Redrawing territorial maps of Western Balkans 30 years later

For the past two weeks, the attention from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Recovery and Resilience negotiations were distracted by a diplomatic row in the Western Balkans. A “non-paper” surfaced in the media, document allegedly submitted by Slovenia to the President of the European Council. Considering this spring was not tremendous for the reputation of either of Slovenia’s President or European Council’s Charles Michel, the leaked document ignited a heated exchange of accusations and subsequent sidesteps.

The “non-paper” presented the idea of redrawing the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and North Macedonia. Invoking rumors that such a plan would allegedly be endorsed by certain EU policymakers (without clearly naming any) added a new dimension of the debate, especially considering that Slovenia will take over the Presidency of the Council of the EU on July 1st.

After several stakeholders expressed their reactions, there are still questions if the positionings on such a matter were adequate and how it should be dealt in the future.

In 1991, Slovenia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, the first country of the Western Balkans to break away. Following the 1991-95 Yugoslav wars and US mediation, Bosnia and Herzegovina became a federation divided into two entities with considerable independence: the Bosniak-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska. Each has its own government, legislature and police force, but the two come together in a central government and a rotating three-person presidency held equally by a Bosniak, a Croat and a Serb.

Now, 30 years later, ideas for redrawing the borders of the Western Balkans are resurfacing and triggering dangerous sentiments across the region and at EU level.

When governments across the world are struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing internally on health and political stability issues, various leaders are using these troubled times to test controversial ideas.

Is it adequate to issue “non-papers” in which you can promote ideas without official political repercussions? Is leaking such documents the new barometer for sensitive historical issues? Can one invocate hearsays (that are not supported by any source) to destabilize governments?

With the Slovenian presidency of the EU Council now just over two months away, the whole incident couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Map of former Yugoslavia

Ethnicity based countries – a recipe for disaster?

Allegedly, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša submitted to the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, at the end of February or early March, a “non-paper” that sees the redrawing of the territorial borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Kosovo around ethnic majorities.

Ethnic map of former Yugoslavia and Albania

Red – Serbs; Green: Bosniaks; Blue: Croatians; Black: Albanians

More specifically, in the “non-paper” that was published by various publications, Serbia would incorporate Bosnia and Herzegovina’s region with Serbian majority ethnics, Croatia would incorporate Bosnia and Herzegovina’s region with Croat majority ethnics, and Albania would integrate the Albanian majority areas from Kosovo and North Macedonia. In the end, this scenario envisions a Bosnia and Herzegovina a third of its current size.

Journalists traced the origin of the “non-paper” to PM Janša who did neither confirm or deny its provenance. So far, from what is publicly known, this idea was reflected only in a “non-paper”, an inter-governmental communication that has no binding weight. Promptly, the Slovenian ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has been summoned to the country’s foreign ministry to explain the rumors about this situation.

Nonetheless, official or not, discussing such issues reopens old wounds that can escalate beyond the political realm.

EU’s enlargement without multiculturalism?

Šefik Džaferović, one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three presidents (the country has a three-member Presidency, each representing the major ethnic groups – Serbians, Bosnians and Croats), fueled the rumor by telling the press that the Slovenian President, Borut Pahor, found in the inner circles of the European Union support for an alleged “finish of the process of Yugoslavia’s dissolution”. The argument brought is that by redrawing borders, the process of EU integration would become more decisive for local leaders. Another dimension of the letter implies a non-EU future for Bosnia and Herzegovina, that would be a Muslim ethnocentric state aligned to Turkey. Problematic in nature this idea, it underlies an Islamophobic rhetoric inside the leadership of an EU’s state leadership.

In the same declaration, President Džaferović argued that in discussions with Slovenia’s Pahor about this idea, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s clear message was to reject even the idea of such an option. The political and social outcomes of such a discussion are unquantifiable, especially considering the wide spread of disinformation and complex use of fake news to accentuate social uprising.

But there was no need for fake news and elaborate communication campaigns. Pahor’s own cabinet, as leader of one of EU’s governments, replied officially stating that the prime minister of Slovenia is an advocate for BiH’s territorial integrity, while in the same admitting that such remarks were made in September 2020 during a visit to North Macedonia.

It was clear at some point that someone was lying or trying to cool off the situation in a more or less diplomatic manner. Slovenia’s PM Janša denied the existence of the memo, while Albania’s PM Edi Rama joined the “finger pointing contest”, adding that he also read the memo and held discussions on this topic with PM Janša.

Was this memo an idea circulated some time ago by Slovenia’s PM and President, subsequently dropped and now resurfaced by one of them without consulting the other? It wouldn’t be the first-time history witnesses such a situation, especially considering that Slovenia is heading towards elections later this or early next year.

Not an entirely isolated idea

This is not the first time such an idea is discussed publicly. In March 2020, in the context of Kurti’s no-confidence motion, Aleksandar Vučić (Serbia’s President) and Hashim Thaçi (Kosovo’s President at that time) were rumored to have considered land swap between Serbia and Kosovo as part of normalization of relations between the two countries. The claims of such discussions were promptly dismissed by the US Special Envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, Richard Grenell, the US Ambassador to Kosovo, Philip Kosnett, and the US Special Representative for the Western Balkans, Matthew Palmer.

If Slovenia mediatized the idea through the leaked document, the Serbian President of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, in contrast to the statements of Bosnian President Džaferović, continued on a similar note, announcing that his party will establish a negotiation team to discuss the country’s future with the other key political actors in the country. In an interesting coordination, Dodik’s Alliance of the Independent Social Democrats published YouTube videos talking about the idea that “an independent Republika Srpska has today become a solution that is increasingly talked about around the world”, and that “peaceful separation is the only solution for this Bosnia”.

Also, a Croatian news agency recalled that Milorad Dodik had told a session of the Republika Srpska parliament on 10 March that European politicians are now openly talking about the possibility of a peaceful break-up in BiH, and announced that he would personally request a referendum on RS status “in a year or two”.

As expected, the prospect of war was invoked again, this time as the objective of efforts to be avoided by all means. It seems so far that key political actors in all WB states are reacting to this news but understand that the current health crisis comes as a priority before such discussions. Bosnian SDA party (Stranka demokratske akcije – Party of Democratic Action) had called on the Peace Implementation Council, an international body tasked with implementing the Dayton Peace Agreement, to place Dodik under sanctions over his threats of secession.

Interesting was the official statement of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on the matter (after the session of the Council for Cooperation between Serbia and Republika Srpska):

We don’t intend to dwell on the conflicts and wars and I view the statements that go in that direction as irresponsible, just as I do the insults at the expense of other people

Croatia, through its Minister for Foreign Affairs, promptly reacted to the news of the “non-paper”, dismissing its ideas and reiterating its support for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s stability and territorial integrity.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters that “The idea that things can be solved with new lines on a map is not only unrealistic, but it is dangerous to even initiate this discussion”.

At global level, Matthew Field, British Ambassador to Bosnia issued a statement stating that “the entities have no right to secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina and only exist legally by virtue of the Bosnia and Herzegovina constitution.” Similarly, an American state department spokesperson said that “The United States deeply values its longstanding partnership with Bosnia and Herzegovina. We support its sovereignty and territorial integrity, respect for which was enshrined in the Dayton Peace Accords”.

How fast can EU decompress a crisis?

Invoke an unsubstantiated rumor about “secret interests” in Brussels and you have in most cases the blueprint of a usual conspiracy theory. In the case of regional politics that constantly witness changes and rotations of inside and outside stakeholders with constantly shifting agendas, you might reach a point when nothing surprises you anymore, as absurd as it might be. Add to this the almost instant speed of spreading messages on social media and tumbling down further more hearsay and one can already see an outburst of populism and social tensions.

What happens when the exponent of populism is in the spotlight? How will the Union’s internal mechanisms function to contain escalating tensions? Such dilemmas are already being analyzed, considering Slovenia will take over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union on July 1st.

So far, the EU Delegation, EU Heads of Mission in Bosnia Herzegovina and EUFOR Commander issued a statement saying that “EU is unequivocally committed to the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina”, and supportive of its EU future. European Commission and European Council Spokespersons denied that these institutions had received any proposal with the alleged content.

European Council President Charles Michel’s office refused to comment while the European Commission said it hadn’t received the non-paper:

We never comment on various documents published by the media. In addition, in this specific case it is not up to the European Commission or European External Action Service to express ourselves on the issue of the alleged non-paper since the Commission has not received anything and is not aware of the alleged content of such document.

Slovenia’s leader, Janša, is associated based on his rhetoric to an “anti-European alliance” comprising France’s Le Pen, Netherland’s Wilders, Hungary’s Orban, Italy’s Salvini, Serbia’s Vucivi. Having the democratic mechanisms drastically reduced due to the restrictions imposed by the Covid 19 pandemic (such as public protests and reactions), along with the national and European focus on fighting the effects of the pandemic, such unstable times can offer a playground for populism.

Florian Bieber, a professor of southeast European history and politics at Graz University and one of the leading experts on Western Balkans, interprets the “silence” of the EU institutions on this matter as an approach of dismissing it by ignoring it. In the same time, Bieber considers the non-paper as being “too serious to be ignored”.

How different will this year’s Slovenian EU presidency be compared to its first in 2008?

13 years ago, in 2008, during its Council of the EU presidency, Slovenia played a pivotal role in brokering a compromise get to a meritocratic visa liberalisation process for the Western Balkans. For this year’s presidency, Slovenia’s presidency of the European Council will be an interesting one, having chances to generate reactions inside the EU institutions if such a rhetoric will be repeated. Time will tell if silence can still be an approach.

For the moment, Slovenian President Pahor is in a tour visiting the leaders of the Brdo-Brijuni Process, an annual multilateral event in the Western Balkans held since 2013. For this year, the Brdo-Brijuni Process is having French President Emmanuel Macros as guest, the summit being hosted by Slovenia, similar to the first summit.

With great expectations from the leaders of the Western Balkans, especially considering President Pahor’s recent statements on the need for the European Union to accelerate its expansion into the Western Balkans, the recent events and the possibility of recurrence of similar ones risks to hinder the opportunities brought by Slovenia’s presidency of the Council of the EU.

Controversial ideas, as those recently recorded, even in the form of “non-papers”, can be a slippery slope for populism. For the moment, there is no official threshold to assess the impact of statements for which EU’s institutions and leaders should react. Even so, as professor Bieber argued, some issues, especially in certain contexts, are too serious to be ignored. EU’s leaders should use the know-how, tools and overall weight of the institutions they lead to avoid the Union being demonized or associated with populist rhetoric. In addition, the European Union should enhance and incentivize the involvement of member states in creating cohesion and dialogue with the countries of the Western Balkans, aiming for speeding the adoption of reforms necessary for EU integration.

Radu Vladimir Răuță is a PhD candidate at SNSPA Bucharest. His academic research focuses on anti-corruption policies and developments, with a focus on the Western Balkans and the role of various actors in promoting rule of law. Contributor to the development of international standards and best practices on anti-corruption and whistle-blowing systems, he blends know-how from the experience of consulting work for public and private organizations with a passion for academic research into the root causes of corruption and how it could be tackled.