Timothy Less: The international order in the Balkans is the most fluid in all Europe, as a glance at the map makes clear.
Timothy Less: The international order in the Balkans is the most fluid in all Europe, as a glance at the map makes clear.
For centuries, the region was subsumed within the Ottoman and Hungarian Empires, except for a pocket of mountainous territory, Montenegro, which resisted conquest by the Turks. By the 1830s, two small, independent states had appeared, Greece and Serbia. In the 1870s, this number grew as Bulgaria and Romania gained independence from the declining Ottoman Empire, and Austria annexed Bosnia.
In the 1910s, Ottoman power fully collapsed, giving rise to Albania, while Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece all expanded their territory. After WWI, Transylvania was attached to Romania, and the western Balkans was incorporated into a single multiethnic state - the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later Yugoslavia.
This lasted until 1941 when Yugoslavia collapsed and Croatia, Albania and Bulgaria incorporated parts of the kingdom into expanded national states. Then in 1944, Yugoslavia was reintegrated by the communists, which is how matters remained until 1991.
These changes are the consequence of an interplay between two sets of actors. The first is the peoples of the Balkans who are trying to establish nation states of the kind which prevail in the rest of Europe – a self-governing entity in which most members of a national community live.
The impulse for this is the history of persecution in the region, and the weak tradition of constitutional liberalism which leaves minorities at risk of domination by majorities. Accordingly, the cardinal rule of Balkan politics is never to be a minority in someone else’s state. Instead, establish a state for oneself which can guarantee security, rights and economic opportunity.
And the second set of actors is the Great Powers which surround the Balkans and are continually drawn to the region for reasons of security. As a natural geographical buffer, the Great Powers have an interest in the internal stability of the Balkans, and in keeping their rivals out - something which requires periodic intervention.
However, this usually comes at the price of entanglement in Balkan politics, manipulation by the locals into advancing their goals and retaliation by the other Great Powers. As a consequence, outsiders tend not to linger but instead to intervene briefly, reorder the region in some way and then get out.
The nature of this reordering is invariably a compromise between the demands of the local actors and the interests in the Great Powers. In the 1870s, outsiders accepted the creation of nation states in the region, but with their power strictly limited: the short-lived Greater Bulgaria was downsized for fear it would become a platform for Russian power in Europe.
After WWI, the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were granted their goal of an independent state but at the price of forced cohabitation with each other, to create a strong state that could resist potential revanchism by Austria and Hungary. This continued during the Cold War, when the US and the Soviet Union maintained Yugoslavia as a strategic buffer separating NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
As a consequence, the quest for nation statehood continues, with each new configuration of the region meeting some people’s needs while frustrating the ambitions of others.
The one group which has virtually established a nation state is the Greeks, following a massive population exchange with the new state of Turkey in 1923. The Romanians are close, notwithstanding the two million Romanians incorporated into the Soviet republics of Moldova and Ukraine in 1940. So too are the Bulgarians, if we disregard the Slavs of North Macedonia who once identified as Bulgarian.
By contrast, the goal of nation statehood was frustrated for those nations which were incorporated into Yugoslavia after the First World War. Instead, the Slovenes, Croats and Albanians and others were forced to trade minority status, in their former empires for minority status in a state dominated by Serbs.
Through the 1920s and 30s, each of these agitated for greater political rights and autonomy, and finally achieved their goal in the 1940s when they successfully leveraged the external support of Germany and Italy, leading to Yugoslavia’s collapse.
This was to prove a false start. Following the war, the Allied powers reconstituted the multi-ethnic state of Yugoslavia, once again repressing the desires of the local people to establish nation states. As a concession, the communists transformed the old kingdom into a federation of national republics that allowed Albanians, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Montenegrins some degree of self-governance.
However, this autonomy was limited from above by a strong and authoritarian central government. The various nations also had their autonomy constrained from below by the need to share power within their own republic with large national minorities. And while the Serbs could take some satisfaction from their notional unification within the framework of the Yugoslav federation, their ability to pursue a form of national politics was limited by their division between five federal republics and two autonomous provinces, Vojvodina and Kosovo.
The Post-Yugoslav Settlement
These constraints were eventually to break Yugoslavia apart as the country descended into economic turmoil in the 1980s. When its constituent nations failed to agree how to reform the ailing socialist system, the Serbs decided to break the logjam by imposing themselves on the collective institutions, turning an economic crisis into a constitutional crisis, which panicked the smaller groups.
This precipitated the last reordering the Balkans, in the 1990s and 2000s, in which Yugoslavia disintegrated in accordance with its federal republican boundaries. Slovenia and Croatia were the first to break, the latter taking with it a large Serb minority living along its frontier with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. This was followed by Bosnia itself, a multiethnic state containing large numbers of Serbs and Croats, and by Macedonia, with its large Albanian minority.
For a while, Montenegro remained in a union with Serbia but last decade it too broke away, taking with it a large Serb minority, a small Albanian minority and a population of Muslim Slavs. In the end, the last man standing was Serbia, which gained independence from Yugoslavia by default, with its panoply of minorities, including Albanians, Bosniaks and Croats.
As before, the last reordering was a compromise between the demands of the local actors and the interests of outside powers. The local actors tried to establish nation states on the territory on which they predominated. For the Serbs, this meant annexing the Serb-dominated parts of Croatia and Bosnia and attaching these to Serbia. For the Croats, this meant annexing the Croat-dominated parts of Bosnia, without conceding any of their own territory to Serbia. And for the Albanians, who lacked a republic in the old Yugoslavia, the task was to detach the territory on which they lived from Serbia and Macedonia.
Left to their own devices, the various groups would probably have formed relatively homogenous nation states on the territory of the old Yugoslavia, mainly at the expense of Bosnia and Macedonia, which would have lost the territory on which their minority populations predominated.
Once again, however, outsiders – this time, the US and its European allies - blocked the ambitions of the locals and imposed a compromise solution which took as much account of their own interests as those of the local peoples. The result was an agreement that Yugoslavia could collapse, and outsiders would recognise the independence of its emerging parts, but that these would be multiethnic states based on the former Yugoslav republics rather than new nation states.
Several factors guided the West’s thinking. For one thing, it was bound by international law, which viewed the Yugoslav federation as a voluntary association of independent states which had delegated their sovereignty to the centre and were now reclaiming it – a perfectly legal act. At the same time, international law prohibited any change in the borders of these theoretically-independent states without the consent of all the relevant governments, something that was clearly lacking.
The West was also concerned about preventing violence and suffering in a part of the world where the mismatch of peoples and boundaries meant nation states could only arise from processes of war and ethnic cleansing. Alongside this, many European governments were instinctively averse to nationalism, which they saw as the source of the continent’s instability in the twentieth century, and the antithesis of the newly-established European Union, built on the ideal of cooperation between nations.
The new settlement created both winners and losers. The Slovenes got everything they wanted, doubling the number of Balkan nations to have established a consolidated nation state. The Croats also gained a state of their own, albeit with around half a million Croats left outside in neighbouring Bosnia and a small Serb minority within. So too did the Bosniaks and Macedonians, albeit with large discontented minorities.
By contrast, the Serbs were the big losers, as the earlier division of the nation between the various Yugoslav republics belatedly left them divided between five new independent states - Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia itself. Their one consolation was the West’s agreement that the Serbs of Bosnia could maintain a self-governing entity, Republika Srpska, on most of the territory they controlled during the war.
Meanwhile, the Albanians made some progress in detaching themselves from their Slavic neighbours but still remained divided between four new states – Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Albania proper - and a long way from achieving their goal of national unification.
To quell the resulting nationalist frustration, and allow the West to disengage from the region, the Europeans extended the Balkans the opportunity to join the EU. Their rationale was that, by preparing the region for membership, the EU could change the very nature of the region in the way Iberia and central Europe had been changed, transforming poor, authoritarian and non-consensual states into the kind of prosperous, democratic and law-bound polities where minorities would be permanently content to live.
To this end, the EU offered the Balkans as implicit compact known as conditionality: accept the Western-imposed settlement, knuckle down to reform and, in return, get the various benefits of EU membership, including the chance for divided nations to unite inside a borderless Europe. In effect, this was the Yugoslav solution, recast for the new political circumstances of the twenty-first century.
If this sounds idealistic given Yugoslavia’s twice-collapse, then the idealism was buttressed by hard power. The US pushed for the integration of the region into NATO, coercive international missions forcibly rebuilt war-torn states, foreign diplomats clamped down on loose talk about changing borders, and NATO troops on the ground deterred any attempt to revise the post-Yugoslav settlement by means of violence.
The Kosovo Exception
The exception to the West’s approach to the Balkans, that only the former Yugoslav republics could form independent states, was Kosovo. As an autonomous province of Serbia in the old Yugoslavia rather than a fully-fledged federal republic, Kosovo did not have a right to secede without Belgrade’s consent – which was denied - and for years the West opposed Priština’s demand for independence.
What ultimately persuaded the West to break its own rule on the integrity of borders was the outbreak of conflict in the late-1990s, as Albanians took up arms to fight for Kosovo’s independence and Serbia deployed its army to supress their efforts. By 1998, the situation looked to the Western eye like that of Croatia and Bosnia in 1992, with the Serbian army violently imposing itself on a smaller, neighbouring population.
The difference this time was that Westerners, and the US and UK in particular, were determined to prevent any repeat of the atrocities that followed in Croatia and Bosnia.
The result was a prolonged NATO bombing raid on Serbia, at the end of which Belgrade reluctantly agreed to surrender control of Kosovo and withdraw its security forces. In its place, the US and its allies established a UN mission to administer the territory, supported by thousands of NATO troops, effectively transforming Kosovo into an international protectorate.
However, this could not be a permanent arrangement. For one thing, the West had assumed responsibility for Kosovo only by default and was not interested in running the place indefinitely, at enormous effort and expense – even less so after 9/11 when the West’s attention shifted to the Middle East. Equally as important, Kosovo’s Albanians, initially grateful to the West for liberation from Serbia, grew increasingly hostile to rule by another self-interested foreign power.
In 2004, following mass riots by the Albanians which left nineteen dead, the US and others therefore took the inevitable step of preparing Kosovo for self-government.
The question at this point was what form this self-government would take. One option was to award Kosovo independence, which would satisfy the Albanians’ demands, but enrage the Serbs and contravene international law, which required Serbia’s consent for Kosovo’s secession. The other was to restore Kosovo’s autonomy within Serbia, which would satisfy the Serbs but risk a resumption of the war for independence by the Albanians.
The compromise between these positions, which some in Belgrade advocated, was to partition Kosovo along the river Ibar, separating a small Serb-dominated enclave in the north, which Serbia would retain, from the Albanian-dominated south, which Serbia would recognise as independent. A small enclave of Albanians living in a region of Serbia known as the Presevo Valley, adjacent to Kosovo, implicitly endorsed this idea by demanding to be part of the newly independent state.
However, this idea was vetoed at an early stage by the US and most other Western governments on the basis that it constituted a change in the Yugoslav-era borders and would set a dangerous precedent for the fragile states of Bosnia and Macedonia, the internal stability of which was based on the idea that borders in the Balkans cannot change. As in other parts of the Balkans, the idea of creating a monoethnic state in Kosovo was also contrary to the spirit of the times, that openness and tolerance were virtues to be promoted over an exclusive form of territorial nationalism. Whatever happened to Kosovo, had to happen to the whole of the province.
This thinking had a compelling logic which only a few in the West questioned at the time. The effect was to rule out any chance of a compromise over Kosovo’s final status, leaving just two binary choices – autonomy within Serbia or independence.
In the event, Kosovo’s Albanians forced the issue by continuing to agitate for independence, as they had done for decades, with the difference now that their agitation was directed not against Serbia but the international administrators who were running the country.
Through the middle of the decade, their campaign turned increasingly violent as crowds of frustrated Albanians rioted in Priština and attacked UN buildings and vehicles while, in the background, wartime paramilitary organisations threatened to regroup. As tensions escalated, the West’s position became increasingly untenable.
In February 2008, the US and others therefore capitulated to Albanian pressure and formally recognised Kosovo’s independence on the legally-tenuous grounds that Serbian atrocities against the Albanian population the previous decade, and the subsequent period of international supervision, meant Kosovo could be severed from Serbia without Belgrade’s consent.
To avoid setting a precedent for other parts of the region, such as Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, they also argued that Kosovo’s provincial state in the former Yugoslavia was akin to that a federal republic and its independence was therefore consistent with the model of disintegration already established. Crucially, the US and others maintained their veto on any partitioning of Kosovo itself and instead recognised the independence of the province within its Yugoslav-era borders.
As a consequence, the new Kosovan state included not only the Albanian-dominated south but also the Serb-dominated enclave in the north, despite strong resistance from the people living there who refused to accept Priština’s authority and ensured the enclave remained functionally separate from the rest of the territory.
Predictably, Kosovo’s independence was opposed in Serbia which refused to validate the West’s decision. By extension, around half the countries of the world also refused to recognise Kosovo on the basis that this first required Serbia’s consent, including two permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and Russia.
Kosovo’s transition to independence was therefore left incomplete. Politically, the territory was independent, albeit with an enclave in the north which remained integrated with Serbia. But its lack of recognition meant Kosovo was unable to join the international community via membership of the UN, the EU, NATO and other international organisations.
Crucially, Serbia was also left smarting with anger at what it saw as Kosovo’s illegal confiscation by the West, without any form of territorial compensation, and dependent on friendly powers like Russia for help in overcoming this perceived injustice.
None of this was ideal for the United States which had hoped to resolve Kosovo’s status. However, with the Albanians satisfied and Washington basic obligations in the province fulfilled, the US withdrew from Balkan politics and turned its attention to more important matters. From here on in, the Americans’ role in the Balkans was limited mainly to an external security guarantee, based on its integration with NATO and an implicit threat of force against anyone challenging the international veto on changes in the nature of borders in the region.
In its place, the Europeans assumed the Americans’ day-to-day supervisory role, and pushed their solution to the problem of unfulfilled nation statehood by promoting the integration of the region into the EU. To solve the problem of Kosovo disputed status, the Europeans made recognition a de facto condition for Serbia’s EU membership, leading most to believe that Belgrade would eventually accept the political reality of Kosovo’s independence.
However, two developments were to force a rethink of Washington’s retreat from the Balkans. The first was the EU’s descent into crisis, beginning with the financial shock of 2008 which then escalated into the Eurozone crisis and finally a full-blown political crisis, forcing the EU to pause its plans for enlargement and focus instead on holding the EU together. In doing so, the EU effectively surrendered its only real lever of control over the region, namely the promise of EU membership in return for accepting the Western settlement in the region.
And the second was a deterioration in relations between the US and Russia, which became increasingly nervous and angry about NATO’s encroachment into its traditional security buffer in eastern Europe. This deterioration reached its breaking point with the American-backed uprising in Ukraine in 2013, which propelled to power a pro-Western government that openly called for Ukraine’s membership of NATO.
Russia’s response was decisive. In Ukraine, it annexed Crimea and fomented war in the Donbas, with the aim of destabilising the new government. And elsewhere in eastern Europe, Russia actively tried block the integration of those states which were not yet members in NATO, including Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia.
As a relatively weak state, at least compared to the US, Russia’s leverage in the Balkans was limited. However, it found an entry point in the region’s politics by championing each of its target group’s core grievance - such as the Serbs’ hostility to entrapment in an unwanted Bosnia - in return for a commitment not to join NATO. In the vacuum left by the US and the EU, Russia faced little resistance – at least at first.
Predictably, the US viewed Russia’s actions as a challenge to its settlement in the Balkans, and a potential threat to regional instability. As part of a broader fightback in eastern Europe, Washington therefore made a return to the Balkans, with the aim of pushing Russia out of the region.
The first clash came in Macedonia in 2015, where the then-government became embroiled in a massive corruption scandal, fell out with the West and turned to Russia for support. A two-year diplomatic battle then ensued at the end of which the US succeeded in ousting the government and replacing it with a pliant administration that prioritised integration with NATO, even at the price of changing the country’s name.
This was followed by a contest for influence in Montenegro, Russia’s oldest ally, which the Americans pressured into switching sides and joining NATO. They succeeded, but only after a Russian-backed attempt to assassinate the pro-NATO prime minister failed at the last minute.
With North Macedonia and Montenegro secured, and following a transition from the Obama to the Trump administrations in Washington, the US then turned to the question of Serbia, where Russia was firmly entrenched. To neutralise Moscow’s influence, the US concluded it had to address the issue which provided Russia with its entry point into Belgrade’s politics, namely Serbia’s anger over the loss of Kosovo.
Since returning Kosovo to Serbian control was unrealistic, that meant finding terms on which Serbia was prepared to recognise Kosovo and persuading the Albanians to accept them. The result was a set of clandestine negotiations between the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia held in the first half of last year.
Unsurprisingly, when asked the question, Serbia’s president revived the idea of Kosovo’s partition, the compromise the US had earlier rejected, motivated by a desire to end the Kosovo dispute and remove the main impediment to Serbia’s membership of the EU. Remarkably, this time, both Kosovo’s president and the American mediators accepted it, reflecting three key changes since the previous decade.
The first was a willingness by Kosovo’s president to compromise after a decade of debilitating legal limbo. If that meant surrendering the Serb-dominated enclave, which Priština did not control anyway, that was a price worth paying. The second was the arrival of the Trump Administration, with its America First policy and indifference to liberal precepts such as promoting multiethnicity. And the third was the immediate threat from Russia, which overshadowed the longer-term and more abstract threat of instability deriving from a change in borders
The result was a secret agreement on partition and an end to the cornerstone of the American security strategy in the Balkans for the previous twenty-five years, namely that the borders in the region cannot deviate from those in the old Yugoslavia.
Unfortunately for Washington and the two presidents, the deal collapsed on contact with the outside world. For one thing, it caused serious apprehension in many European countries, including Germany and the UK, which feared for the stability of Bosnia and North Macedonia.
More importantly, the deal generated a furious backlash in Kosovo whose people had understood that Kosovo’s independence within its existing borders was an established fact. Unsurprisingly, many felt betrayed by the US, their long-time external sponsor, whose message to the Albanians was that Kosovo’s full independence was conditional on the blessing of their old adversary, Serbia.
Kosovo’s response was twofold. The prime minister attempted to pressurise Serbia into recognising Kosovo, by imposing 100% tariffs on Serbian imports and asserting its authority in the northern enclave, leading Serbia to deploy its army to Kosovo’s border earlier this year. Meanwhile, the president, realising Kosovo could not end its state of legal limbo via a compromise with Serbia, called for Kosovo’s unification with the recognised state of Albania.
That struck a chord in Tirana where the failure of Albania’s bid to join the EU left its leadership amenable to the alternative goal of Albanian national unification.
Reordering the Balkans
Where events go from here is a matter of speculation but there are four basic scenarios. The first is that Serbia and Kosovo do a deal, driven by their interest in resolving Kosovo’s status, backed by diplomatic pressure from Washington. Given Serbia’s bottom line, that means a deal based on the idea of partition for recognition
However, the odds of achieving this are slim. The Albanians remain intractably opposed to partition, and last week elected a new government which refuses even to discuss the subject with Belgrade. Meanwhile, at the international level, Germany is now working with France to block partition, and Moscow has voiced its opposition to any deal that reduces Serbia’s dependence on Russia.
That augurs a second scenario in which the idea of partition is again taken off the table, followed either by Serbia’s agreement to recognise Kosovo unconditionally or a decision simply to freeze the dispute, pending more fortuitous circumstances in the future.
The difficulty with removing the idea of partition is that Serbia will not recognise Kosovo without some form of compensation, and this can no longer realistically be EU membership, as some once hoped. Similarly, there is little prospect of freezing the Kosovo dispute because geopolitical imperatives mean the issue will not stand still. The Americans are determined to resolve Kosovo’s status to neutralise Russia’s influence over Serbia, and the Albanians’ are desperate to end Kosovo’s state of legal limbo.
That has clear implications. If Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo’s independence, except on terms which are unacceptable to the Albanians, that inevitably implies unification with the recognised state of Albania – a radical option but one which most Kosovo Albanians would probably accept.
That leads to a third scenario, namely some kind of regional shake up as Serbia responds to moves towards Albanian unification. Serbia could not passively accept the integration of Kosovo’s northern enclave into an Albanian national state and would undoubtedly respond to any such threat by annexing the enclave, leading to a military standoff with the Albanians, the probable expulsion of the remaining Serbs from southern Kosovo, an attempted break by the Albanians in Serbia’s Presevo Valley and a crisis of statehood in Serbia that would bring nationalist forces to power.
That in turn would create a generational opportunity for the Serbs of Bosnia to break away and offer their territory to Serbia as compensation for the loss of Kosovo. In time, a united Albania would also create a new geopolitical opportunity for the Albanians of North Macedonia, who would try to attach their territory to this new Albanian national state.
It remains an open question how violent this process would be, but history suggests it would not be peaceful. And this, in turn would precipitate the next reordering of the region as outsiders - led by the US, which has asserted its leading role in the Balkans - were forced to manage the consequences of the processes it had begun, as outsiders have done repeatedly in the past.
What the settlement for the region would look like remains to be seen but, if precedent is any guide, it would be another compromise between the local people’s desire to form nation states and the core security interests of the Great Powers.
Given its desire to resolve the Kosovo dispute, the US would probably not resist Kosovo’s unification with Albania and the Presevo Valley, or Serbia’s annexation of northern Kosovo, if these became established facts on the ground. The Europeans would be quietly relieved the Serbs and Albanians had finally found a solution to the tiresome Kosovo problem and Russia would probably try to turn developments to its own advantage.
However, the US would be wary of changes to borders elsewhere in the Balkans. It would resist any attempt by the Bosnian Serbs to unite their territory with Serbia, which would create a long frontier between Serbia and its regional adversary, Croatia, and create a powerful platform for Russian influence in the Balkans. The US would also resist moves by the Albanians to break from North Macedonia since they do not yet have a defined territory. In the absence of an administrative border which could be upgraded to an international border, any attempt at secession would be complex and violent.
Instead, the US would insist these peoples – and the Bosnian Croats - stay put, but it would try to meet their desire for self-determination with a new settlement in both Bosnia and North Macedonia that gave these peoples virtual independence within an outwardly unified state. To sweeten the deal, it would also encourage local governments to dissolve the borders separating national groups by dismantling passport controls, promoting cross-border co-operation and supporting dual citizenship.
That would define the next phase in the Balkans’ history in which Serbs and Albanians moved closer to their goal of establishing nation states and the Great Powers advanced their goal of stabilising the Balkans while keeping each other at bay.
However, many issues would remain unresolved, including the final status of the Serbs of Bosnia and the Albanians of North Macedonia, who would want to coalesce with their expanded national states. That in turn would raise questions about the status of the Bosniak and Croat parts of Bosnia and the weak, Slavic core of North Macedonia, which is coveted by Bulgaria. Questions would also remain about the numerous small minority populations, especially in Montenegro, and the relationship between the reconfigured regional states and the Great Powers which surrounded them.
Since the US would have to guarantee its new settlement in the region, Russia would be compelled to contain American influence by entrenching its influence over the Bosnian Serbs, while the Bosniaks would continue to look to Turkey and the Islamic world to defend the long-term integrity of Bosnia.
If the Balkans appears to be on the cusp of another reordering that replaces the post-Yugoslav settlement, then none of this is pre-planned. Rather, it is an unintended consequence of the Europeans’ failure to suppress nationalism with the alternative goal of European integration and the Americans’ decision to fight the New Cold War in the Balkans.
As it tries to force a resolution of the Kosovo dispute, the US is discovering it cannot simultaneously neutralise the influence of Russia in Serbia and insist on the territorial integrity of the region, for the reason that Serbia has made fulfilment of the first conditional on Washington abandoning the second. This has panicked the Kosovo Albanians who have launched a challenge to the regional status quo by pushing for Kosovo’s unification with Albania, the consequences of which will rebound on Serbia and require the US to reorder the region to contain any outbreak of violence.
However, as has always been the case, this next reordering will create new pressures that eventually reach a breaking point. As the cycle of history rolls on in the Balkans, the partial solution to the problems of today will inevitably create the problems of tomorrow – and the subsequent reordering of the region that must, in a generation from now, inexorably follow.
Timothy Less is leading the New Intermarium research project at the Centre for Geopolitics and Grand Strategy at the University of Cambridge. Prior to this, he served as a diplomat in Bosnia and Macedonia. He is working on a book about postwar Bosnia.
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