andjelković evoked arrangments the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes had made with Rumania and Hungary after 1919.  Agreeing that an exchange offered “a good and lasting solution”, historian and former Serbian ambassador to the USA Milan St. Protić pointed to the Lausanne agreement, noting that “Greece and Turkey had exchanged 2. 5 million and here we are speaking of 150 000 Serbs and Albanians total“.

Greece and Turkey exchanged 2.5 million and here we are speaking of 150 000 Serbs and Albanians total.

Milan St. Protić, historian and former Serbian ambassador to the United States

On the other side of the spectrum, by contrast, strong opposition formed. Former EU High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Miroslav Lajčák was a vocal critic. He underlined that any option where borders were to be changed or populations exchanged carried regional risks, mainly for Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also for Macedonia. Critics also stressed that such thinking presupposed that the EU’s post-conflict approach in the Balkans had failed. For Bodo Weber, a member of the Democratization Policy Council in Berlin, it undermined the very founding principles of the EU: such calculations on the part of the local leaders suggested they were abandoning core EU values such as multiculturalism and equal rights as their hopes in the EU enlargement process waned. As the journal Frankfurter Rundschau noted in August 2018, the message such talks were sending was that ethnic homogenization and entrenchment actually pay dividends.


By the autumn of 2018 the proposed land swap had fallen out of the headlines. The EU, notably German chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that borders would not be changed. This sent a crucial message. Despite this, Richard Grenell, the Special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations from 2019 to 2021 tried to reignite the land swap concept. However, without EU support and with the collapse of the Trump administration, the exchange model was dead in the water.

Politicians were ready to embrace a century-old model of population exchange as an “easy way out” of complex problems.

Nevertheless, this recent episode vividly demonstrates that despite the passage of almost a century politicians were ready to embrace an old model, as a purported “easy way out” of extremely complex problems. It also shows the insensitivity of local elites to the needs and rights of the individuals who were to be affected by such population or territorial exchange. Even more worrying was the fact that these ideas quickly garnered so much understanding and support, in the region as well as abroad.

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