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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Borders in the Balkans

Political discussions on Balkan borders

Border controls in the Balkans region are shockingly bad. Everyone familiar with travel in the Western Balkans knows this. Now it turns out that the Chancellor of Austria agrees. Today, 8 December 2022, Romania's and Bulgaria's applications to join the passport and immigration-free pan-European Schengen Zone, that in principle allows the traveller to travel from Lisbon to Tallinn without border controls, were rejected by the Consilium of the European Union, even though they were supported by the European Commission. Croatia's application by contrast succeeded.

Balkan map with borders

Note: the use of this map or other maps in this article is not intended to imply any assertions about de jure sovereignty in any particular direction. At the PALADINS Organization we are professionally neutral in all such matters: that is to say that we adopt a policy of neutrality in order to be able to serve as mediators or shuttle diplomats should the need arise. Individual members of the Organization may of course hold their own personal views, and provided that those views are not liable to incite imminent crime (the US Constitution free speech standard), we allow them to have such views but not to express them in association with The PALADINS Organization.

The European Union institutions

To understand the politics of this process, it is important to know a little bit about how the EU takes decisions the European Commission is a bureaucracy of hired civil servants from across the EU's member states, although the most senior positions (e.g. the heads of each 'Dirextorate General', or department) are reserved for political appointments on the basis of horse trade bargaining between EU member states. (Each member state proposes its own Commissioner, or head of department: and then the member states negotiate to agree which county's Commissioner gets which Directorate-General, in each case for a fixed term. And the Presidency of the European Commission - where the real power is concentrated - flips between the EU's most powerful member states and its least offensive member state. So the system accommodates both Great Power demands (of which there are a number in the EU, including but not limited to France, Germany and Italy); and the desire for consensus (so it was imagined that a Luxembourgeois President of the Commission would be a non-controversial choice but the individual in question ended up in substantial political controversy).

The Consilium (also known as the Council of European Union - not the Council of Europe which is part of Europe's human rights architecture, something separate to the EU) has a membership of one member state one vote. At each meeting of the Consilium it is expected that each member state will send their relevant government minister (or Deputy Minister) depending upon the subject matter. The relationship between the Commission and the Consilium is one of implementer and proposer of legislative actions; while the Consilium is a legislature that enacts them. Although most decisions of the Consilium require only a qualified majority vote (55 per cent of states representing 65 per cent of the EU's total population), decisions relating to the Schengen Zone require unanimity.

In this case, the European Commission (which really means the President of the European Commission - currently the German Ursula Van Der Leyen) proposed expansion of the Schengen Zone to include Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria - so Germany, the EU's most influential member - favoured the expansion. But the resolution was vetoed by Austria in the Consilium (except for Croatia). Austria has concerns about illegal immigration levels to Austria bringing crime with them, and is sceptical about border quality in Romania and Bulgaria (probably rightly) allowing Middle Eastern migrants from as far a field as Iran, Syria and Afghanistan to enter Europe via Turkey, whose borders are notoriously porous and ineffectively guarded.

European Map Of Countries

The Schengen Zone and its annexures, November 2022. Now Croatia is in; Romania and Bulgaria are out.

Here is a map including most of the borders the European Union is concerned about.

Central Balkan Region

Note that although there is a 'Schengen standard' for external Schengen states' border controls, in practice the Schengen Zone's external borders vary widely on their quality, even when flying in. The Schengen rating system for its borders is not particularly robust. As long as main roads have something looking like a large official border post with officials stamping passports and looking underneath vehicles occasionally, the border will get a 'pass'. The reality may be very different.

The porous borders

Here is a full list of the borders in the Balkans known to be porous. Now porousneas is a sliding scale. At one end of the spectrum there are no border checkpoints guards or infrastructure whatsoever. We give this a score 5.

Historical treaties of the Balkans

An open road category 5 border between Croatia and Herzeg-Bosna

Serbian river border

A riparian category 5 border between Republika Srpska and Serbia

Then there are borders with rudimentary infrastructure that may or may not be manned and if they are manned and you are stopped, a small bribe (up to EUR50} solves the problem. In addition or alternatively, there may be holes in the fence, paths round and other similar such silliness.

Category 4 Bosnian border

A category 4 pedestrian border in eastern Bosnia (vehicles and vessels may make it through after dark)

Category 4 road in Croatia

A category 4 road border in eastern Croatia

Border level 3 is a real border with real guards, only they may wave through or overlook all kinds of people and traffic, typically starting with corrupt payments at EUR200+.

category 3 Border between Croatia and Slovenia

A category 3 border between Croatia and Slovenia

A category 3 border in Bulgaria

A category 3 border in Bulgaria

Border level 2 is a formal strict border without holes in the fence etc, and guards undertaking their duties strictly - except in big cases with their known 'clients', from whom they will accept bribes. Bribes in this category start at EUR1000 and go upwards.

A category 2 border in Bulgaria

A category 2 border in Bulgaria

Border level 1 is like flying into the United Kingdom at Heathrow or Calais. Every passport is scanned. Arrivals are profiled and pre-screened for additional checks. Customs, although discreet, will involve both (typically hidden) sniffer dogs and other means of detecting contraband: plus human intelligence on pre-screened individual arrivals. Of course if you are just a regular traveller you don't notice any of this.

A category 1 border in Romania

A category 1 border in Romania

Border level 0 (zero) is like arriving from a non-Schengen Zone country at Munich Leo Strauss Airport (possibly Europe's most impermeable border). Every passport will be scanned; your stamps will be examined; every inbound piece of luggage will be subject to a check (although you are unlikely to notice it); problems in paperwork are never overlooked; you may receive comprehensive questioning and demands for supporting documents to corroborate your story; documents provided may be checked for forgery while you wait (e.g. in a cell); errors in paperwork or answers lead not to refusal of admission but to arrest and custody pending prosecutorial action.

Munich Leo Strauss International Airport

Munich Leo Strauss International Airport. Do not make any mistakes!

In this list we also score the contested, controversial and unrecognised borders, of which the Balkans has many.

So here is our list:

  1. Republika Srpska / Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina: 5. (The absence of border control over that frontier was actually written into the Dayton Peace Accords.)

  2. Herzeg-Bosna / rest of Bosnia: 4.(For those unaware, Herzeg-Bosna is a Croat-controlled region in southern Bosnia that does not officially exist and runs by way of parallel informal institutions that nobody acknowledges exist. Still it has some borders and the Croatian Kuna is used there as currency; the Croatian flag, not the Bosnian flag, is flown.)

  3. Herzeg-Bosna to Croatia. Most borders are 4; a few of them are 5.

  4. Republika Srpska / Croatia: 4 in the southeast; 3 in the Northwest (although there are some 5's in western Republika Srpska).

  5. Rest of Bosnia / Croatia: 3 - consider e.g. Brcko District which is a class 3 - also some 5's but very well hidden.

  6. Croatia / Slovenia: mostly 2; several 4's and 5's; about to become 5 throughout as Croatia joins the Schengen Zone.

  7. Republika Srpska / Serbia: 2's on the main roads; 4's elsewhere; many 5's (but you need to know exactly where they are).

  8. Croatia / Serbia: 2's on the main roads; 4's off them; some 5's hidden away but they are extremely complex to use.

  9. Serbia / Hungary: mostly 2's these days. There used to be lots of 4's and even 5's but the Hungarians closed them in particular due to refugees from the Syrian Civil War.

  10. Serbia / North Kosovo: lots of 1's but also several hidden 5's. One of the 5's is not so hidden; it's a straightforward highway used by hundreds of vehicles a day in each direction.

  11. Northern Kosovo / Kosovo: mostly 4's (hidden border guard variety; a handful of 5's (literally nobody is looking at what you are doing).

  12. Serbia / Kosovo: you are looking mostly at 1's, although various 5's exist for 'specialised traffic'. (They are mostly round the Presovo valley and are extremely hard to track down.)

  13. Albania / Kosovo: main roads are 2's; plenty of 4's and 5's exist for those willing to go off-highway.

  14. Kosovo / 'North' Macedonia: 2's on the main roads; 4's elsewhere. We are not aware of any 5's although we acknowledge they might be out there.

  15. Montenegro / Bosnia: 2's. There are some 5's but they are a bit rough.

  16. Montenegro / Serbia: generally 2's.

  17. Montenegro / Albania: the main road is a 1. There are lots of silly difficult options (e.g. rowing boats across Lake Shkodra and dirt tracks around it) which are 5's.

  18. Albania / Greece: 1's.

  19. 'North Macedonia' / Greece: 1's.

  20. Romania / Serbia: 1's on the highways; plenty of 5's just off them.

  21. Serbia / Bulgaria: lots of 3's, 4's and 5's, many of the latter up hills, mountain lanes, walking through fields, etc.

  22. Bulgaria / Romania: 1's on the highways; 4's and 5's widespread.

  23. Bulgaria / Turkey: a very major 1; most of the rest are 4's.

Map of the complex land borders

Map of the complex land border (all of which is unmanned) between the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska

approximate boundaries of Herzeg-Bosna

The area in blue in the southwest (not the other areas in blue) represent very approximate boundaries of Herzeg-Bosna today. There are no official maps because officially Herzeg-Bosna does not exist. Nevertheless the borders are basically fixed.

Map of Montenegro showing her miscellaneous unsatisfactory borders.

Map of Montenegro showing her miscellaneous unsatisfactory borders.

Tentative conclusions

  1. The careful reader will have observed from the foregoing that it is possible to transport large cocaine bricks from western Albanian ports (where they typically arrive on ships from Valencia) into the Schengen Zone, with next to no immigration or customs checks save for a few bribes (of presumably varying quantities depending upon the relative negotiating positions of the drug smugglers and the Police).

  2. Likewise, heroin may arrive in Romanian Danube delta informal ports from Middle Eastern destinations and be moved around Europe relatively unimpeded.

  3. This does seem somewhat unsatisfactory. If - and as we have argued we should be - we are serious about combatting high margin hard drugs in Europe, then leaving these routes wide open in a network of corrupt border guards is an intermational scandal.

  4. Actually the bcorder network in the Balkans is worse than useless. It does not prevent the trafficking of things people want to traffic - because it is so easy to get around using informal roads (the colloquial euphemism of the region) or outright bribery.

  5. By contrast the various corrupt and useless borders harass individual travellers and inhibit the legitimate flow of cross-border goods by means of arbitrary excuse duties greased with corrupt payments.

  6. The European Union says it wants to strengthen all these borders. What a bizarrely quixotic idea. By stacking then all up with shiny offices and more corrupt personnel, they will just make the problem worse.

  7. The borders are so bad in the Balkans - and they are so used to perpetuate frozen conflicts - that a more radical medicine is needed. All the borders in the region should be ripped down.

  8. If borders' only purpose is a form of rent-seeking regulation and corruption, turning then into a paragon of efficient control on the supply of contraband, would appear a monumental task and an uphill struggle.

  9. Moreover Schengen countries have given up the use of borders for these purposes. So should the Balkans.

  10. The EU should establish a Balkan Schengen Zone, abolishing borders and customs inspections between Balkan countries. The benefits would be dramatic.

  11. Firstly, legitimate trade would be facilitated.

  12. Secondly, free movement of persons - something the Balkans badly needs because their are lots of unemployed people in some places and not enough people to do jobs in others - would be promoted.

  13. What we are advocating is the abandonment of border crossings in the Balkans as a means of contraband management, just as the members of the Schengen Zone agreed, because it is a worthless method of seeking to control contraband flows and it carries heavy political and economic prices.

  14. Instead you use other, more effective, ways to manage contraband flows, in particular using targeted Signals intelligence, thereby integrating further domestic security services into cooperative international intelligence structures.

  15. If the Balkan borders were abolished, many of the remaining political disputes might dissolve because the symbolism of separation - the physical border - would have been taken away.

  16. People could then decide who they want to associate with and where they want to live for themselves, unconstrained by domestic and regional border and immigration regulations.

  17. This would surely fit with the dreams and ideals of the exceptionally successful Schengen Zone regime, that has existed for some 35 years and is an unqualified European success story.

  18. The Balkans region can create, under European management, a parallel mini-Schengen; and then, when the time is right, the two Schengens can merge.

This is our vision. The PALADINS Organization. We are here to serve.


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