The dire ghost of border changes haunts the Balkans
Changing state borders in the Western Balkans is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous ideas in contemporary European politics. So why has a mysterious document circulated in Brussels this month proposing sweeping changes to the borders established following the Yugoslav wars of succession in the 1990s and their aftermath?
The basic reason is that the Western Balkans – an area that includes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – have been trapped in a strategic no man’s land for a quarter of a century. A useful way to calm tensions in the region would be to admit the six countries into the EU. But this project, seemingly an unwavering goal of the 27-nation bloc, is advancing so slowly that it is increasingly irrelevant as a response to the region’s problems.
As a result, it proves impossible to pierce the expansionist dreams of local nationalists who would like to create, for example, a Greater Serbia, or a Greater Croatia or a Greater Albania. Uncertainty over the future of the Western Balkans intensifies regional antagonisms and widens the possibility for other powers, mainly China, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf countries, to expand their influence in the backyard of the EU.
Admittedly, there is no serious risk of an outbreak of violence on the scale of the wars of the 1990s. But the persistent instability of the Western Balkans retains its capacity to drag outside powers and to sharpen international tensions, such as it did so in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Let’s say right away that the anonymous document circulating around Brussels does not reflect the official line of any government in the EU or the region itself. Entitled “Western Balkans – A Way Forward”, it first appeared on a Slovenian news site, suggesting that it was written by circles close to Janez Jansa, the Slovenian Prime Minister. Jansa has categorically denied any involvement, as have other senior officials in Ljubljana, who are busy preparing for Slovenia’s July accession to the six-month rotating EU presidency.
In fact, no one claimed responsibility for the document. But in many ways, that’s not the point. Some of his arguments for border changes have been rife among Western Balkan nationalists since the collapse of the Yugoslav Communist Federation.
Take the proposal to merge the Bosnian Serb-controlled half of Bosnia and Herzegovina with Serbia. This was a declared war target of the Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s, and it was effectively reaffirmed last month by the Bosnian Serb parliament. The assembly adopted a resolution calling for “talks on a peaceful breakup” of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in case the international community refuses to abolish the Office of the High Representative in Sarajevo. The occupant of this office, still a public figure of the EU, oversees the civilian aspects of the Dayton peace accord that ended the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
Then there is the proposal of the document to unite the areas populated by Bosnian Croats from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croatia, or at least to grant them a special status. This fits with the long-standing goal of Croatian nationalists.
Finally, there is the idea of merging Albania with Kosovo, whose population is predominantly Albanian, and of granting special status to the northern region of Kosovo where the Serbs live. Some prominent politicians in Albania and Kosovo openly express their hope that a Greater Albania will one day emerge.
Of what is almost the perfect recipe for conflict or even outright war in the Balkans, the biggest losers would be the Muslim Bosnians of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They would end up with a truncated and vulnerable mini-state, just as the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat nationalists wanted in the 1990s.
This offers some clues about fatherhood. Upon close examination, it appears that the document has nothing to say about Russian or Chinese influence in the Western Balkans, while it makes three grim references to Turkey – whose presence is undoubtedly increasing. He also complains about the so-called “radical Islam” in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In other words, whoever wrote it touches on themes dear to right-wing populist circles across Europe.
To their credit, European and American diplomats denounced the document’s proposals. But defending the borders of the countries of the Western Balkans as inviolable is only half-policy at best. The region desperately needs a stronger engagement from the EU and the US. The longer Western governments persist in their relative neglect of the region, the higher the price they will ultimately have to pay.