In March an international commission released its report on the border demarcation between Kosovo and Montenegro and declared it to be accurate and consistent with the findings of the Kosovo Cadastral Agency. Kosovo opposition parties Vetëvendosje and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo objected to the findings, decrying the documentation flawed and process rigged. They believe that the border lies elsewhere. This would all just be entertaining political theater if the stakes were not so high.
The border demarcation issue has been one of the justifications for the violent anti-government demonstrations that have plagued Kosovo in the first part of 2016 and the nearly 6 month interruption in the functioning of the government. In other countries, this sort of post-succession border demarcation conflict has erupted into war. In 1998 Ethiopia and Eritrea began a two-year border war resulting in tens of thousands of deaths over a tiny triangle of land with a single small town.
At issue in Kosovo is whether the boundary with Montenegro is nearer the foot of the mountains dividing the two countries, or higher up along the ridgeline. Multiple experts have been tasked with the verification of the border, and they agree that the border between Montenegro and Kosovo appropriately follows the municipal boundaries set by the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution. With Kosovo’s independence in 2008, these municipal boundaries have now become a national border and need to be recognized as such.
The outcome of this conflict is more significant than the value of the land. Border demarcation is a condition for a visa liberalization agreement with the EU; an agreement that would allow Kosovo’s citizens to travel more freely outside the country for medical care, education and business.
Kosovo’s citizens deserve both visa liberalization and a functioning government. While the opposition has been busy organizing demonstrations and setting off tear gas in the assembly to prevent votes, the economy of the country stagnates and 40,000 young people each year finish their studies with little chance of finding meaningful work. Not surprisingly, illegal migration from Kosovo to other parts of Europe has been a problem as young people look for work they cannot find at home. Visa liberalization and the opportunity to join the EU at some point in the future are beacons of hope for this country challenged by a post-war economy and the transition from a socialist Yugoslav regime.
Nationalist sentiment propelled Kosovo’s ten-year pacifist struggle for autonomy and its short war for independence. The idea of territorial loss, when the land itself has been hard fought for, is a difficult idea for a new state to stomach. This is part of the reason why Ethiopia and Eritrea were willing to spend millions of dollars and the lives of their countrymen on an insignificant piece of scrubland. The border demarcation issue in Kosovo has become so volatile because independence came at a high price.
As the opposition parties return to the assembly, they would do well to remember that a country is made up of people as well as territory.