Followers and fans of Balkan politics were startled by the news that Slovenian PM Janez Janša has delivered a non-paper to the European Council, advocating the repartition of Bosnian-Herzegovinian territories between Serbia and Croatia, and the union of Albania with Kosovo. Janša denied any link with the matter and journalists from the Balkans and abroad expressed opposing views on the authorship and the place of origin of the document. On April 15, the Slovenian website necenzurirano.si, published the full version of the document titled “Western Balkans – A Way Forward”.
After some initial comments following the publication of the non-paper, the whole affair is now fading in the depths of the cyberspace from where it came without causing much regret for the unsolved mysteries that it is leaving behind. Western European media pay attention to the Balkans as long as they are a source of sensational facts such as a secret border exchange between former “enemy” countries. In the Balkan media, border exchange is usual business and the news did not create much turmoil. In this article I will take a closer look at the details of the document in order to understand the logic of the policies that it prescribes. The analysis of the non-paper enables a reflection on the popularity of the EU in the Western Balkans (WB) and allows to explore current political tendencies in the region.
A Way Forward?
Unless it turns out to be an internet meme, the content of non-paper clearly shows that it was addressed to the highest ranks of EU diplomacy. The authors of the document outline a strategy for the EU to reinforce its influence in the WB. In the first part, titled “Situation”, the document claims that the main political setbacks in the region are linked to the national issues of Serbs, Albanians, and Croatians. The Dayton Agreements of 1995 and the tense situation between Serbia and Kosovo are considered the main obstacles for the EU integration process. Turkey is designated as EU’s main competitor because of its extended influence in the region, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and North Macedonia.
The second part of the document titled “Solutions”, is divided in six paragraphs (from a. to f.) and provides a series of objectives aimed at accelerating access to EU and NATO memberships (f.). According to the program, the first and seemingly easier objective would be to unify Kosovo and Albania (a.). The authors claim that 95% of Kosovo wants to unite with its “Albanian nation of origin” and that the situation is similar in Albania. The data is certainly not extrapolated from statistical evidence, but by the transposition of the accepted figure of the Albanian population in Kosovo which is above 90%. The passage “want to unite with their nation of origin” is quite bizarre because it seems as if Kosovo Albanians were not from Kosovo but migrated from present day Albanian territories.
The non-paper (b.) promotes the annexation of the territory of Republika Srpska to Serbia. This process will hypothetically sort out the “Serbian national issue” and will lead Belgrade to accept the union of Kosovo and Albania. The solution of the “Croatian national issue” is open to different options (c.). The authors recommend either to unite predominantly Croatian cantons of Bosnia-Herzegovina with Croatia; or to grant a special status to the Croatian part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, similar to the one that South Tyrol enjoys in Italy. South Tyrol, which is also indicated as a model for the status of the “Serbian part” of Kosovo (a.), is probably mentioned to provide the readers with a familiar example. Bosniaks should accept the dismemberment of their state for the sake of EU interests. They would thereby “gain” (d.) an independent state and would have to organize a referendum in order choose “between EU and non-EU (Turkey)”. The authors believe that this solution will prevent the spread of further Turkish influence and radical Islam.
State-building based on national or religious grounds is against the sense of the EU integration process and is probably conceived to put an end to it. The formation of a Bosniak independent state based on a “national” principle would (legitimately)lead Bosniaks to claim the Sanjak territories in Montenegro and in Serbia. National and religious tensions will increase Turkey’s influence in the region. The union of Serbia and Republika Srpska would bring eurosceptics living on both sides of the border to join ranks, thus hindering the region’s integration in the EU. Similar outcomes would be generated by the union of Albania and Kosovo where eurosceptics have become more numerous in the last years.
With and Against the EU
The document is anonymous, but its content allows us to make a hypothesis on its commissioner. In the penultimate paragraph of the “Solutions” section, the authors lay down the areas of intervention on which the EU should focus in order to increase its influence in the Balkans. In their view, the EU should launch a “comprehensive economic programme for the stabilisation, better infrastructure and energy connectivity of the region, and environmental rehabilitation.” The authors believe that the EU should not act alone, but with the support of regional actors such as the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). The 3SI was founded in 2015 in view of enhancing collaboration between EU member states of Central and Eastern Europe. One of their official papers argues that the organisation aims at reducing the “civilisation gap” that separates Eastern from Western European countries. In order to fulfil this objective, the 3SI has devised a series of projects for improving the mobility, energy and digitalisation infrastructure of the region on a vertical axis that runs from North to South.
The policies recommended by the non-paper for the WB seem at least in part inspired by the objectives of the 3SI. For instance, the endeavour to achieve a “better infrastructure and energy connectivity of the region, and environmental rehabilitation”, falls in the organisation’s commitment to improve energy security (objective number 3) and reach climate goals (objective number 6). The 3SI and the non-paper share some conceptual analogies. The 3SI documents use the historically controversial term “nation” to refer to European states. A nation-centric perspective informs the authors of the non-paper who believe that regional problems will be solved by supporting nationalist drives instead of opposing them. WB countries which are not members of the 3SI are cited as partners in a series of projects for the development of the transport, digitalisation and energy infrastructure that were discussed during the organisation summit in Slovenia in 2019.
The non-paper and the 3SI pay attention to political stability and economic growth, but they do not seem very concerned by issues related to the rule of law, human rights and corruption, which are at least formally at the core of the EU action in the area. In the third and last section of the document, titled “Steps”, the authors draw out the strategies through which the “Solutions” can be reached. In their view, the plan should be checked and carried out with international and regional decision-makers in a “silent procedure”. According to the document, it seems that the partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the union of Kosovo and Albania could be achieved without popular vote. The non-paper expects the EU to endorse a project that will radically alter the borders of the region without taking into consideration the will of the communities that will be affected by the changes.
Return to the Old Path
The non-paper was perhaps never received by the office of the European Council. However, the mere fact that it was addressed to the EU shows that the latter is exposed to the lobbying of groups operating in contradiction with the EU agenda in the Balkans. Rather than consolidating EU interests, the non-paper exploits EU diplomacy to the benefit of its commissioners. The3SI – like the non-paper- promotes a top-to-bottom governance approach that aims at attaining political stability and economic growth at the detriment of democracy and justice. This old political strategy is the outcome of a widespread feeling of distrust in the future of the EU.
The constitution of the 3SI is a sign of this feeling. Another manifestation of this political course is the mini-Schengen initiative that was started by Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia in 2019. Both 3SI and mini-Schengen are presented as complementary to the EU. But they might also become alternatives or competitors to the EU, especially for non-member states that do not want to have too close links with Russia or/and the Atlantic Alliance. The EU is one of the main investors in the connectivity sectors in the WB, but it is not the only partner available to regional politicians who are constantly on the lookout for financial assets. Many citizens of the WB believe that their countries have no chance to access the EU in the next decade. Their opinion toward the EU has been negatively conditioned by the euroscepticism in Eastern and Western European neighbouring states. The inability of the EU to conduct a common vaccination program has also damaged its image of in the eyes of regional actors.
The EU is facing a credibility crisis that is turning former EU-enthusiast countries such as Albania into eurosceptics. Local politicians have promptly exploited this mood. In a recent interview on Vizion Plus, Albanian PM Edi Rama spoke about the EU membership of the country with realistic tones. Rama affirmed that the matter does not depend on Albanians, but on the attitudes of the European politicians who are conditioned by the public opinion of their countries. He cited the case of Bulgaria’s veto on the accession talks of North Macedonia in order to claim that Sofia’s decision was determined by internal pressures. Rama affirmed that Albania can enter “Europe” by either improving its infrastructure, economy, and digitalisation or by doing its “homework”. However, according to the Albania Premier, doing “homework” is not a guarantee of success because Albania will be subject to the incoherent judgment of EU politicians. Rama, who hopes to win the imminent general elections and obtain the third mandate in a row, praised the works undertaken by his government to improve mobility infrastructure such as airports and touristic and commercial harbours.
The policies advocated by the non-paper and by the 3SI circles that might have commissioned it reflect the overall course of WB politics. Regional actors aim at changing the configuration of the area either by redrawing the state territories or easing border regimes. However, they still want to preserve and even reinforce the idea of “nation” and the cultural boundaries that it entails. Balkan politicians are less and less concerned with inequalities, corruption and human right protection, which are the cause of some of the biggest issues in the region. The top-down strategies adopted for improving the connectivity sectors do not always take into account the ecological impact, notwithstanding the formal declarations about the protection of the environment. The way in which investments will affect the economy is uncertain because foreign and regional speculators are likely to profit from them at the detriment of small and medium local businesses and communities. The conceptual frame that is guiding WB politics and connectivity projects, suggests that the EU might be destined to a more marginal role in the area if it’s not able to regain its lost charisma.