Redrawing borders in the Balkans would be a colossal mistake
A diplomatic shockwave has struck the Balkan region of southeastern Europe. A leaked diplomatic note, allegedly attributed to Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa and meant for European Council President Charles Michel, proposed the redrawing of borders along ethnic and religious lines to help facilitate the entry of countries in the region into the EU and NATO. The unofficial diplomatic note, whose existence neither the Slovenian government nor the EU has confirmed or denied, was leaked to Slovenian media last week.
There are three aspects of this proposal that are not surprising.
Firstly, it is not surprising that a proposal to redraw national borders is controversial. There are fewer greater affronts to one’s national sovereignty than outsiders pontificating about redrawing national borders. No doubt there are many people reading this article who come from countries in the Middle East and can relate to this. This is not the first time that the suggestion of redrawing borders in the Balkans has been made. In 2018, a proposal for a land swap between Serbia and Kosovo was floated as part of a normalization process between the two countries. Many European governments, such as Germany and the UK, came out against the proposal. The Trump administration was lukewarm on the idea, but thankfully never advocated for it in any meaningful way.
Secondly, it is not surprising that this unofficial diplomatic note originated in Slovenia. As the first country of the former Yugoslavia to become independent, and the first to become a member of NATO and the EU, Slovenia sees itself as having a special leadership role in the Balkans. Furthermore, it takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in July. This role will allow Ljubljana to, at least in part, set the agenda for the bloc.
Finally, it is not surprising that Jansa is allegedly the brains behind the proposal. He is no stranger to controversy. Like many Balkan politicians of his generation, he started his political journey as a communist. Today, he has taken on a populist persona that has led some to describe him as the “Slovenian Trump.” He sparked controversy after the 2020 US presidential election by declaring on social media that Donald Trump was the actual winner and then subsequently tweeting various conspiracy theories about the election.
So what exactly was mentioned in this two-page memo that has sparked such controversy? The gist of the proposal that was leaked to the media was redrawing the borders in the Balkans to create a Greater Serbia (with Bosnia’s Republika Srpska entity joining Serbia), a Greater Albania (the unification of Kosovo, Albania and parts of North Macedonia) and a Greater Croatia (with the possibility of predominantly Croatian cantons of Bosnia joining Croatia).
For some reason, Serbia’s Sandzak region was not mentioned in the memo. Sandzak is a Muslim-majority region that straddles two countries, Serbia and Montenegro. It also borders two more, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Most of the region lies inside Serbia. The reason for its omission is unclear.
There is no doubt that the Balkans suffers from many economic and security problems. The global pandemic has not helped the situation. Overlaying these problems are ethnic and religious tensions that go back hundreds of years. While the proposal might be tempting for policymakers as a simple quick fix, nothing in the Balkans is ever straightforward.
Redrawing the borders of the Balkans would also mean open season for border changes elsewhere in Europe. Russia already uses ethnicity as a justification for its actions in Moldova (Transnistria), Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) and Ukraine (Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk), and could do so in other places like Estonia and Latvia, where sizable Russian minorities live.
The conclusion of the leaked diplomatic note outlines a set of steps that should be taken to lay the groundwork for future border changes in the Balkans. These steps include working behind the scenes to get support for the proposal. The memo states: “If the EU, the United States and the majority of the regional decision-makers agree with the plan and steps for its implementation, the EU seizes the initiative and formalizes it.” This would be a colossal mistake.
The region previously underwent a tidal wave of border changes in the 1990s. During this period, more than 100,000 people died and millions were displaced in sectarian conflicts. European and American policymakers must be aware of the risks of allowing the Balkans to be further divided along ethnic and religious lines.
While the proposal might be tempting for policymakers as a simple quick fix, nothing in the Balkans is ever straightforward.
Although security in the region has improved dramatically since the 1990s, sectarian divisions remain and have been exacerbated by sluggish economies, high unemployment rates and endemic political corruption. The Balkans continues to be an area of instability in Europe. Supporting an initiative forcing countries to adjust thousands of kilometers of borders is not worth the instability it could cause.
Instead of redrawing lines on the map, the countries in the Balkans should pursue meaningful democratic reforms that include the rights of minority ethnic groups and the various religions in the region. For the most part, the rest of Europe has been able to do this in the 21st century, and there is no reason why the Balkans cannot either.
- Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey