Moving borders in the Balkans would lead to an immediate "bloodbath", North Macedonia's president has told Euronews.
Stevo Pendarovski's comments come after reports of a leaked memo advocating redrawing the borders of countries formed after Yugoslavia’s breakup.
The unsigned document, called a non-paper in diplomatic circles, proposes the expansion of Serbia, Croatia and Albania to the detriment of Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Kosovo.
"You cannot change the borders in the Balkans and not have the very same day in the afternoon a bloodbath, as simple as that," said Pendarovski.
Pendarovski said he would never accept border changes in North Macedonia, arguing that the human cost these transformations entail is too heavy to bear.
"The latest swap of the people and territories nearby the European continent happened in 1923 with the Lausanne agreement between [what was then] Turkey and Greece, and under the heavy auspices and monitoring of the great power of that period of the time.
"You can speak with some of the of the next generations of those people who suffered the most in that period of the time. They're still bearing heavy scars in their souls and they have never been to see their homes. That's completely changed demographics in some parts of today's Turkey and some parts in today's Greece.
"So I wouldn't like to think at all about that possible course of scenario because we're going to see horrible suffering of the ordinary people. Those who are drawing or redrawing the maps on the table, they are not suffering. Common people are suffering. And we’ve have enough of that in the Balkan history."
While the existence of the non-paper has not been independently verified, it has nevertheless caused outrage and dismay across the Balkans, where the topic of borders remains a highly controversial and divisive matter. Several countries and Members of the European Parliament have strongly condemned the memorandum, but the EU institutions have refrained from giving an official reaction.
"They [the EU institutions] should condemn these ideas, regardless of who is the creator, who is the messenger of these ideas," Pendarovski said, admitting he doesn't know any more details about the document besides those leaked to the press.
"[These ideas] are very dangerous, especially in the region, which has been quite recently out of that bloody series of the latest Balkan wars in the 1990s. We have more than 100,000 people being killed in the whole region, millions being resettled, huge damage to their homes. The best and brightest has left indefinitely the region and their homelands."
'When you are absent, the strategic void will be filled by somebody else'
Pendarovski made no secret of his dissatisfaction regarding North Macedonia's EU accession bid.
The country applied for membership in 2004 and has been implementing reforms, including changing its name, in order to enter accession negotiations. The process is currently blocked by Bulgaria over a dispute involving history and language. Among other demands, Bulgaria wants North Macedonia to formally recognise that its language has Bulgarian roots.
"[Bulgaria] should come in terms with reality. No more, no less than that," Pendarovski said, adding that he prefers to wait for the new Bulgarian government to continue discussions.
The President warned that if the accession process doesn't move forward, the Balkans will see a rise in populism and nationalism and suffer economic damage. Pendarovski believes that the atmosphere created by the stalled negotiations has led to the drafting of the alleged non-paper.
He also asked the European Union to move beyond "pro-EU rhetoric" and "do something on the spot", warning that if the bloc is perceived as distant or disengaged, other countries will step in.
"When you are absent, then the strategic void will be filled by somebody else. And that is the euphemism. Everybody knows whom we are speaking about. And third countries have used that, including vaccine diplomacy and misusing that situation in which all of us have been found with the unprecedented pandemic. And they started to fill that void, that empty space.
"So I ask for more Europe being present in the Western Balkans. I am not asking for the immediate membership. I am asking for the right shares to start the process. It’s going to [last] years and years and we should together resolve all of these obstacles along the road, but certainly is not a good policy to say [that] out of six countries in the western Balkan region, two of them, Albania, Macedonia, are still waiting to start negotiations."
North Macedonia has ordered 200,000 doses of the China-made coronavirus vaccine Sinopharm, which will add to doses from Russia's Sputnik V and Pfizer, some of which have been given out by Serbia. The European Union is also helping the Balkans with vaccine procurement, although some have accused the bloc of abandoning the region during the health crisis.
"We cannot speak about the betrayal by the European political leaders or by the European Union as such or our Western friends, I can speak about the betrayal of the poor countries by the big pharmaceutical companies.," Pendarovski said.
"If Germany, if France or these powerful European countries are not satisfied with the level of immunisation because the big pharmaceuticals [are] looking elsewhere, but not to them," he added in a reference to the recent lawsuit filed by the European Commission against AstraZeneca, "what to say about the small and poor Balkan nations which are not in a position to dictate anything to anybody?"