In the Helsinki Accords of 1975 it was agreed that "frontiers can be changed, in accordance with international law, by peaceful means and by agreement." while "The participating States will respect the territorial integrity of each of the participating States.".
This makes sense. Border conflicts tend to last for many decades and have often been a major cause for wars. If all future border changes in the world are made in mutual agreement there will be no new border conflicts and the world will slowly become a more peaceful place.
However, strange things happened regarding Yugoslavia around 1990. Milosevic rose to power. As is so often the case with populists he had valid points but the ways he pushed them were not always helpful and he had a talent for rubbing both local and international elites the wrong way. Western anti-communists were horrified that communists were able to win elections and demonized Milosevic. Slovenian and Croatian nationalists grabbed this opportunity to promote their cause in the West. Western support went so far that they even supported Slovenia's and Croatia's opposition to national Yugoslav elections.
As a consequence when Slovenia declared its independence in June 1991 they got strong Western diplomatic support in the following 10-days war. As a result the Yugoslav army had to leave Slovenia. The West certainly crossed here the line when it came to non-interference in internal affairs and respect for the territorial integrity of states. And this certainly was not necessary to preserve the peace. In fact the West rewarded Slovenian aggression.
As is so often the case: one wrong step leads to the next. The next steps came in December 1991 and January 1992 when the Badinter Commission declared that Yugoslavia was in the process of dissolution and that from now on the republics were the successor states and their borders were just as sacred as Yugoslavia's had once been. Of course it is absurd that some EU advisory commission can define another state out of existence. If this should be possible at all it should be the privilege of the UN. Also the term "in the process of dissolution" was disingenuous: it allowed the commission to ignore a state that was still functioning quite well.
But the biggest problem was the statement that the borders of the republics were now protected by international law. One reason to respect existing borders is that they already have some legitimacy and that they have been proven to be viable in peace time. But that was not the case with the internal borders of Yugoslavia. In the course of its history Yugoslavia had several times completely changed its internal borders and while ethnicity had played some role in the present borders there were also considerations that shouldn't count when delimiting international borders - like the balance of power between the ethnic groups. In addition there was serious doubt whether the new borders were viable. The political troubles and the following wars indicated that those republics as they came out of Yugoslavia were unstable states that needed considerable changes before becoming stable. Even mono-ethnic Slovenia robbed 130,000 people of their citizenship.
Western politicians like to blame the following wars on Milosevic or on uncivilized Balkanians, but in fact it was they who created the instable and unlawful situation that was the main cause of the wars.
Since then Western politicians have resisted even mutually agreed border changes as they might produce a domino effect of border changes elsewhere. It is a typical case of being right for the wrong reasons. Having blocked negotiations when they were most easy to do - before independence - we now face situations where there is still no common vision. We can hold negotiations now under international supervision that takes care of fairness. But if we don't hold them the issues won't go away. Most likely they will jump up moments when the rest of the world is busy with other things and not capable of guaranteeing a peaceful outcome.
In fact the "sacred border" policy has worked nowhere:
- in Croatia it ended with a war and the permanent expulsion of 400,000 Serbs. The idea is that if you give one side all the power there is no problem. Unfortunately there are no minority rights then too.
The problem with this kind of "solution" is that they can poison mutual relations for a very long time. After 65 years Silesia and Sudetenland are still sore points in Germany's relations with resp. Poland and Czechia.
- in Bosnia it first led to a war and then to a state where many among the Serbs and Croats would want to leave. The Muslims claim to favor a multi-ethnic state but when one considers their results - how many Serbs and Croats remain in the Muslim-controlled area and how many are included in positions of power in local administrations - they seem at least as nationalistic as the others.
In the mean time some Western activists advocate the suppression of all nationalists in Bosnia. But that is what has been done the last 16 years and it hasn't helped. As soon as the Western pressure reduces the nationalists arise again as the issue of interethnic relations hasn't been solved. The recent troubles in the Federation show that it isn't the model for the whole of Bosnia that many Western idealists hoped.
- Macedonia was saved the troubles in the 1990s as the Albanians felt too weak. But after the Kosovo War they felt powerful enough to come with their demands. The situation is now stable but I won't be surprised when additional Albanian demands arise once Kosovo becomes international recognized.
- As Kosovo was no republic in Yugoslavia officially the "sacred border" doctrine did not apply here. yet out of fear for the domino effect the West has introduced it here as well.
If this continues the effect will most likely be similar to what happened in Croatia. After the 1999 war already over 200,000 people fled Kosovo and have never been able to return. Those remaining are mainly living in enclaves and subject to discrimination and pressure to sell their houses and land for cheap. As a consequence young minorities are leaving en masse and it is expected that many enclaves will die out in a few decades, a process sometimes called soft cleansing. Recently the US and EU are putting more and more pressure on Serbia to allow the same treatment for the Serbs who live in Northern Kosovo.
It is time that the West finally recognizes that the decision to declare Yugoslavia "in the process of dissolution" was wrong. Without that decision Yugoslavia might have dissolved anyway after a few years (it is hard to keep a country together when the north is four times as rich as the south) but it would have happened after the post-secession constellation of the new states had been thoroughly negotiated and necessary border corrections had been applied. The decision of the Badinter Commission prevented such negotiations and as a consequence there still isn't agreement among the ethnic groups of former Yugoslavia on how to live together. This has led to war and ethnic cleansing and the end is still not in sight. Let's finally begin to do the dissolution of Yugoslavia in a responsible way.
Pessimists like to claim that calls for border changes might happen everywhere in the Balkans. For example the Bulgarian minority in Serbia and the Albanian minority in Montenegro (that lives on the coast near Albania) might want to secede too. What they forget is that those borders have existed for many years without problems, are internationally recognized and without major problems. In contrast some of the borders between the former Yugoslav republics have a low legitimacy among the local population.