Should Balkan Borders be Redrawn? | Opinion

The biggest story in the Balkans these days is the circulation of an obscure unofficial document–known in European circles as a "non-paper"–allegedly drafted and sent by the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša to Charles Michel, president of the European Council.

The document argues that the main obstacles to a speedier EU integration of Balkan countries are unsettled national issues which should be remedied by carving out a Greater Serbia, a Greater Albania and a Greater Croatia. This, so the document argues, could be achieved by tearing apart Bosnia and Herzegovina and adjoining its autonomous Serb Republic to Serbia, its Croat-dominated cantons to neighboring Croatia and merging Kosovo with Albania. Accordingly, Bosniak Muslims who constitute a majority in Bosnia and Herzegovina would be given a tiny rump statelet, surrounded by unfriendly forces and with no access to the Adriatic Sea. Understandably, this caused much angst and distress in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly among its Bosniak Muslim population.

Though the leaked document was published by a respected Slovenian investigative reporting website, Slovenia's Primer Minister Janez Janša denied writing it and accused "fake media" of harming Slovenia's efforts to integrate the Western Balkan states into the European Union. However, because Janša is known for being a right-leaning populist and a pugnacious ally of Hungary's equally far-right Viktor Orban and Serbia's Aleksandar Vučić, hardly anyone doubted the document's authenticity.

This is not the first time that the idea of a redrawing of Balkan borders is being floated, ostensibly to solve political and ethnic disputes.

Following the 1990s Yugoslav wars and U.S. mediation culminating in the Dayton Peace Agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina became divided into two entities with considerable independence: a Bosniak-Croat "Federation" comprising 51 percent and a "Serb Republic" comprising 49 percent of the country.

Each has its own government, legislature and police force, bolted together by a rather weak central government and a rotating tripartite presidency held equally by a Bosniak, a Croat and a Serb. The Western thinking was that millions of dollars spent on reconciliation, democracy and state building would eventually result in a functioning Bosnia and Herzegovina and a success story of Western state-building. However, Serb and Croat nationalists, eager to achieve their wartime goals of breaking away chunks of the country and creating their little statelets, continued obstructing the functioning of the state using their constitutionally guaranteed vetoes in order to show its alleged dysfunction and thereby making yet another argument for its dissolution.

Though the idea of land swaps and redrawing borders was in the past dismissed by Western leaders, politicians and analysts as an opening of Pandora's box of unsolved Balkan ethnic and territorial disputes, views have shifted in the past few years.

Due to intense lobbying by Croatian and Serbian nationalists in Brussels, along with rising Islamophobia and right-wing populism, an increasing number of EU leaders are now, more than ever, pondering on redrawing the region's borders and separating its Muslims from their Orthodox and Catholic neighbors. Even the recent Trump administration, in a break with America's decade's long policy toward the Balkans, began cautiously advocating for "border correction"–a far more palatable-sounding euphemism.

However, there is a backgrounder to the story.

Back in the 1990s, Bosniak Muslims were portrayed in Western media as the defenders of a multi-ethnic secular state against marauding Serb and Croat hordes intent on wiping out their white Slavic Muslim neighbors. After all, Serbs committed the first genocide in Europe after the Holocaust while Croats were found guilty of crimes against humanity.

Such an image of them lingered for years, that is, until the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. It is then that nationalist Serb and Croat journalists, academics and politicians realized that they could bandwagon with the rest of the world in their fight against "Islamic radicalism" and win much-needed friends in Europe and the U.S. and brush off their image of génocidaires. The most plausible way of doing so was by portraying their Bosniak Muslims neighbors as "white Al-Qaeda." The emergence of small numbers of radicalized Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims who joined ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria back in 2014 and 2015 was taken as irrefutable evidence of the entire states being radicalized.

Once seen as a paranoid nationalistic discourse employed by Balkan war criminals, the depiction of (deeply secularized and largely non-practicing) Bosniak and Kosovar Muslims as "Islamic radicals" has gained momentum and become mainstream in Europe. It was employed by Croatia's former President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Austria's chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Slovenia's Prime Minister Janez Janša and France's President Emmanuel Macron who referred to Bosnia as "a ticking time bomb."

Flags of European Union and Bosnia-Herzegovina are projected on the façade of Sarajevo City Hall during an event to mark Europe Day. ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images

Even though the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s were primarily over territory, Serb and Croatian nationalists found it useful to hide their irredentist aspirations toward Bosnia's territory and their genocide of Muslim Bosniaks under the clout of not wanting to share a state with "radical Muslims."

Such a narrative, coupled with the coming to power of Islamophobic right-wing populists in Europe, became the perfect ingredient to already existing ideas of land swaps and redrawing of borders. However, any negotiated trade of territory is a bad idea particularly in a region with a fragmented political landscape and atmosphere of mistrust. Such land swaps would likely create greater instability in the region and will kick start clamoring for other territorial trades.

An independent Serb and Croat statelet would confine the country's majority Bosniak Muslim population to a landlocked Bantustan whose international borders would be controlled by unfriendly forces. Bosniaks clearly oppose such a move and insist on a unified and multi-ethnic country. This has been a consistent political stance of the Bosniak Muslim leadership since the 1990s. Many have publicly stated that any secession from the state will lead to outright war–one that would undoubtedly have a spillover effect in the region, where Serbia and Croatia would step in to aid Serb and Croat secessionists, while Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey and Arab-majority states would step in to aid Bosniak Muslims–as they did in the 1990s.

There are significant Bosniak Muslim minorities living in the Serb and Croat populated parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and vice versa. Any new border drawing would cause a chaotic fleeing of minority populations to lands where their coreligionists constitute a majority. In complexity, it would be comparable to chopping up Lebanon along religious and sectarian lines. As was seen in the 1990s wars, this would not go down smoothly–killings, lootings and destroying property would be widespread. Establishing new functioning states, drafting new constitutions and laws would take years. Hard won security that is currently taken for granted would be breached and the already shambolic economy would further deteriorate.

A change of borders would present enormous risks and set an ominous precedent for leaders who harbor separatist ambitions, from Spain's Catalonia to Moldova's Transnistria. It would also give Russia an upper hand in the region, given its affinity for Serbia and its recent efforts to sow discord throughout the Balkans, as any undermining of democracy and stability fits well into Moscow's broader strategy. Redrawing Balkan national borders would also be consistent with Russia's actions in Georgia and Ukraine and perhaps be used as a justification for satisfying Moscow's ever growing territorial appetite.

Drawing national borders to solve ethnic disputes is a colonial-era practice that was designed to create ethnically pure territories mostly by Great Britain in its Middle Eastern and Asian colonies. It appeals to ethnic nationalists and racists, which perhaps is why Serb and Croatian nationalists have shown great interest for such an idea. However, as we saw in the case of Pakistan and India, Palestine and Israel and Turkey and Greece–a drawing of borders, land swaps and population exchanges is a bloody process that does little to ameliorate deep rooted political tensions and societal animosities among neighbors.

Since it did little to stop ethnic tensions in the past, it is unlikely to do so in the Balkans today.

While redrawing borders may be a priority for some in Western capitals, those in the Balkans do not see the political situation as such a pressing issue. According to a 2020 International Republican Institute poll, when asked what is the most important problem facing their country, 39 percent of Bosnians blamed unemployment, followed by high costs of living and corruption while only 5 percent cited politics. In Kosovo, 65 percent blamed the economy, followed by corruption and high costs of living and in North Macedonia, 33 percent blamed the economy, 24 percent blamed high costs of living while 13 percent blamed corruption. Clearly, redrawing of borders is not a primary concern so far as Balkan nations are concerned.

Harun Karčić is a journalist and political analyst based in Sarajevo covering foreign influences in the Balkans. He tweets @HarunKarcic.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.