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A clue to the Bosnian puzzle lies in its neighbourhood

The ‘fragile stability’ that persists in Bosnia can be best understood in the context of its neighbours: Republika Srpska’s Milorad Dodik derives a large portion of his strength from the weakness of his political opponents, whose behaviour and rhetoric often play directly into his hands. But Dodik could not maintain so assertive a position without the support he receives from Serbia
Milan Marinkovic
7 August 2011

Sixteen years after the Dayton Peace Agreement put an end to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the future of this country is still hanging in the balance. Ethnic-based formal division into two entities - along with the principle of three “constituent peoples” (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats) as the foundation of the entire political system - represents a major impediment to any sustained progress in the country’s development. What adds fuel to the fire is particularly high level of ethnic nationalism in Republika Srpska (RS), the Serb-dominated entity.
 
In fact, inter-ethnic tensions of varying degrees, generated by the war, have never really ceased to exist in Bosnia. Yet, until several years ago, the situation seemed to be more or less bearable, which led the international community to believe that over time the country would become able to develop into a stable and modern democracy on its own. Unfortunately, such an impression soon proved to be delusive. It did not take long before nationalist parties once again rose to the fore, taking advantage of the west’s premature optimism. What is more, the president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has even managed to make his entity into a virtual “state within the state”.
 
It is no secret that Dodik’s main political objective is secession of RS from Bosnia, an idea supported by a vast majority of the entity’s by and large ethnically homogenous population. In other words, what once was attempted by war, Dodik is trying to attain in peace. Though his aggressive and often provocative rhetoric may suggest otherwise, Dodik is a shrewd and adroit politician. Aware that time is on his side, he will likely continue with his well-tried step-by-step strategy of destabilizing Bosnia from inside until the situation becomes so hopeless that even the most determined advocates of Bosnia’s indivisibility could assent to the peaceful dissolution. An important part of Dodik’s tactic is driving a wedge between Bosniaks and Croats in order to further weaken the position of the “rival” entity and, by extension, of the state’s central institutions.
 
Now that Dodik’s political opponents from the other half of the country lack the capacity to prevent him from pursuing a secessionist agenda, the question is what the international community – and the western powers in particular – can do in that respect. Or, perhaps, the west should tacitly allow Dodik to accomplish what he has begun?
 
There are at least two convincing arguments for why the answer should be, categorically, no. The first is directly related to the way in which Republika Srpska came into existence. That is, if RS were allowed to secede, it would send the clear message that armed aggression combined with ethnic cleansing and genocide is a legitimate means to achieving a political goal.
 
The second argument is more about geopolitics. It needs to be stressed that from the viewpoint of Serb nationalist elites in both Bosnia and Serbia the ultimate goal of the secession is not only to create an independent state. Instead, the secession is actually intended to serve as a transitional stage in the process of formation of so-called “greater Serbia” through subsequent unification.
 
Not only would the creation of such a regional hegemon cause resentment and anxiety among its neighbours, it would also dramatically disrupt the balance of power in the western Balkans and thus inflict a severe headache on the west – especially on leading European states – in terms of handling this historically restive region. It is therefore not only in the interest of justice that Bosnia’s existing national border remains unchanged; it is to no lesser degree in the interest of European security and stability in general. Add to this that Croatia, a country which borders both Bosnia and Serbia, is almost certain to join the EU in only a couple of years, so that the last buffer between the Union and the Bosnian cauldron would thereby be virtually removed.
 
But even though it is more than evident why any attempt by RS to secede must be thwarted, the west somehow does not appear to have a clear and thorough plan for persuading Dodik to abandon the policy that brings him so much popularity among Bosnian Serbs. To be sure, Dodik is currently the single most influential political figure not only in RS but in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a whole and, as such, will certainly be a tough nut to crack. In fact, Dodik derives a large portion of his strength from the weakness of his political opponents, whose behaviour and rhetoric often play directly into his hands. However, Dodik could by no means maintain so assertive a position without the support he receives from Serbia. And this is exactly where a clue to the Bosnian puzzle lies.
 
The Dayton Agreement, admittedly, allows Serbia and the Republika Srpska to maintain a certain level of so-called “special relations”. The west expects Serbia to use those relations as a tool with which to influence RS to assume more constructive attitude toward international efforts to develop Bosnia into a stable self-governing state. However, Serbia appears to be playing a double game: while trying to create the impression of being cooperative with the West, Serbia is encouraging Dodik – albeit rather discreetly – to persist with his strategy of gradual secession.
 
Nevertheless, it seems that, recently – in the wake of Serbia’s president Boris Tadic’s visit to Sarajevo – things have begun to move in a positive direction regarding Serbia’s policy on Bosnia. This seemingly promising shift most likely relates directly to Serbia’s ambition to gain candidate status for EU membership by the end of this year. For that matter, it should be expected that the EU will grant Serbia the candidacy, primarily in order to help the country avoid losing the momentum it has gained following the long-awaited captures of Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic respectively, as well as the progress which Serbia has recently made in the on-going talks with its former province Kosovo. However, what is uncertain at this point is whether Serbia will continue to improve its relations with Bosnia after earning EU candidacy or revert to the policy to which it has been more accustomed, regardless of the possible consequences.
 
In fact, the bottom line is that Serbia’s behaviour in the coming years will depend heavily on how successful the European Union will be in convincing the Serbian political leadership that its efforts to attain membership will undoubtedly pay off in the end, despite all the attendant challenges and obstacles.
 
On the other hand, the EU should in no way give false hope to Serbia that it could be allowed to join before fulfilling all the required conditions. The fact that one of those conditions is to establish and maintain friendly and stable relations with all neighbour countries is something that can be of decisive importance to Bosnia. The last thing the EU wants to see would be further exacerbation of the already strained relationship between Serbia and Bosnia. Accordingly, it would be reasonable to suppose that the faster Serbia advances toward EU membership, the better the situation will also be for Bosnia.
 
Yet things are nowhere near as simple as they may appear to be. Notwithstanding the strong rhetorical commitment of the Serbian government to the European integration process, it will take years before Serbia definitely becomes eligible for official membership, partly due to its own tardiness in implementing necessary systemic reforms, but also because of the profound crisis the Union itself is facing.
 
Indeed, the uncertainty over the further enlargement of the EU is in all likelihood one of two basic reasons for Serbia’s ambiguous policy toward Bosnia. In other words, the potential annexation of Republika Srpska would serve as a kind of solace to Serbia in case its integration into the Union ultimately fails. Serbia will therefore hesitate to make any substantial alteration in its current approach to the issue of Bosnia as long as the future of European integration remains uncertain.
 
Another reason is that the Serbian political elite sees the RS as a more than suitable compensation for the loss of Kosovo and is therefore likely to appease hard-line nationalists. It would be completely wrong to assume that the nominally pro-western position of Serbia’s ruling political parties means that aggressive nationalism and chauvinism in the country are brought to their knees. What should be also borne in mind is that the support among people in Serbia to the European integration process has notably dropped of late, for the most part as a result of growing discontent over the socio-economic situation in the country. 
 
Should this negative trend continue, the Serbian political leadership could at some point even find itself under pressure to revise its pro-EU policy. It almost goes without saying that the eventual abandonment of the European integration process by Serbia would re-establish anti-western nationalist parties as the dominant political forces in the country, in which case the threat already posed to the existence of Bosnia would be significantly increased.
 
Certainly the best way to prevent that scenario would be the accession of Serbia to NATO. Such a move would signify that Serbia’s intention to become a part of the EU and the west is genuine and unshakable, but most of all, that the country’s views are compatible with that of its neighbours when it comes to the most critical security issues. At this point, however, there is no indication that Serbia might consider joining the Alliance any time soon. Until that changes, western policymakers will have to be extremely cautious in dealing with Serbia if this relative stability in the western Balkans is to be preserved; a stability which, though fragile, is nevertheless stability.

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