The Janša Plan is not a solution to Western Balkan territorial disputes

07 June 2021

The latest attempt to rearrange territories in Southeast Europe misjudges the priorities of key local actors, not least Serbia.

by Vladimir Gligorov
photo credit:

  • A non-paper with an officially unknown author (but unofficially attributed to Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša) proposes changing the outcome of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, by exchanging territories between Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • The plan claims that it would speed up EU integration of the Balkans and could easily be implemented, since all parties would gain from it.
  • However, the plan has been officially rejected by almost all the parties concerned.
  • It fundamentally misjudges the calculations and priorities of the Serbian government: Belgrade is seeking to buttress its economic and political position in the Western Balkans without any border changes, as it does not intend to recognise the independence of Kosovo.
  • Neither the dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina nor the integration of Kosovo and Albania is feasible, not least because of resistance from the international community – a point the plan misses completely.
  • The failure of this plan – as indeed of the previous Vučić-Thaçi Plan – provides further refutation of the enduring misperception that a strongman can do just about anything in the Balkans.

A non-paper has appeared in international diplomatic circles, promising a ‘historic solution’ to the Balkan problem. It has been attributed to Janez Janša, the Slovenian prime minister, although nobody has yet claimed authorship. Reportedly, the paper was sent to Charles Michel, president of the European Council. But his office has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of this non-paper, which has been leaked to the press.

The aim of the Janša Plan is to reverse the outcome of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. This involves basically two things: first, the transfer of Kosovo to Albania; and second, the ceding of most parts of Republika Srpska (the Serb-dominated state entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina) to Serbia. The rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina would become a Bosniak state, to be called simply Bosnia. Herzeg-Bosna, the largely ethnic-Croat part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, would be taken over by Croatia, or would have special autonomous status. The authors put forward South Tyrol as the model for a Croat autonomous region within Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as for the Serb parts of Kosovo within a greater Albania.

This “final balkanisation”, the authors argue, would speed up EU integration of the Balkans, and leave the new Bosnia the choice of joining the EU or developing a closer political and economic relationship with Turkey. It is, however, not clear whether the authors envisage this smaller Bosnia just staying out of the EU (like Turkey), integrating with Turkey, or perhaps pursuing some other kind of political union. It should be emphasised that the territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina that would be ceded to Serbia and Croatia have yet to be defined. In the case of Kosovo, there would be no change to internal borders (i.e. the predominantly Serb-populated parts would not be ceded to Serbia).

Is there support for the plan?

The authors argue that the plan could be implemented quickly, as Serbia, Croatia and Albania have functioning governments that are able to take the necessary decisions; meanwhile, the EU should work out the details and ensure implementation. The non-paper further suggests that diplomatic negotiations are already under way, and it creates the impression that draft plans for territorial separations are already in existence. However, the putative participants in these covert efforts remain unknown. Moreover, it is far from clear that there is the support necessary for the plan in all the countries concerned.

The paper makes some big assumptions about how the plan would be supported. The key assumption of the Janša Plan is that it would be in the interests of both Serbia and Albania. The thinking is that a ceding of the Serb part of Bosnia to Serbia would be in the interests of Bosnia’s Serbs, represented by Milorad Dodik, and therefore in Belgrade’s interests, too. This point is given further weight by the assumption that Kosovo’s integration with Albania will go ahead anyway unless Serbia is prepared to recognise Kosovo’s independence (and perhaps even if it does so). It also assumes that Serbia would be ready to give up all its claims on Kosovo, in exchange for a large part of Republika Srpska. It is further assumed that the Croat and Serb leaderships in Bosnia and Herzegovina would back the plan (unsurprisingly, Milorad Dodik, the Serb leader of Republika Srpska, immediately voiced his support). Most likely, the authors of the plan feel that, if it gains momentum, the Croatian leadership (not to mention Bosnian Croats) would quickly come on board. Bosniaks are expected to protest, but to finally fall into line, unless the opposition can mobilise enough political support. The prospects of a ‘Turkish connection’ are supposedly rather attractive to them.

However, the reactions of some of the key players indicate that the plan’s assumptions may be rather overblown – witness the lukewarm reception in Serbia. Given Serbia’s relative size and its central role in the unresolved territorial and constitutional issues arising from the wars of the 1990s, the plan would clearly be unworkable without the active and positive engagement of Belgrade. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has stated that Serbia is interested not in territory, but in economic prosperity. That will disappoint not only the authors of the plan, but also Dodik.

Moreover, Croatia’s President Zoran Milanović and Foreign Minister Gordan Grlić-Radman have rejected any notion of the Janša Plan. That country’s interests lie in changing electoral law in Bosnia and Herzegovina, so that Croats are represented by the dominant Croat party: currently, the Croat representative in the collective Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina is elected on the back of both Croat and Bosniak votes, and these have repeatedly favoured Željko Komšić, who is not a nationalist. The Croatian proposal has been supported by some EU countries – the same as might support the Janša Plan. The desired change to electoral law, however, runs counter to rulings handed down by the European Court of Human Rights, and so it is unlikely to become the EU policy. Irrespective of all that, carving up the territory of Herzeg-Bosna – the Croatian name for the region of Bosnia and Herzegovina where Croats are in the majority – would be no easy task. In all the plans for territorial separation, resettlement of the population would be unavoidable.

The authors of the Janša Plan also seem to have misjudged the likely reaction of the international community. The unilateral transfer of Kosovo to Albania and the dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina are most unlikely to be acceptable to the international community. Most permanent members of the UN Security Council would oppose such moves, and they have already been rejected by Brussels, Washington and Moscow.

A major misjudgement of Serbia’s calculations

Perhaps the key mistake committed by the authors of the plan, however, is their fundamental misjudgement of Serbia’s calculations and priorities. With regard to Kosovo, rather than swapping territories, Serbia would actually prefer to maintain the status quo through protracted, never-ending negotiations with Brussels, rather than to normalise relations with Kosovo even without explicit recognition of its independence. What Serbia certainly does not strive for is the integration of Kosovo with Albania. This was confirmed by Belgrade’s reaction to a second non-paper that was published in the Kosovar newspaper Koha Ditore in April 2021. This new paper (again by authors unknown) combines proposals for the autonomy of the Serb areas in Kosovo and special status for the Serbian Church with recognition by Serbia of Kosovo’s independence. President Vučić has suggested that this could find some support in Serbia. The plan would need to steer a course between finding a level of autonomy for the Serb areas that was acceptable to Kosovo’s authorities and a type of international recognition of Kosovo that was acceptable to Serbia. After some early not-altogether-negative reactions, the plan was rejected by both Serbia and Kosovo.

Belgrade is not seeking any kind of ‘solution’ in the way that the authors of the Janša Plan envisage it; rather it aims to keep the option of the status quo alive. From Belgrade’s perspective, Kosovo and its current constitution, with guaranteed rights for Serbs, is much more favourable than an enlarged Albania, as put forward by the Janša Plan. In the current setting, the Serb minority has significant political weight within Kosovo, whereas that would not be the case if Kosovo were to be ceded to Albania. Moreover, it would open up another can of worms, as it would require a rethink of the territory of Republika Srpska.

From Belgrade’s point of view, all these plans come at a cost to Serbia, and so are not to be supported. The uncertainty, insecurity and instability they introduce into regional relations are, however, rather helpful to Serbia’s position in the region. Thus, Janša and company are to be praised in Serbia for their efforts, and encouraged to continue muddying the waters; but any plans that include Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence will be rejected.

Wrong lessons drawn from the Vučić-Thaçi Plan

A key element in the context of the current situation, and in particular the Serbian position, is the Vučić-Thaçi Plan, another ‘historic solution’ to the Balkan problems that was put forward by Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo’s then president, Hashim Thaçi, in 2018. It envisaged exchanging the southern Serbian territories (primarily inhabited by ethnic Albanians) for the northern part of Kosovo, with its predominantly Serb population. For Vučić the motivation was to derail the (then ongoing) Serbia-Kosovo negotiations in Brussels, which aimed at normalising relations between the two parties and achieving international recognition of Kosovo. Despite the resistance of Germany, which opposed any plan for territorial changes in the Balkans, Vučić succeeded in garnering widespread interest in and support for the plan.

However, the authors of the Janša Plan drew the wrong lessons from the Vučić-Thaçi Plan episode. They seem to have assumed that Serbia really wanted territorial change, and that Vučić was actually in a position to force this through in Serbia. But it is by no means clear that either of these assumptions is true. Belgrade aims to become the political and economic power in the whole region. It also aims to pursue its nationalist ends through policies, rather than by territorial acquisition – or at least not in the first instance. So long as the Serb population outside Serbia increasingly depends on financial and fiscal support from Belgrade, territorial integration can be put off. And so long as Serbia remains aloof from all the other Balkan animosities, it can be seen as a stabilising actor in the region. If the EU and the US regard Serbia as the key to guaranteeing the stability and development of the Western Balkans, territorial nationalism can be set aside.

The Balkan strongmen cannot do as much as they think they can

The infamous Vučić-Thaçi Plan reinforced the belief that the region’s strongmen can do whatever they want, provided they are politically powerful enough. But that is not true of any region, and it is certainly not true of the Balkans. The Vučić-Thaçi Plan was never intended to be implemented. It was never accepted by Serbia, and it had no real chance of being implemented voluntarily. Nor was there support for it in Kosovo. As a consequence, the plan went nowhere, which was clearly Vučić’s intention. One would have thought that this was obvious, given the historical experience. However, the emergence of the Janša Plan unfortunately suggests otherwise.