Anyone even a little familiar with the Balkans knows exactly that maps and the borders on them are among the most sensitive political issues. It is good to know for tourists to know this, but perhaps it is even more useful knowledge for politicians — in particular if said politicians are acting on behalf of the European Union.
Miroslav Lajčák cannot be called a beginner in either diplomacy or geopolitics. The 58-year-old diplomat, who graduated from Moscow State Institute for International Relations, served as Slovakia’s foreign minister in the Fico and then Pellegrini governments for eight years from 2012 to 2020. Under his foreign ministry, he was president of the UN General Assembly in 2017-2018, and co-chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2019.
Lajčák is not only a versed and experienced diplomat, but also well-acquainted with the Balkan region. He was once able to prove his ability as High Representative of the European Union in Bosnia and Herzegovina before his foreign ministry in 2007-2009, and before that, when he supervised the 2005 independence referendum on behalf of Javier Solana, the then High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs.
He is an educated, knowledgeable, very experienced, and well-recognized foreign politician. That is why the political scandal he is now embroiled in may seem astonishing at first glance.
Lajčák became the High Representative for the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo a year ago in April 2020 after being appointed by the Council of the European Union. Due to the delicate nature of the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo, this is one of the most ambitious projects in European foreign policy. The scandal erupted when Lajčák offered a glimpse into his office in a Twitter post where, on a map hanging behind him, keen eyes noticed that Kosovo was within Serbia’s international borders, i.e. as part of Serbia. The first discovery was soon followed by another. This time, during an interview with an analyst firm, the same map objected to by some appeared in the background.
Had a very useful discussion with @RCCint SG @MajlindaBregu. Our activities and mandates have the same goal: promoting regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations. This is why we agreed on closer cooperation and coordination for the region and its European aspirations! pic.twitter.com/STZO7s8iMh
— Miroslav Lajčák (@MiroslavLajcak) February 3, 2021
The scandal slowly escalated into an international diplomatic conflict, so the Slovak diplomat – to his own greatest shock – had to clear himself of the accusation of bias in another tweet, with enlarged images of parts of the map involved.
The seemingly simple case also sheds light on a deeper internal fission in the European Union, which in part explains the overly sensitive reactions. At the same time, it shows us how difficult it is for EU officials to dispense with their nationality and only embody European interests.
Kosovo declared its independence on Feb. 17, 2008, and its secession from Serbia has provoked a mixed international reaction from the outset. Among the former Yugoslav republics of Northern Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia, which have traditionally supported the aspirations of Kosovo Albanians, have recognized Kosovo, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, which have a state-forming Serbian community, have not. Hungary has also joined the majority of EU member states in recognizing Kosovo’s independence.
However, not everyone was in favor of the secession of Kosovo. In world politics, India, China and Russia, to name but a few, have openly supported the Serbian position and still do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state.
The declaration of independence also caused a rift in the EU.
While the vast majority of the then 27 member states — the United Kingdom was still a member but Croatia was not yet — supported and recognized Kosovo’s independence, five member states refused.
All five member states — Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Spain and Slovakia — made this decision because of some well-known past traumas or fear. However, with this, the EU’s policy in the region has taken a rather interesting direction. At the very least, the situation is that the EU is negotiating visa facilitation with Kosovo, for example, without some member states recognizing that the delegation on the other side of the negotiating table represents an existing state.
Slovakia is one of the five member states that does not recognize Kosovo’s independence. To entrust a former Slovak foreign minister with participating in the already burdened Serbian-Kosovo negotiation process seemed, at least at the time, to be a courageous decision, and, as we can see, it still is. This is because the twitter incident shows that there are those who do not trust that a diplomat representing the EU can — or wants to — get rid of his national constraints, priorities and only take into account the interests of the EU.
With this scandal, Miroslav Lajčák has now paid the price for this mistrust.
Title image: Miroslav Lajčák, the European Union’s special representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina with the controversial map in the background. (source: Twitter)