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Slovenia Raises Uncomfortable Questions With Talk Of Bosnia's 'Dissolution'


Slovenian President Borut Pahor

Its provenance was unexpected, the underlying motives unclear, and its seriousness questioned.

But a public squabble born of Slovenian indelicacy rippled through the Bosnian and EU capitals this week and raised uncomfortable questions about the durability of borders and institutions in the Balkans, particularly Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Slovenian President Borut Pahor reportedly broached the possible "dissolution" of Bosnia-Herzegovina in conversation with Bosnia's tripartite presidency last month, and unconfirmed reports this week cited a phantom "non-paper" by Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa echoing talk of possible border changes to address lingering malaise in the former Yugoslavia.

Both leaders publicly dismissed suggestions that they were advocating or agitating for such an outcome.

But the alarm was duly raised and, strategic or not, the flap has unsettled outsiders to whom tinkering with decades-old borders is anathema and who think reforms are the best way to lift ethnically fraught Bosnia out of political paralysis.

"The idea of border changes is dangerous," Florian Bieber, director of the Center for Southeast European Studies at Austria's University of Graz, said.

He cited particular peril in the Balkans, where Serbian and Kosovar leaders were rumored to have considered a possible land swap three years ago. But he also warned of an unintended spillover into places like Ukraine, where Russia annexed Crimea seven years ago and still supports armed separatists.

"It was already highly risky [to] discuss a mutually agreed border change between Kosovo and Serbia and [is] even more risky in Bosnia because it would involve not only a nonconsensual process [but] affect people against their will and throw overboard the approach of the international community [that has been in place] since 1991, namely that no border changes along ethnic lines are acceptable," Bieber said. "This would have knock-on effects in Crimea and elsewhere and could trigger renewed conflict in Bosnia."

Out In The Open?

A local Slovenian news portal first reported on April 11 that Pahor had asked Bosnia's co-presidents at a March 5 meeting whether "separating peacefully" was an option for Bosnia, which is still governed as a Bosniak and Croat federation along with a Serb-majority entity called Republika Srpska.

The complicated arrangement and labyrinthian levels of government were codified in the Dayton accords that ended the Bosnian War in 1995.

Bosnian Croat* Zeljko Komsic said a day later that the question had been put to him and the other two members of Bosnia's presidency at a meeting in March.

Pahor's office later confirmed that he had asked the Bosnian leaders about "ideas about the dissolution of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the redrawing of borders in the Western Balkans" during a visit to Sarajevo in early March "out of concern about these ideas."

Reports suggested that Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the presidency and leader of Republika Srpska who recently intensified his calls for secession from the rest of Bosnia, responded more warmly to the Slovenian idea than his Bosniak and Croat counterparts.

Pahor subsequently stressed his "advocacy" for Bosnia's languishing EU membership bid and his respect for the country's territorial integrity.

Then came whirlwind reports this week suggesting that Jansa personally delivered a "non-paper" earlier this year to European Council President Charles Michel in which possible border changes were mentioned.

Jansa, a politically pugnacious ally of Hungarian nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has denied writing any such "non-paper."

An EU official responded on behalf of Michel's office on April 12 by saying that "we cannot confirm that we have received" such a document.

Bosnian border police along the Drina River in Zvornik, Bosnia
Bosnian border police along the Drina River in Zvornik, Bosnia

On April 15, a Ljubljana-based outlet, necenzurirano.si, published what it said was the "non-paper" in question.

In it, under the heading "Western Balkans -- A Way Forward," the authors propose "solutions" that included "the unification of Kosovo and Albania" and "joining a larger part of the Republika Srpska territory with Serbia."

They propose special status "following the model of South Tyrol" -- the mainly German-speaking province in northern Italy -- for "the Serbian part of Kosovo."

They also suggest either "joining the predominantly Croatian cantons of Bosnia-Herzegovina with Croatia, or...granting special status to the Croatian part of Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Bosniaks, they reason, "will thus gain an independently functioning state and assume responsibility for it."

They go on to say that, after EU preparations for stabilization and other programs, "silent procedures" that are already "under way" include running the plans by "decision-makers in the region" and "decision-makers in the international community."

Pressure For Change

Bosnia-Herzegovina has faced near-constant problems of governance since its creation with the two ethnic-based entities and locally governed Brcko district leaving the country with a highly constrained, weak central government.

Brussels and its high representative for foreign policy, Josep Borrell, have repeatedly stressed the bloc's desire to see a commitment to reforms from Bosnian officials that would "enable the country to progress towards the EU."

But unresolved issues -- including the problem of Bosnia's ongoing political instability and stagnation when it comes to reforms -- dominated conversation around the 25th anniversary of the Dayton accords in December.

Last month, Croatia's Foreign Ministry was quoted saying Zagreb was "the driver" of an initiative earlier this year to draft a "non-paper" to highlight Bosnia "as an important issue for the European Union which should be more visible on the geopolitical space in Southeast Europe."

WATCH: Peace, But No Prosperity: Bosnia Marks 25 Years Since Dayton Accords

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EU institutions and member states occasionally share confidential but unofficial "non-papers" as suggested talking points or possible frameworks for discussion of particularly fraught topics.

In the Croatian one, Foreign Minister Gordan Grlic-Radman advocated EU candidate status for Bosnia, including for its effect to improve the beleaguered country's "fragmented political landscape and atmosphere of mistrust" that exists among Bosnia's political representatives.

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

Grlic-Radman said after a meeting of EU foreign ministers on March 22 that other European counterparts -- including from France and Germany -- had also expressed support for the document.

It said Bosnia must reform its electoral legislation before next year's general election.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this month appealed to Bosnia's tripartite presidency to work toward at least modest reforms, including "limited constitutional change...to reform the electoral system."

He reportedly cited EU membership goals and "rulings of the European courts," a reference to a 2009 European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision demanding that Bosnia allow a minority outside the three main ethnicities -- Bosniak, Croat, and Serb -- to run for high office, an act that is currently banned.

It was the first official communication to Bosnia from U.S. President Joe Biden's administration and, while delicately worded, sent an unmistakable signal to Sarajevo.

"There's a whole bunch of things that are happening right now," Toby Vogel, a policy analyst focused on the Western Balkans and senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council (DPC), told RFE/RL prior to the leak of Jansa's purported "non-paper."

"And I think it makes a lot of people nervous, not just Bosnians but others as well who fear that the incumbent ethnic elite [in Bosnia] might be seeking to sort of cement or solidify their stranglehold over politics, society, and the economy and preempt any challenge to their rule," he said.

In that sense, Vogel added, the main ethnic parties that were essentially enshrined in the Bosnian Constitution that emerged from Dayton "absolutely have a congruence of interest."

Then came the confusing barrage of diplomatic signals from Slovenia.

'Dangerous Game' In Ljubljana

Slovenia is scheduled to join the rotating Trio Presidency of the EU Council in the second half of 2021, so the timing of Pahor and Jansa's statements packs a particular punch.

Perhaps they are simply seeking political points by appearing to offer solutions to the lingering instability among fellow former Yugoslav republics to the southeast.

Some analysts speculate that the Slovenian leaders could also be channeling dissatisfaction with Bosnia among "bigger actors" within the European Union.

Mateusz Seroka, a research fellow at the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw, told RFE/RL he thinks border adjustments are a nonstarter -- "such an option would cause as many problems as it could theoretically solve."

But speaking before the "non-paper's" contents were leaked, he said "there are still groups which could embrace thinking about partitioning the Western Balkan region along ethnic lines," and doesn't necessarily fault Ljubljana for raising the topic.

"Of course serious politicians should take into account that things could go in [the] wrong direction, so they should talk about various scenarios with their counterparts from the region," Seroka said. "But it does not necessarily mean that they are in favor of, for example, the partitioning of existing countries."

Policy analyst Vogel said he doubts the reported talk of Balkan border changes by Slovenian officials is a thoughtful strategic push.

"I think it's more of a trial balloon or a provocation maybe," he said. "But the question is, what's the secondary effect this is going to have? Independently of whether any of this will actually happen, I think the effect it has is to create an atmosphere in which people feel that everything is negotiable -- nothing is to be taken for granted. And that's a very dangerous game to play, I think, in the Balkans."

*CORRECTION: This article has been changed to correctly identify Zeljko Komsic, the Croat member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering the Balkans, the Transcaucasus, and science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for Reuters, Oxford Analytica, Acquisitions Monthly, the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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