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Reactions to the “non-paper”: Ideas of border change rejected, but they will not go away

EU - Western Balkans informal meeting, February 2020; Foto: European Union

Regardless of the authenticity of the non-paper released last week by Necenzurirano.si, the news about the document once again opened the question of border changes in the Western Balkans. A rejection of the idea has arrived, but there will still be supporters of it in the future.

The paper proposes dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina along ethnic lines, joining the territories majority populated by Serbs and Croats to Serbia and Croatia, as well as the unification of Kosovo and Albania. Together with the accompanying map made by News1.mk, the non-paper became the most reported on news story in the regional media last week.

The media attributed the paper to the Prime Minister of Slovenia Janez Janša last week, though he denied this. Further confusion was added by various regional leaders, for example Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama, who claimed that he had seen the document, and President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić, who denied seeing it.

While the true origin of the document might remain a mystery, the region is once again discussing the possibility of changing the borders, with most of the focus on the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This has prompted reactions of the EU and US representatives.

EU Delegation, EU Heads of Mission in Bosnia Herzegovina and EUFOR Commander issued a statement last week, saying that “EU is unequivocally committed to the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina”, and supportive of its EU future. Meanwhile, US Embassy to Sarajevo stated that the country’s position on Dayton Peace Agreement and the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a united state on a path to Euro-Atlantic integrations was well known.

European Commission and European Council Spokespersons denied that these institutions had received any proposal with the alleged content, while the office of President of Slovenia Borut Pahor, who also got involved in the story, released a statement saying that “President Pahor regularly warns against the idea of disintegration of BiH and redrawing of borders in the Western Balkans”. President of Croatia Zoran Milanović also condemned the idea.

Meanwhile, there have been no comments from other EU governments. According to the op-ed by Christian Schwartz-Schilling, former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is rumored that parts of the document have been written in Budapest. He urged the EU to position itself against these tendencies with a clear, transparent and focused policy.

Srđan Cvijić, Senior Policy Analyst with the Open Society European Policy Institute and a member of Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), does not believe that there is significant support to the idea in the EU.

“The reaction to the alleged Janša non-paper from other EU member states could have been stronger, but I wouldn’t interpret their perceived absence as supportive of the idea of further border changes in the region. It is not customary to directly comment the non-paper of another member state. If you add doubts about its authenticity to it, this would make such a reaction even more difficult for Slovenia’s EU partners”, Cvijić says.

Marko Kmezić, Lecturer and Senior Researcher at the University of Graz and another BiEPAG member, also believes that there is still a clear opposition to the idea of border change in the EU.

“This was previously made clear on several occasions already, for example when Milorad Dodik advocated referendum on independence in Republika Srpska, or when Aleksandar Vučić and Hashim Thaçi were rumoured to have considered land swap between Serbia and Kosovo as part of normalisation of relations between the two countries”, he reminds.

Regardless, he says, this does not mean that similar initiatives will not resurface again in the future, because there are still groups or individuals who would embrace idea of separation among the ethnic lines in the Balkans.

“Of course, it makes a lot of difference who stands behind such ideas in a particular point in time and why, and as many things with regard to the present non-paper remain unclear, i.e. the credibility of the alleged document, one thing is quite obvious – no-one cared to welcome such an initiative today”, Kmezić concludes.

Srđan Cvijić also believes that the voices supporting the redrawing of borders in the Balkans will remain, but he doubts that they will prevail.

“Some important EU member states have been seen as siding with the Trump presidency taking a position that whatever Serbia and Kosovo agree would be acceptable to them. Berlin was strongly against this and managed to bring others back to the fold. Now, with the new US administration unequivocally against the alleged Janša non-paper, I is difficult to imagine that major players in the EU support it”, Cvijić says.

He, however, believes that the reason why these ideas have once again attracted attention of the region is that it once again found itself under EU’s radar.

“Janša’s alleged action in this regard is best described by the following sentence:  While the cat’s away, the mice will play. I would draw an even bigger conclusion from this ‘incident’, until Berlin, Paris and other major EU capitals do not consider the WB EU membership an absolute priority that should not be further postponed, the stability of the WB region, and consequently of the wider EU space, will be constantly under threat”, he concludes.

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