Michel silent over unofficial document mulling border changes in Western Balkans

European Council President Charles Michel (R) and Slovenia's Prime Minister Janes Janza at the round table during a two-days face-to-face European Council summit, in Brussels, Belgium, 15 October 2020. EU countries leaders are meeting in person for a two-day summit expected to focus mainly on EU-UK negotiations following Brexit, climate ambition and EU Budget. [EPA-EFE/YVES HERMAN / POOL]

A phantom document proposing controversial border changes across the Western Balkans caused a political storm in the region and in Brussels this week. While most EU officials had little knowledge of the elusive document, the office of European Council President Charles Michel could not deny receiving it.  EURACTIV took a closer look.

On Thursday (15 April), a Ljubljana-based outlet, necenzurirano.si published what it said was a ‘non-paper’ allegedly authored by Prime Minister Janez Janša, or someone from his inner circle, proposing possible border changes to address lingering malaise in the former Yugoslavia, titled Western Balkans – a Way Forward.

Janša has denied writing the document and his office, contacted by EURACTIV, said it “does not further comment” on the issue.

Bosnian media were the first to report on Monday that Janša had handed over a document with guidelines on the “final disintegration of former Yugoslavia” to European Council President Charles Michel in February or March this year.

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The Slovenian Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has been summoned to the country’s foreign ministry to explain recent rumours about alleged plans by Ljubljana for the dissolution of the country hosting her and a redrawing of borders across the Western Balkans.

They also reported that Slovenian President Borut Pahor had broached the possible “peaceful dissolution” of Bosnia-Herzegovina in a conversation with Bosnia’s tripartite presidency last month – which Pahor confirmed but insisted that his motives were different and that he remained fully in favour of Bosnia’s territorial integrity.

The background

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.

After the 1999 NATO airstrikes against the remains of then Yugoslavia, the former Serbian province of Kosovo was created as a separate entity, which unilaterally declared independence in 2008. However, Northern Kosovo, composed of four municipalities with ethnic Kosovo Serbs majority, largely escape the control of Pristina.

Non-paper contents

EU institutions and member states occasionally share confidential but unofficial non-papers as suggested talking points or possible frameworks for discussion of delicate topics to determine common ground.

The paper proposes “solutions” that included “the unification of Kosovo and Albania” and as a counterbalance, “joining a larger part of the Republika Srpska territory with Serbia”, essentially redrawing borders along ethnic lines.

The Croatian issue in BiH would reportedly be solved by the predominantly Croat cantons of BiH joining Croatia, or by granting them a special status “following the model of South Tyrol”, the mainly German-speaking autonomous province in northern Italy. The same status is proposed for “the Serbian part of Kosovo”.

Opening the door to Turkey

In a referendum, “the Bosniaks can choose between the future in the EU or outside it, like Turkey,” the non-paper states.

Turkey is especially interested in the region, but the EU has never considered downsizing its enlargement ambition in the Western Balkans to the profit of Ankara.

Additionally, the non-paper alludes to “silent procedures” that are “underway” to include running the plans by “decision-makers in the region” and “decision-makers in the international community”.

In an earlier Croatian paper, Foreign Minister Gordan Grlić Radman called for more support for Bosnia, including for its efforts to improve the country’s “fragmented political landscape and atmosphere of mistrust” that exists among Bosnia’s political representatives, and advocated EU candidate status for the country,

Slovenia was among the signatories, as were Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, and Hungary.

Michel’s non-denial

Asked for a firm confirmation or denial that the Slovenian paper was received by Michel’s office, either through official or unofficial channels, his spokesperson told EURACTIV he “cannot give any comment whatsoever” about its reception.

The European Commission and its diplomatic service (EEAS) were not aware of the alleged unofficial document on borders in the Western Balkans.

“The EEAS has not received it, not aware of its content beyond what was reported in the media,” EU’s chief spokesperson Peter Stano told EURACTIV when asked about the document.

EU diplomats ‘unaware’

Brussels and the EU chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, have repeatedly stressed the EU’s desire to see a commitment to reforms from Bosnian officials that would “enable the country to progress towards the EU.”

Some analysts have also suggested that the Slovenian leaders may have been probing the level of dissatisfaction with Bosnia among “bigger actors”, or even on their behalf, within the EU.

Five EU diplomats contacted by EURACTIV, however, said they were officially unaware of the paper as it “has not been introduced through the official channels”.

In diplomatic practice, this means its existence can be publicly denied at any time.

“This non-paper has not been discussed among the member states. It wasn’t also officially distributed,” one EU diplomat told EURACTIV.

“It looks like provocative actions and disinformation,” another EU diplomat said but refused to speculate who could have an interest in spreading such disinformation.

A problematic presidency?

Slovenia will take over the EU Council’s rotating presidency on 1 July, so the timing of Pahor and Janša statements packs a particular punch as this is when a more concrete conversation about the future of the Western Balkans is anticipated at the EU level.

Slovenian MEP Tanja Fajon (S&D), leader of the second-biggest opposition party, Social Democrats, in the Slovenian national assembly, said in a Thursday statement that the “solution for the Balkans is a clear European perspective, not moving borders”.

Fajon warned of some European leaders who promote “disruptive ideas and nationalist tendencies, and with undiplomatic moves, they are burdening the already concerned population with additional concerns”.

“Any idea, as we hear them, of setting and moving borders between countries, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has suffered the most damage, is an extremely dangerous move,” the European lawmaker added.

Fajon has recently upset Bulgaria by spearheading a killer amendment in a European Parliament resolution, strongly criticising Sofia for blocking the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia, while praising  Skopje’s “mature” position.

The amendment was rejected in Plenary, but the negative apprehensions for Slovenia’s presidency remain, Bulgarian commentators said in Sofia.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Georgi Gotev]

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