The 'Phantom Papers' That No One In The Western Balkans Will Own Up To Writing

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa (left) and EU Council President Charles Michel (file photo)

In recent weeks, there have been two so-called "non-papers" on sensitive political issues that have whipped up part of the Western Balkans into a state of frenzy.

What’s different about these discussion papers, compared to the ones that usually swirl around the corridors of Brussels, is that very few, if any, European politicians and diplomats seem to actually possess this pair of documents.

This indicates a couple of things: that things appear to be moving in the region, especially between Serbia and Kosovo, and that someone either wants to test the waters with various ideas or, perhaps more sinisterly, wreck things.

Non-papers are part and parcel of the Brussels process. There are usually hundreds of them circulating among diplomats, dealing with every kind of issue.

The whole idea of the exercise is to stimulate discussions within the bloc and come up with fresh ideas in an informal way. A non-paper is not an official document signed by anyone or approved via a vote in an elected chamber; hence the term.

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All of these non-papers normally have two things in common:

First, they are quite anodyne, written by officials and bureaucrats about something very specific and often not of earthshaking significance.

Secondly, the country that has authored a non-paper usually likes to have others on board so it carries a bit more weight; therefore, they are usually quite happy to share the non-paper. You want to have some publicity for your brilliant ideas, after all.

But the two alleged non-papers that have surfaced in the media in recent weeks don’t follow any of these patterns.

The first non-paper is the most striking one. It has been dubbed the "Slovenian non-paper" after a Bosnian news site earlier this month alleged that Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa gave it to European Council President Charles Michel.

Written without regard to the cautious diplomatic-speak of Brussels, it unashamedly proposes the redrawing of the borders of the former Yugoslavia, plus Albania, along ethnic lines. The paper has continued to live on in the media due to the failure of Jansa to deny its existence, even though he has vehemently stated that he didn't write it or send it around, and by the inability of Michel’s office to confirm or deny that they have received it.

The other non-paper, published in Kosovar-based media earlier this week, is slicker. Stating that it is a Franco-German non-paper, it outlines a future final settlement in the ongoing dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. There aren’t too many new elements in it, apart from stating that a deal should be done by February 2022 and that a special regional district in the Serb-dominated north of Kosovo is envisaged.

Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti (left) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (combo photo)

France and Germany quickly denied they had written the non-paper. But they also did not rule out that such a non-paper may exist, which further increased speculation.

There are some striking similarities between the two documents that separate them from traditional non-papers.

For starters, they lack titles and dates and no one in Brussels appears to have copies -- making diplomats jokingly refer to them as "the non non-papers" or "the phantom papers." It is odd that the "Slovenian non-paper" was reportedly only given to Michel and no one else (and equally odd that his office can neither confirm nor dismiss this) and strange that the Franco-German non-paper seems to emanate from Pristina but hasn’t traveled any farther.

Of the two, the Franco-German non-paper might be seen as a trial balloon, even if we are unlikely to ever find out who let it fly. There are, however, some question marks: Why spell out your endgame? You might want to highlight the steps needed to achieve something, but why reveal all of your cards at once? Also, France and Germany hardly see eye-to-eye when it comes to the Western Balkans, with Berlin being quite active in bringing the region closer to the EU, while France has been openly skeptical in this regard, seeing enlargement of the union as an obstacle to its main goal of further deepening the bloc by taking on even more joint debt or having more European defense cooperation.

For the Slovenian non-paper, speculation is rife that it was leaked and published to undermine the government in Ljubljana ahead of its EU presidency later this year, or that Hungary might be behind it.

European officials have said privately that they suspect Russia might have had a hand in it, to sow confusion and doubt. And when one considers that journalists keep asking question about the document and that politicians are forced, time and again, to state their support for the territorial integrity of the Western Balkan states, it certainly has accomplished that.

Either way, the non-papers -- real or not -- indicate that things are finally happening again in the region.

In Albin Kurti and Aleksandar Vucic, Kosovo and Serbia now have two strongly backed leaders with a mandate to reach a deal if they so wish. Germany might be heading into an uncertain election in the autumn but remains committed to the talks regardless of the outcome of the vote. But look out for French President Emmanuel Macron, who faces what appears to be a nervously tight face-off against nationalist Marine Le Pen in the French elections next spring.

Macron postponed North Macedonia’s march toward the EU a couple of years ago due to local elections in France. The stakes are even higher this time around -- meaning that a window to strike a Belgrade-Pristina deal might be open now, but not for too much longer.