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With its EU and US anchors dislodged, Bosnia-Herzegovina is cast adrift

Though the possibility of full-scale war is only slight, the country must brace itself for outbreaks of violence and further crises

Ian Bancroft
12 November 2021, 11.46am
Milorad Dodik's secessionist ideas are widely seen as endangering a Bosnian peace deal
Dado Ruvic/Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo

This is not the first time the spectre of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has raised its head since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement 25 years ago, with each and every crisis being deemed more profound than the last.

At the same time, the safeguards that have helped mitigate the sense of instability, particularly those of the EU and US, have dwindled over time. Confronted with threats of secessionist moves by Milorad Dodik, the current Bosnian Serb member of the country’s tripartite presidency, Bosnia-Herzegovina does not know which way to turn, nor how to respond.

And while the possibility of full-scale war is only slight, the potential for sporadic outbreaks of violence is very real. In his report to the UN earlier this month, the country's new high representative, Christian Schmidt, said “the prospects for further division and conflict are very real.” The Guardian reported that Schmidt’s comments came in response to fears that the Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s two entities, may proceed with plans to recreate its own army. Were the country’s armed forces to be split into two or more parts, it would necessitate the reinforcement of international peacekeepers to prevent potentially violent confrontations between the Republika Srpska and those from the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the country’s other entity, endeavouring to prevent attempts at secession.

The spark for this most recent crisis was the decision by the country’s outgoing high representative, Valentin Inzko, to impose changes banning the denial of genocide and other established war crimes, as well as the glorification of war crimes. The move prompted a vehement response in the Republika Srpska, with its National Assembly adopting counter legislation in an attempt to prevent the amendments from being enforced in the entity. In addition, state institutions were boycotted, effectively paralysing them. In truth, however, the roots of the current crisis run much deeper.

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Indeed, the difference with this crisis is not so much the agenda pursued, but the manner of it. Under Dodik’s stewardship, the Republika Srpska has flirted with secession even before Kosovo declared independence in 2008. There have been various boycotts of state-level institutions, and a referendum as recently as 2016 defying a ruling of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Constitutional Court, which had declared Republika Srpska Day on 9 January (the date on which the Republika Srpska was declared back in 1992) to be unconstitutional. The competencies the Republika Srpska seeks to have restored are neither novel nor surprising.

The accompanying threats – withdrawal of Bosnian Serbs from key state institutions (including the judiciary, indirect taxation agency and armed forces), combined with the eviction, potentially by force, of certain institutions from the territory of the Republika Srpska – are, however, of a different order of magnitude. The proposed establishment of parallel institutions, including an exclusively Bosnian Serb army and its own medicine-procurement agency, is a stark confrontation with the post-war transformation of the Dayton settlement; a confrontation that challenges Bosnia-Herzegovina to demonstrate its sovereignty over its entire territory. The potential for confrontations between differing police forces is one scenario that arouses deep concern.

What further defines this crisis is the extent to which these secessionist moves appear to be resonating amongst Bosnia-Herzegovina’s citizens; talk of war reawakening latent traumas that deserved to be dealt with in peace and dignity. In his report to the UN, Schmidt warned that such moves would be “tantamount to secession without proclaiming it”, and would endanger the “peace and stability of the country and the region”.

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Stability dislodged

It is a resonance that has arguably surprised even Dodik himself. In prior pre-election years, Dodik's desperation to cling to power would have contextualised such moves against Bosnia-Herzegovina and its institutions. Concerned citizens would have reassured themselves, rightly or wrongly, by looking ahead to the next elections as the reason for such destabilising politics. Nationalism plays out well after all, and not only in the Republika Srpska.

What is different now is the sense that the anchors of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s stability have been dislodged. The demise of the country’s EU membership perspective deserves the spilling of no additional ink. No invocations of the past or narratives of responsibility for the present will ease the doors to the Union ajar. Whilst the ears of Europe's capitals are largely deaf to such sensibilities, their tongues are more than capable of spitting them out. Bosnia-Herzegovina, and indeed the entire Western Balkans region, needs more than heartfelt articulations of concern.

As a foreign correspondent once told me, the editors won't be interested until there is blood in the streets

The notion of security deterrence within the Bosnia-Herzegovina context exists, but only over the horizon and far away. It requires decisions and then deployment, with no guarantees about the timing of one let alone the other. No wonder many question the sincerity of the commitments made. Tangible deterrence – typically understood to mean boots on the ground in strategic locations – will likely remain but a pipe dream. There is simply no appetite at this juncture. As a foreign correspondent once told me, the editors won't be interested until there is blood in the streets. Alas European diplomacy, including where security is concerned, appears to have gone down this same and cynical path.

EU institutions endeavour to speak with one voice, but they are immediately undermined by various member states. Kosovo knows this lesson all too well from French and Dutch opposition to its bid for visa liberalisation, despite a green light from the European Commission. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, flew into Banja Luka last weekend to meet with Dodik, who subsequently met with Slovenia’s prime minister, Janez Janša. Both visits were interpreted as giving at least passive support to Dodik’s actions.

With the carrot of EU accession now withered, the bluntness of its stick is clear for all to see. In the absence of unanimity amongst member states, sanctions are a no go. Nor are the Balkans on the front line of diplomatic concerns, and arguably haven’t been since the 2014-15 migrant crisis, when Europe depended upon the Western Balkans to help control migration flows. No European politicians would be foolish enough to again proclaim that this was ‘the hour of Europe’.

The regional context has also shifted. Croatia is no longer beholden to the restraints its EU accession process once imposed. Serbia enjoys the perverse incentives of proving its importance for stability elsewhere beyond its own borders. If its politicians have learnt one thing it is this – conditions come and go, but stability is king. Nor is there space here to fully explore the malign impact of Russian influence.

Growing scepticism

Where the Europeans stumble, many in Bosnia-Herzegovina expect the Americans to stabilise the situation. Yet the reforms pursued by the Biden administration and its new special envoy for the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, are breeding further scepticism. Proposed amendments to the electoral law to placate Bosnia’s Croats, in particular the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) – aggrieved that Željko Komšić secured the Croat post in the tripartite presidency by attracting votes from another of the constituent peoples – would further reinforce the ethno-national blocks which have captured the country. The colours of some of Bosnia-Herzegovina's dyed-in-the-wool Atlanticists are starting to fade in the wash.

The concern is that once Dodik's acquiescence is secured on one front, such as a return of Bosnian Serbs to state institutions or the revocation of certain decisions, then additional concessions will be made in other areas. It is, therefore, another case of one step forward for Dodik, two steps backwards for Bosnia-Herzegovina; rewarding those who first inflame and subsequently defuse crises. The challenge for those looking to formulate a response is how to avoid vindicating or empowering Dodik in the eyes of his electorate and even some in the EU.

With such a dynamic likely to endure for the foreseeable future, Bosnia-Herzegovina must brace itself for further crises and consider how best to domestically mitigate their fallout. The anchors on which the country has long depended for stability, namely the EU and the US, have become dislodged. The external drivers of change have lost interest, emboldening the country’s power-brokers at the expense of its institutions.

If anything positive is to come from the latest crises, and it seems a forlorn hope at present, then domestic actors in Bosnia-Herzegovina must explore alternative constellations and collaborations, including potentially with opposition parties in the Republika Srpska, even if it involves holding one’s nose at times. There can be no repeat performance of ‘Waiting for Godot’.

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